42 min read

Why neighborhoods matter

Why neighborhoods matter

Every year, I teach a Social Problems course at my university, in which we analyze some of the most intractable issues our societies are facing. A shadow of despair frequently looms over our discussions as we uncover how policies intended to solve one problem invariably end up creating others.

In America, we tend to think that solutions to social problems need to come in one of three forms: broad governmental policies, innovative market-driven strategies, or individual resilience against overwhelming odds.

But what if we're missing something essential?

My guest in today's podcast episode argues that we are. A beautiful society, he argues, requires a focus on neighborhoods.

Dr. Seth Kaplan is a leading expert on fragile states, political transitions, conflict prevention, political risk assessment, political-economic analysis, state-building, governance, and human rights. He is a Professorial Lecturer in the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University, Senior Adviser for the Institute for Integrated Transitions (IFIT), and consultant to multilateral organizations such as the World Bank, U.S. State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, and OECD as well as bilateral donors, developing country governments, think tanks, and NGOs. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Utrecht and a Masters in Business Administration from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where he was a Palmer Scholar. has 20 years of on-the-ground experience managing projects in developing countries, and he has worked for several large multinationals, including Procter & Gamble, Compaq Computers, and Komatsu. During his seven years in Shanghai, Seth founded four companies.

His research on fragile states led him to the conclusion that America is a fragile society, and we need to take urgent action to re-weave our fraying social fabric. And that action needs to start at the neighborhood level.

In his new book, Fragile Neighborhoods, Seth argues that that societal well-being and flourishing is a reflection of the collective strength of our institutions. And neighborhoods are the most crucial level at which these institutions need to be strengthened and revitalized. Factors like life expectancy, crime rates, and student achievements are intricately tied to place: they are shaped significantly by neighborhood dynamics like marriage norms and cross-class friendships, and their concentration in specific locales leaves lasting impacts. Two US neighborhoods can differ in life expectancy by 41.2 years. Even in affluent areas, we see weak social bonds leading to rising mental health struggles. Socially fragile neighborhoods don't simply affect individuals; they also weaken the democratic fabric. Active civic participation and gratitude for one's community are cultivated through robust neighborhood interactions.

Seth's research finds that a neighborhood's strength isn't just derived from intimate friendships or close-knit families. It's also about the multitude of familiar faces you see in your local coffee shop, the WhatsApp groups for carpooling or sharing resources, and the simple acts of neighborly kindness. These seemingly mundane interactions weave a resilient social fabric that is necessary for our collective well-being. Foundational neighborhood institutions like schools, religious communities, and families are vitally constitutive of this strength.

Seth's book demonstrates what it practically looks like to move from fragile to flourishing or beautiful neighborhoods through detailed case studies of five organizations: Life Remodeled in Detroit, Partners for Education (PFE) in the Appalachian region, Thread in Baltimore, Communio in Virginia, and Purpose Built Communities (PBC) in Atlanta.

Reading the book and interviewing Seth helped me better appreciate my own neighborhood, and to recognize what a rare blessing it is to be surrounded by healthy institutions and strong relationships. At the same time, it has also cautioned me not to take this for granted, and impressed upon me the importance of working to strengthen our local communities and to make commitments to the places where we live.

Genuine prosperity, Seth argues, isn't just about individual accomplishments or material affluence. It's about the richness of our shared experiences, the collective norms we uphold, and the communal bonds that help us weather life's storms. Through this lens, Fragile Neighborhoods offers not just a fresh perspective but an actionable blueprint for fostering more resilient and thriving neighborhoods.

You can watch or listen to our conversation below. Please do take a moment to subscribe and leave a review since it helps get the word out about the show. An unedited transcript follows.

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Interview Transcript

Brandon: I'm so thrilled to have my guest today, Dr. Seth Kaplan. Seth is a leading expert on fragile states. He's a professorial lecturer in the Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. He's a senior advisor for the Institute for Integrated Transitions and a consultant to organizations such as the World Bank, the US State Department, US Agency for International Development and OECD, as well as developing country governments and NGOs. Seth has published several books. The latest of which is Fragile Neighborhoods, which comes out October 17. Seth, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast. It's such a pleasure to have you.

Seth: No, thank you so much. It's a great privilege and an honor to be with you today, Brandon.

Brandon: Fantastic. You have such an incredibly rich background. You've worked in for profit, nonprofit, and government spaces around the world. You've traveled to 70 countries. What was your childhood like? Did you travel a lot growing up?

