Guest columnist Michael Di Pasquale: Separating ourselves and building community

  • Author Mo Willems holds his nose as reads the lines spoken by Elephant, in his Elephant Gerald and Piggie series book “I Broke My Trunk!”, during a presentation to Jackson Street School second graders on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. In response to stay-at-home mandates, the author has created clever webcasts to “find a way to be isolated and together at the same time.” gazette file photo

Published: 3/31/2020 11:54:45 AM

I wouldn’t be the first person to point out the principal paradox of our current predicament. “Social distancing,” the need to separate ourselves from others in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus, deprives us of community — just when we need it most.

In western Massachusetts and across the world, restaurants, shops and theatres, typically the lifeblood of a vibrant community, have shut down. Outdoor cafes, concert venues and churches are closed.

Public spaces are off limits, too. Streets have fewer cars (you can actually find a parking space downtown) and neighborhoods are suspiciously quiet. Most of us are staying home.

Creating and activating social spaces is something I’ve been working on for a long time. In fact, I’ve spent much of my career teaching planning and urban design students that the most successful cities provide many ways for people to be together.

I have lectured about the importance of a “public realm,” including busy streets and public plazas. And I have emphasized the need to build community through “social infrastructure,” the kind of hangout places, like bookstores and cafes, that Jane Jacobs and other urbanists considered essential ingredients of healthy neighborhoods.

It’s extremely important to reduce the spread of COVID-19. And that means staying home a lot and separating ourselves from other people. As we distance ourselves to “flatten the curve” we are presented with an extraordinary situation that could disrupt our sense of community for years to come. In a recent Vox article, Ezra Klein suggests that COVID-19 will result in “a ‘social recession,’ causing an almost total loss of social contact with others.” How will we cope?

Since all of my work at UMass has switched to online, I’m working from home. Like many of you, I’m using Zoom and avoiding face-to-face meetings. I haven’t been with a group of more than four people in over a week. I can’t say that I’m suffering. But it hasn’t taken long for me to start feeling isolated. I’m missing the kind of interactions with friends and colleagues that aren’t possible over the internet.

Things could be much worse for vulnerable populations, especially older adults, low-income residents and people that live alone. Studies show that social isolation for these groups can be as detrimental to their health as other risk factors such as smoking and obesity. And lack of social interaction can lead to depression.

What can we do?

Social distancing doesn’t have to mean social isolation. As precarious as things are, I’ve been lifted up by the many acts of creativity and kindness reported both locally and around the world. Maybe you’ve seen the Twitter campaign launched by Laura Benanti to have high school students sing and upload songs from their cancelled spring musicals. Or the story about the Houston couple that left a Texas-size ($9,400) tip at a local restaurant.

There are also many examples closer to home. I was happy to see the Gazette article featuring local children’s book authors/illustrators JJK and Mo Willems, who have each created clever webcasts to “find a way to be isolated and together at the same time.”

A friend told me she learned to Zoom in order to give lessons to her young violin students online. And I heard a little girl on the radio asking how she could protect her grandparents from getting sick.

Perhaps the biggest act of selflessness and community building is right in front of us: We’re helping each other by staying home.

I believe there is a bigger message here too. These acts of kindness and generosity teach us that life goes on. That the distance between us can be bridged in countless ways that don’t depend on bricks and mortar or crowded sidewalks.

As awful as this disaster is, it provides the opportunity for many of us to pause. For those of us who can, we should think about the time we have. How can we do things differently? How can we do things that matter?

Let’s be good neighbors. Let’s be kind to each other.

We don’t know how long this crisis will last. Or what the outcome will be. But what we do now can lay the groundwork for AC (life after COVID-19). What will our priorities be? What kind of place do you want to live in? How can we help make our communities more connected, more caring places for everyone?

Michael Di Pasquale, a registered architect and certified planner, is an extension assistant professor at UMass Amherst. He teaches Urban Design, and Sustainable Development in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning.




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