Appeared in Brownsville Herarld and Valley Morning Star on October 27, 2013
By Lisa Mitchell-Bennett
I have always loved older houses—the character, the hardwood floors, the wide front porch which was the center of family and community life in pre-air-conditioning days. Folks would sit on their front porch in the early mornings and late evenings, soaking up the breeze, drinking lemonade, chatting with passing neighbors, catching up on gossip. Parents would hold infants in their arms, toddlers would climb up and down the porch steps. Older children would play in the yard and ride their bikes in the street. Our lives were more entwined and more public in tangible ways (although online social networking is filling some of this niche). Yet something must be said for sitting and talking together in the same real space with other human beings. We are able to hold each other’s hand, hear the intonation of the voices, see the tears well in the eyes or other subtle facial expression. I love being able to connect through Skype and Facetime with friends and family members who live around the world. But I also don’t want to lose the art of in person conversation that is not bound by internet connection or screen quality.
It’s amazing how a simple architectural design element like a front porch or technological advance like an air conditioner can have such an impact on the way we relate to each other, and can even impact our very health. There are so many other ways we have “designed away” in-person human connection, physical activity like walking, healthy home-grown/home cooked meals and time for the simple pleasures in life like growing a garden. The reality of our lifestyles is stirring in many of us a desire to “redesign” our daily lives—not to return to an over-idealized past, rather to incorporate some of the qualities of health we have lost into our modern lives.
A photographer friend of mine, Annette Landry, reflected on her photo exhibit called People on Porches. “In some ways, modern development has forced us to lose our ability to relate to one another by sharing our experiences, our space, our soil and our air. We are no longer accountable to each other—no longer able to understand that the demise of one is the demise of all.”
We may think what we want is more entertainment, more technology, a faster pace, larger homes, more privacy. But when we get it we are never quite satisfied and we are definitely not healthier. A friend of mine recently relocated to Dallas, excited for the big city life with more opportunities for fun. She messaged me the other day that she has kinks in her neck from looking up at all the tall buildings and hates the hours of stopped traffic during her morning commute. “There are so many people yet so little community. I’m missing all my neighbors and friends, bike rides, birds chirping, and my little life down in Brownsville. Until you leave you don’t realize how awesome the slower pace and real conversations are. Being here in Dallas has caused me to reflect and realize how hard it is for people here to make their own fun – while it seemed to be such a basic part of life in the Valley. You wouldn’t believe how many people I hear in this gigantic city of programmed fun saying they’re bored!”
Progress is both positive and inevitable. There are some ways we can redesign, both on a larger scale, and in our own individual lives, to create a modern reality that re-incorporates some of our lost quality of life while maintaining the benefits of modern technology.
There are big ways to do this, through policy-makers and large investment with far greater return through urban planning and renewal, prioritizing community, mixed use development, pedestrian and bicycle transportation initiatives, farmers markets and community agriculture, etc. And there are small, immediate steps we can take in our own lives that will foster community and human connection, like going on walks with our kids, slowing down and meeting our neighbors.
I don’t have a big front porch, but I planted a tiny vegetable garden in the front yard this year. Two neighbors saw me digging in it when they drove by and stopped to chat. These were two ladies I didn’t know previously, but they too had planted small vegetable gardens in their suburban yards. This simple return to the earth, to what was a natural part of my parents’ and grandparents’ lives, has connected me to these neighbors in a tangible way as we share the small bounty from our crop, try new recipes and learn about new foods from our respectively different cultures. We stand chatting in each other’s yards, or send our kids back and forth to each others’ houses with bags of herbs, eggplant, tomatoes and it seems like such a natural way to interact with these fellow human beings I would likely never know through my work or social networking connections.
It isn’t too late for us to design and redesign our lives and communities to promote health and well-being, but it takes every one of us to make it happen. We can start in our own homes, and reach out to our leaders, because Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta! (Your Health Matters!)