Seth: I would say there's two things that marked my childhood that have impacted me a lot since. One was that when I was very small, we traveled a lot. I lived overseas for a year. I went to Scandinavia. These were the days when it wasn't so easy to travel. So we went. We did travel Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Scandinavia, parts of Europe. I lived a year in Israel. Then we stopped. I didn't go any place for 10 years, except visiting family, long car trips. So something about that early childhood, and then I think the stopping must have stayed in my mind. Because the first chance I got to go overseas, I went and then the bug got in me. I just kept going and going.

The second part of my childhood which I think was even more important, because I focused on relationships. I focused on social dynamics in everything I do. As a child, I had a really, really hard time catching up with the basic social dynamics of my peer group. I couldn't speak until I was five. I stuttered until I was in college. I had several years — seventh, eighth grade, in particular — where I was bullied. I even changed schools after seventh grade because the bullying was so bad. I was the person who was watching what was going on and not easily catching up with what was going on. If you have ever seen those kids, intellectually smart but socially not on top of things maybe as much as somebody else. You could say that scarred me. But you also could say that it taught me very early on to, one, appreciate the importance of relationships and social dynamics and, two, taught me to watch, to study, to learn, to try to understand.

Then when I basically got to college, I went to Turkey for a summer. Then when I finished college, just about the first place I went was Africa. Then I spent time in Nigeria. Through those eyes that I had developed as a child, immediately, I began to read and see things which stayed with me so much later when I focused on countries and did work on fragility and peacebuilding. Those eyes were very different eyes than most people had.

Brandon: What led you to Africa?

Seth: I went to Africa for a couple of reasons. One is, I had a chance to meet a lot of people when I was a student in college. I was a member of an organization called ISEC. ISEC had these international conferences, and I had been involved in them. I met people from a lot of places, like 50, 60 countries around the world.

Africans always stood out to me as — again, they're very relational. They're very different in terms of culture from my own. I always found them very warm among the warmest people I could meet. I have consistently been attracted to warm people and warm cultures. It's something about Africa. Just that whole dynamic was so unusual yet so rewarding. It wasn't like a conscious intellectual choice. It was like this is a place I have to go and see. When I got there, I was in Kenya originally, I asked my African friends where should I go in Africa and spend an extended period of time. Many of them said, go to Nigeria. When I asked why, they said, "Even for us, it's a cultural experience." Because if you've known anything about Africa, Nigeria is quite different than most parts of Africa. Very intense, very competitive, very in your face loads of governance problems but very rich society in terms of social relationships. I just didn't go to Africa. I went to Nigeria, and I lived there for a period of time.

Brandon: Okay. Wow. And you've lived in China as well for an extended period.

Seth: I lived in China. I lived in Japan. I lived in Turkey. Again, I've been in Israel many times. I'm a big believer of wandering, and I'm a big believer of spending time. I'm coming from the west. I always found Europe — it is beautiful. It is nice. It's not so different. I wanted to go to the places that were different, the places that would teach me something, the places that were also warmer, socially warmer. I work on fragile states which is the more extreme version, because people are very warm. They can't depend on the government. But I would just say, in general, I found non-western countries stronger human relationships, more warmer. It's something about that that was very attractive, so I lived in these places. But they were specifically chosen for something, about their culture that was appealing to me every time.

Brandon: Yeah, that's really fascinating. I grew up in the Middle East, as you know. Mostly in Oman, and then Dubai, and then a little bit in India. Then when I came over to Canada for college, the thing that struck me immediately was the coldness of social life.

Seth: Coldness. It's so cold. In the United States, people will smile at you but it's quite transactional. You have to go to — some specific pockets are warmer, but it's so cold. I can just remember. I can remember a famous trip I took when I was in college. It would be right after college. I lived in Turkey as a student. I went back to Turkey after I graduate. I was doing some travel. Then I travelled to Europe by bus, actually. I wrote this letter, how the weather changed from the Middle East to Europe, how the human relationships have all changed when I went from the Middle East to Europe. This was like, I was 21 years old. Exactly the same feeling you just described.

three men in jacket laughing at each other
Photo by Jed Villejo / Unsplash

Brandon: Incredible. So how did you get into the study of fragile states? What led to that?

