Urban Planning and Social Capital

One of the things that first struck me when I came to Berkeley was how porous the campus culture was compared to Harvard. At the Kennedy School, I had spent a decade and never left the building. This was partly because a large fraction of the decade was in the winter in Boston, partly because the Kennedy School has an inside restaurant, partly because it’s as big as a small college, and partly because the building had a big open central circulation space that discouraged elevator use and even corridors wide enough to stop and schmoose in. In contrast,this or that project of collaboration among schools and units just kept failing for reasons no-one could put a finger on.

At Cal, on the other hand — granted that the Goldman School is too small to have a whole life in – I have graduate student advisees and colleagues all over campus, and a hand or a toe in all sorts of cross-unit projects and enterprises. And not because I am especially gregarious or spend all my time out looking for them. This fall, I am teaching a course halfway down the hill in a program with which, though it sort of competes with ours, we just put on a “cowboy and the farmer should be friends” mixer for faculty and students. The next-to-last meeting I attended had people from at least six administrative units. It’s just conventional and easy to invite people into groups that cross administrative and disciplinary lines, so we all accumulate large, diffuse, networks.

I haven’t worked at Stanford, but every time I go down there, I have the feeling that it’s at least as stovepiped as Harvard was, without the excuse of climate. (Keith?) This morning’s otherwise forgettable example of economist self-parody includes this tidbit:

Q: You ended up meeting another Stanford professor who works 100 yards away – and you’ve now been together a year and a half. You couldn’t have just walked over there?

A: She may work 100 yards away, but we didn’t know each other!

My conjecture about Stanford is that it’s too big, not dense enough, and too flat. Between buildings, each of which is a disciplinary or program ghetto of the usual sort, people circulate through a picturesque but sterile outdoors on bicycles, and very few of us have the courage, approaching on bicycles, to stop and dismount in case the other person wants to chat: we get enough rejection without looking for it. It’s the same reason a common room has to have newspapers and coffee, so we don’t risk going in hoping someone will talk with us only to find that no-one does. Berkeley is small and climbs up a serious hill, so while lots of people commute in on bikes, we walk, and on a campus where going to see someone in another building doesn’t feel “far”. When we meet on a path, slowing down and making eye contact is much less of a commitment than getting off a bike, so a Schellingesque self-reinforcing equilibrium maintains itself.

Similarly, people don’t meet each other in the same high-rise building: strong social conventions forbid chatting when you are trapped in an elevator, with or without strangers. And resistance is growing to the hi-tech bubbles whose businesses provide so much of life internally, with exercise rooms, food, cots, and whatnot, that the employees (who may be bused in from far away with the best will in the world, reducing automobile congestion and all that good stuff), never set foot on the ground in the streets outside. When it comes down to it, there is no substitute for walking, outdoors in non-private space, with different stuff going on to look at and remark on. City streets and space uses that force people to be out and about in them on foot, that’s the recipe.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Michael O’Hare

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.