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Of Monkyspheres and Microhoods: Collective Urban Living for the 21st Century

CCA LiveE | Tuesday January 19th, 2010 | 6 Comments
Phenotype Tower by Chri Chalmers of BIOS collective http://biosarch.wordpress.com/

Phenotype Tower by Chris Chalmers of BIOS Collective www.biosarch.org The virtues of Social Capital have been extolled by urbanists from Jane Jacobs in the 1950's, to Robert Putnum's more recent Bowling Alone. The last sixty years has seen plenty of progressive planners, architects, and environmentalists advocating for the re-creation of tight-knit residential communities with the power to counter everything from sprawl to obesity, loneliness to dependence on foreign oil. I count myself among those that believe in the power of localism and community—and I've seen this power manifest. Twice.

by Kurt McCulloch

When I was 18 years old, I voluntarily sequestered myself for nine-months on a narrow strip of rugged volcanic coastline on a tiny island in the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. For almost a year, I worked, slept, ate, and socialized inside an area bounded by mountains and the sea. Everything was within a two hour walk, and I became a member of a fully integrated community where I was working as a volunteer teacher. Sure, I got a little island fever, but I also bore witness to the groundedness of people that are truly of a place to a depth my westernized mind still struggles to fathom.

Fast forward to 2009, San Francisco, my family and friends scattered across the globe. In contrast to life in Vanuatu my life is socially complex and spatially fragmented and, as many of us do in this web2.0 world, I use digital networks to stitch some of the pieces back together—my world a patchwork landscape of times and places viewed through digital windows. While San Francisco is one of the densest cities in the country, my social network is none-the-less-diffuse. I’m relatively untethered, another transplant walking down the sidewalk with the taletale white earbuds plugged into the sides of my head—I’m sure I’m not alone in my loneliness. And I’m convinced it has something to do with the places we call home.

While online social networking tools can allow us to stay connected with hundreds or even thousands of people at once, our digital relationship tools are most powerful in their ability to ENHANCE the close relationships that we care about most. Digital media helps us create bridging social capital, but bonding social capital grows from relationships based on frequent, face-to-face contact. Multi-sensory communications occur at bitrates that would blow the mind could we quantify them. We are sensate beings, and beyond skype sex, we have made little progress into long-distance full-body communication. Proximity, place, and spatial relationships deepen and inform our interpersonal communications in ways that are immeasurable, profound, and deeply embedded into our limbic brains. Many urbanists, anthropologists, and architects agree—but there have been no widely successful housing development models that help to foster social capital, and deepen our connections to places and each other. I think it’s time to make one.

Enter Microhoods, a new development model for urban infill housing. Places for 150 people. That’s about the number of people living in a residential city block or a 60 unit condo building. That’s also about the size of groups that people have been organizing themselves in for most of our collective evolutionary history. Popularized in Malcolm Gladwell‘s The Tipping Point, Dunbar’s Number (also called the “monkysphere”) refers to theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom we can maintain stable social relationships. Dunbar’s research looked at non-human primates, and found a correlation between the size of the neocortex and the typical size of the social group various species adopt. From this data he extrapolated that, based the size of the human neocortex, the ‘natural’ number of people in a group is about 150. He found archeological and ethnographic data about pre-historic group sizes, and contemporary hunter-gatherer societies that supported his findings. Microhoods would be places designed to cultivate the monkeysphere. To build bonding social capital.

My vision of a microhood would function something like cohousing—(after Vanuatu, my second experience of a deeply networked community is River Rock Commons in Fort Collins, CO, where my parents and grandmother live). Cohousing communities characterized by a participatory design process between future residents and a development team. In cohousing communities, dwelling units are clustered around a common gathering space, private homes supplemented by common facilities, and residents manage the HOA. Spatially, microhoods would turn cohousing on it’s head, taking its typically medium-density, horizontal model and making it vertical—perhaps creating an experience that resonates with our vestigial arboreal tendencies.

Like cohousing, microhoods could be designed and developed with the aid of professionals, but remain an inherently consumer-driven enterprise, with future residents making formal commitments to buy units. This would allow developers to pursue innovations that they that would otherwise pose too much risk in a purely speculative market. And by leveraging their collective eqity through the development process, homebuyers could persue sustainability measures that they otherwise couldn’t afford, such as photovoltaic panels.

While most U.S. cohousing communities are located in rural or suburban settings (with a few exceptions), microhoods would be an inherently high-density urban model aimed at retaining families in cities by lowering the cost of entry for would-be homeowners. Sarah Rich over at Worldchanging has been writing some really interesting stuff in a similar vein. I think Microhoods could be cohousing’s urban, high-density counterpart—shedding the Birkenstock-wearing vibe of rural back-to-the-land intentional communities and their softer suburban counterparts for a sexier, truly 21st century aesthetic. But branding aside; be it a carpool, built-in babysitter, a cup of sugar, or cold beer waiting for you on the stoop at the end of a long day, good things happen when you know and care about your neighbors. You you can do things, make things, change things.

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In addition to working for the Cohousing Company and other Bay Area Architecture firms, Kurt McCulloch has been a business strategy consultant for SYPartners, where his training as an anthropologist and architect provided the backdrop for uncovering human needs and applying design thinking to complex business problems. Kurt is currently enrolled in CCA’s Design Strategy MBA program. He would like to develop a microhood in San Francisco, where he lives with his wife and twin daughters.


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  • Joe Mazza

    Inspiring, intelligent, imaginative, I loved it. Thank you!

  • J. McCulloch

    Great ideas and concepts…with elevated green spaces for gathering, children playing, and growing food, the Microhood would rock!

  • Pieter Aukema

    Enjoyed the article and the conclusions very much. Reminded me of my birth country where most people live close together and everyone know their neighbors.

  • Don Flick

    Hey Kurt,
    Good article. I always enjoy reading/hearing peoples' comments about River Rock. I think 150 is a bit too high. I agree with you about social networking, but who knows? Millions of people are volunteers in an enormous social experiment. We could be proven wrong.

  • charmainecurtis

    This is a very thoughtful and well written article. I wonder in cities like San Francisco that are mostly built out if there are ways to try to “retrofit” the microhood idea onto existing city blocks where most neighbors don't know each other. I always wonder why some blocks have annual block parties while most do not. What makes those block more microhood-ish than others?

  • charmainecurtis

    This is a very thoughtful and well written article. I wonder in cities like San Francisco that are mostly built out if there are ways to try to “retrofit” the microhood idea onto existing city blocks where most neighbors don't know each other. I always wonder why some blocks have annual block parties while most do not. What makes those block more microhood-ish than others?