Seth: Imagine that in your 20s, you wander. You explore. Everywhere I wandered, I'm reading. I would read a lot. I studied countries. I studied everything from political philosophy, economics. I just like intellectual and physical wandering. At one point — I mean, I have an MBA — I started a company in China. I ran a business. So I did all that. And at some point, I said this is the wrong direction. I'm 30 years old. I had learned Japanese. I had learned Chinese. I had started a company. And I just said business is not for me. Then I had the big question. What do I do? I took some time off. Basically, I don't think I had a choice. I took some time off because I knew this wasn't the right choice. I wanted to sell my business. I came back to America. I had a year or a year and a half where I'm just thinking.

I think the reason I went to fragile states is because I looked at what I knew, and I looked at what interests me. I looked at what kept me up at night. The question that kept me up at night more than anything else was, why do some states work better than others? The biggest contrast was I moved from Nigeria to Japan. Just think about the societies. Japan is the most cohesive large country — 120 million people, very cohesive. You can find smaller countries that are more cohesive, but there's nothing on that scale. Here you have Nigeria. Now with over 200 million, ethnically divided, religiously divided, low-level violence. In some places, severe violence. Every election, you don't know what's going to happen, loads of corruption. What a contrast.

That contrast stayed in my head, and the question kept occurring to me. Why do some states work better than others? I would read all the literature, and I would say something is wrong in this literature. It's missing some very important elements. By now, it's 2004, 2005, 2006. What are people thinking about it, asking questions about it? We're after 911. The question of fragile states had come up. That seemed like a very natural way for me to apply my knowledge and try to take a practical turn for my intellectual wandering and do something that interests me — places I enjoyed but also places which I thought the whole debate about how do we help these countries or how do we nurture a better trajectory for them. I just found it to be very technical and missing the most foundational elements which is the nature of their relationships, their cohesion, their social dynamics. I went because of interest. I went because it made sense based on what I knew. But I also went that direction because I thought that the whole discussion around it was quite missing very important details.

Brandon: So what would you say are the biggest insights you've learned from that work on fragile states?

Seth: I think the most important thing, which I took that same insight and applied it to the United States when I wrote my current forthcoming book, is this idea that relationships matter. Social dynamics matter. Country. We talk about politics. We talk about economics. We talk about institutions. We talk about elections. But on a very, very foundational level, the nature of how a country works and how successful they are in these various spheres or sectors is all about relationships. Countries that have strong relationships have strong institutions. They're able to promote better functioning governments. They're able to promote economic development. They're able to be peaceful.

The places that have poor relationships — we can discuss what that actually means — are much more likely to be conflict prone, much more likely to be underdeveloped, much more likely to be high political risks, and so on and so forth. For me, you always start when you look at a country in what is the nature of the relationships and the institutions that support or shape those relationships.

Brandon: That's super important. Then you say in your book, obviously, United States is not so much the state but society that's fragile. I wonder if you see that the increasing fragility of American society might be contributing to the future fragility of the American state.

Seth: Ultimately, yes. Because what happens in society affects what is going to happen in politics and economics. I think the United States is a country with pretty strong institutions, national institutions, state, local state, civil society. So I would say it will take a significant time for the country to deteriorate. I mean, this is not Nigeria. This is not Somalia. This is not Syria, Libya, and so on and so forth. But ultimately, when you see the political instability we have, I would say, and we have problems with the government debt, and we have problems with deaths of despair and the amount of pain and suffering we see in society, alienation, mistrust, all of these things must ultimately not end well for the country. It's a question of the degree you would have to reach for a really, really large impact on a larger picture.

Brandon: Yeah, you've pointed it out, as you did right now, in your book. It's filled with a number of fairly alarming statistics about the fragility of American society and the signs of decay. How did you decide to focus on the neighborhood as a central? What makes neighborhoods so important?

Seth: Neighborhoods are important. Well, let's take a step back. When I focus on fragile states, the most important relationships are the relationships at the national level between different groups in society. And so I think if you go to a local community in a fragile state, you often have very strong cohesion, strong families. Strong local institutions, what you have is you have no mechanism for different parts of society to cooperate. Therefore, the relationships that matter is between the different parts or segments of society.

You come to the United States, and you look. The national institutions seem very vibrant, very thick set of institutions. If you're in Washington, you almost think there's too many institutions. There are so many think tanks. I mean, I can run into a new think tank and someone starting a new think tank. There must be hundreds, and advocacy, and legal, and lawsuits, and ports and the media. It's such a rich on a certain level institutional landscape. But if you look beneath the surface — you always must look beneath the surface. You always must start, when you analyze the country, by going amongst the people. It's very dangerous to understand a country from the capital. It's very dangerous to understand the country from the top down, from just at the elite or top political social leadership level. Because that is not a country. Those are elements that are making the news. Those are the phone numbers, the addresses you're going to get if you're asking who do you go meet in that country. But that's not telling you a lot about what actually is going on in the country. Those might be more reflections on what's underneath. But often, it could be very divorced.

white concrete building under blue sky during daytime
Photo by Quick PS / Unsplash

When I think about America, I want to go and wander the country. I wandered the world, so I took another journey. My journey was a journey into America and wandered around. I think what you see repeatedly is that, you see that a lot of good stuff happens nationally. But there's been a great loss in terms of the local dynamism and social institutions and the sense of community. There's a great void, actually, between the individual and the state. I think a lot of the problems we see in the country is because of that emptying out or that thinning out, or you might call it a de-institutionalization of social life — that's not true everywhere. It's more true in some places and other places. That's not only a poor-rich dichotomy. Because some wealthy places, everyone is in their house nice and comfortable, but they don't know any of their neighbors. They're all socially isolated. They're afraid to show any vulnerability.

And so I would just say that I focus on neighborhoods because neighborhoods are the only entry point that I could only lens, the only entry point in which I can examine that micro level dynamic and see what is happening in people's lives. I can compare this neighborhood to that neighborhood. We can say that neighborhood is thriving. This neighborhood is full of problems. So if we want to understand the micro or the granular level challenges facing relationships in America — I'm not talking about the intergroup, which is what I think a lot of people in the political science or activist field might talk about because they worry about polarization — if we talk about the relationships as the average American is experiencing them, you have to go to the street level, the household level, the street level, the neighborhood level. And so I focus on neighborhoods because that's the easiest, in fact, the only way to go deep and to really understand that what I think is the problem that's upstream from all the other social problems we're having in the country or the great majority. I hate to say every. But everything from drug overdose, to problems of social mobility, to problems of mistrust and polarization, it all goes back to something has changed in the nature of relationships.

Brandon: In the neighborhood. Of the neighborhood level.

Seth: In the neighborhood. I would say in the home, on the street, in the neighborhood. The neighborhood is the lens. When I include that, I would also say something is changed in the house, in the family, inter-family networks, community, school, community relationships, and even the physical landscape. I mean, if you have foreign eyes — I have foreign eyes — and you look around America, the landscape is physically built to isolate people. If you really think about it, it's not physically built to bring people together, which was the case for most of human history. It's physically built to everyone has their nice materially well-off little plot of land, and then there's no interaction between anybody else. So it's actually physically designed to isolate people from each other. It's kind of scary when you begin to pay attention.

Brandon: Yeah, and you noticed. One of the most alarming statistics I saw is that two US neighborhoods can differ in life expectancy by as much as 41 years. How does that happen?

Seth: It happens because the social context — I mean, included is a material element. There's no good supermarket down the street. You don't have work. Over there, they have much more money. Clearly, there is a material element. But for me, I put the material aside, and I focus only on the social. I think the social is much more important.

The difference can be is, you have a stable home you live in. You could be, you have friends in your neighborhood. It could be because you basically have places to walk, you have less pollution. So you have all these elements that are affecting the healthiness of a place. But I think the most important is what we might call the social — I call it the social habitat. If you're in a place with a really strong social habitat, you're not only going to have friends; you're going to have strong relationships. You're going to have supporting relationships. You're going to feel secure every day. You're going to participate, contribute to, have access to institutions that not only do you have ownership and you're an active member of, but also that it's there to help you, support you. I think that big difference, a lot of it is explained by the type of social structures, social habitat around you, and how that affects your well-being. It affects your well-being on so many different levels.

Brandon: Could you contrast? You've sort of done this at the moment, but if you could contrast a fragile neighborhood with what might be considered a beautiful neighborhood. I don't mean aesthetically but relationally. What are the ingredients of that kind of a beautiful neighborhood? What is the ideal to which you want to move us to?

Seth: I think there's many parts of America that have beautiful neighborhoods. But I can just speak from my own personal experience. I live in a neighborhood when my family moved out of New York City. After I got married, I lived in Brooklyn. We literally spent a couple of years checking out neighborhoods going south. I knew I had to come to Washington. I didn't know I'll be living in Washington, and I'll be teaching at Johns Hopkins. But I knew that I'd be doing something in Washington, so I looked south. I looked in neighborhoods in New Jersey. I looked at two neighborhoods around Philadelphia. We literally spent, my wife and I spent time looking at neighborhoods. We didn't have a clear idea of where we wanted to go. We have some options, so we checked them out. Then somebody recommended my particular neighborhood.

My neighborhood, I would say beautiful is a really good term. But the term that I would use is joyful. I argue in my book that we want to create a country where everyone lives in a flourishing neighborhood. My neighborhood is flourishing, but the feeling I get when I walk down the street in my neighborhood is a feeling of joy. It's a feeling of joy because there's lots of kids. The kids are on the street. It's a feeling of joy because I can look in the homes of my neighbors, and I know who lives there. I know something about them. I feel like I belong in this place. Because I live at 910. I can tell you 900 is rental. I know actually 910 on my street. 900 is rental. So I know who lives there. I don't know them so well. 901, my wife knows. 903 is the person who's easily the most generous, giving in terms of helping individuals who are lonely. She goes around every week and visits people who live alone and the elderly. She just does her own initiative, and she starts a bunch of things. 905, the guy is really funny. You could do without some of his jokes, but he's very funny. 907, whatever. I could talk about my neighbor right next to us who's got three kids and plays with my kids, because we share our backyard. They're using my stuff, and I'm using their stuff. My kids are always in their home when they're bored with us. So I could just go and say I could do that on the other street to a certain extent. I can walk for blocks, and every block I know people. My wife would know more. We know what kids they have. We know what school they go into. My wife could even tell you what's wrong with their kitchen renovation.

two boy's playing soccer near building during daytime
Photo by Moosa Moseneke / Unsplash

So the point is, what is a joyful neighborhood? A joyful neighborhood is that you know a lot of people. You have a lot of relationships. I mean, I go to a synagogue in my neighborhood, but I also have restaurants I go here. I have people who I can just greet on the street. There's a couple of parks where my kids can regularly go to. My daughter who's the oldest — she's eleven — she wants to go and walk to friends from school. She can go on walk to friends from school. Probably two thirds of her classmates are within 20, 25 minutes walking. A joyful, what you might call a beautiful neighborhood, is in everywhere where you know lots of people, where you feel that you have a stake in the neighborhood, where you want to pick up the trash when you see it on the road, when you have institutions you're volunteering for, and you have restaurants or supermarkets you're going to. I can't go to a restaurant and not see faces that I know. I may not say hi every time, but I will go meet someone for coffee and we will never be an hour in that place without somebody stopping by and saying hello. A real neighborhood.

This is how life used to be for everybody. It's only in the last 60 years that we've created a landscape that basically prevents this from happening. A joyful neighborhood that for me is beautiful has something to do with the relationships, something to do with the places I can go and meet people, something to do with the fact that there's lots of kids, and the kids are in the parks and all these things. Again, it's all about some sort of social vitality, some sort of, I think, ownership and belonging to the place that this is my home. I know other people who live in my home or my little society here. That, to me, creates joy. It creates satisfaction. It creates a sense of security. And I feel that most Americans don't have them.

I'll just say one more thing. The neighborhood is very rich in local institutions. I mentioned religious. I mentioned restaurants and some shopping which are owned by people, more or less, in the neighborhood. But we also have some sort of associations to help poor people in my neighborhood. Just in our neighborhood, we have civic associations that come around and talk about planning. One of the traffic lights I know was a real pain in the neck the way it was organized. People petitioned. I have a neighbor who is on the security, whatever the security committee of the county. So the point is, we have all these institutions. We have all this engagement with the rest of society but all through the lens of our neighborhood. So it works on so many levels that this is a very socially vital place. And that is beautiful. At least, the term I want to use is joyful.

Brandon: Yeah, fantastic. I think it would not characterize the neighborhood I live in too. It's not a common experience for a lot of Americans, right?

Seth: Not a common experience. It might be a common experience for people around the world but not in the United States, and I don't think in most of the developed world today at all, actually. But the United States is an extreme version. But yes, if you have that, you just know that you feel something more secure and more happy about your daily life. Because you just feel you're part of something. And if you need something—

I'll give one more example. I can recall, there was a time when my oldest dropped her younger brother. It dropped him on the cement and his on the chin. He was bleeding on the chin. It sounds pretty awful. My wife, who's very good in emergencies, picked them up and took off down the street without ever telling the two of us. Because I have a third child but not then. He was very small that they took off. They just left us. We had no idea where she went. She came back a half an hour later. Where did she go? She knew the house with the closest nurse. In fact, for various reasons, we could identify houses with seven or eight nurses or doctors in our neighborhood. So she went three blocks away. There was a nurse and immediately wanted to have them checked out and told her what to do. Imagine. Can the people who are listening to this or watching this, are you able to say that if you have an emergency, you know where to run in your neighborhood to get help? If you live in a thriving neighborhood, the answer should be yes.

Brandon: The other thing that I found striking, as you say, social fragility is not necessarily about poverty. You can have poor neighborhoods that are socially rich, and then upper-class wealthy neighborhoods that are socially fragile. Could you say more about that?

Seth: I'd be happy to. I think we have a problem in our society that we tend to conflate everything with economics and material. Then when we look for solutions, we tend to get fixated on government policy. I would say both of those is very narrow thinking. Just think historically. Everyone in the world, more or less, was poor at some point. And yet we all had socially rich lives. Just from a simple common sense, think about it. If I went back 200 years, 98 whatever percent of people in the world were poor, and yet they weren't socially poor. They were economically poor. So it just doesn't make sense that these things are the same.

In terms of America today, you could go to some immigrant. The most obvious example is you go to some immigrant communities. A group comes into the United States, let's say, from a part of China, or a part of Africa, or a part of the Middle East. They come in there. They might be refugees. They might be pretty poor. But if there's enough of them, let's say hundreds of people or more, they will congregate in a relatively close proximity to each other. They will support each other. They will likely have strong family, inter-family, and some sort of communal institutions. And they will support each other. Some of them are dynamic enough. That within a relatively short period of time, they will have what we might call 'economic takeoff,' and they will no longer be socially, economically poor. Some of them will not be as successful economically, but they will still retain the social dynamics. You can just think of the Amish. The Amish are not rich, but their communities are designed to be very communal, very socially rich.

Then I would say the contrast is, you can go to a lot of well-off neighborhoods today in which no one knows each other. Everyone is afraid to talk with each other. Not like they don't feel so bad about it. But they just feel, I cannot show vulnerability. I cannot show reliance in other people. It's almost like a norm to present yourself as self-reliant. That basically makes you more vulnerable. This idea that you're so self-reliant, that you can't be vulnerable, actually makes you more vulnerable. It would be so much better if you could go out, develop a few friendships. I would encourage everybody watching. Think about your neighbors, your neighborhood, the place where you live. What would happen if you had at least a few good relationships in that neighborhood, people you would meet? We can live in networks. Some of us do very well in networks, but a lot of us don't do well in networks. A lot of us need social institutions to the extent that you live in a materially well-off neighborhood and know nobody there and are afraid to knock on any door. You are, to a certain extent, socially impoverished. You can see the data of the suicide rates and the mental illness affecting people that are materially well-off. I think it's all related to the social vulnerability and social poverty that we are experiencing as a society. Sorry.

Brandon: Yeah, I wonder the extent to which many of us feel like we need to, at least in American society, come across as self-reliant and put on this facade of invulnerability in order to appear successful. That seems to be a kind of norm that we internalize in ways. I've seen some of this in other countries as well. I wonder if part of it, too, is just an urban problem being in a big city. Georg Simmel, the sociologist, talked about even 100 years ago seeing this kind of pattern of individualization and blasé attitude that people develop when they move to cities and that kind of disconnection. How much of this is an urbanization problem, and how much of it do you think is an American problem?

Seth: I think, in general, becoming materially better off reduces the thickness of our in social institutions and relationships. I think there's a material aspect. I think you could say there's, to some degree, an urbanization aspect, except that many people would say that people in urban situation is being more dense. They tend to have a richer social life than being in more isolating rural areas and suburbs. I think the urbanization part is, I can take a more of an argument with. I think if you go back to Jane Jacobs and she's thinking 1960's, 1950's, '60s New York City, her idea that this is a very organic socially rich existence, and if you look at the New Urbanism Movement, the whole premise behind it was — I think it's an incomplete vision. But it is a necessary vision, that if we have more dense, basically a more dense physical environment, we are likely to have closer social relationships. I do believe that is correct. It's much harder if you are all living a mile apart from each other. You could gather in the church or some town and I know some of that is there. So I'm not quite sure urbanization.

I would say the big things that have changed is, we've changed. The physical landscape has changed. We're actually, to some extent, less urban because we've all developed the suburbs. I would say the fact that we don't shop locally, I would say the fact that we don't even pray locally, I would say schools are to some extent less local than they used to be. So just think. There is a problem, of course, government, of the way government spends money has meant that a lot of nonprofits look upward and outward from money rather than inward and local for money. I think that has had its huge impact. But a lot of it is simply the way we've designed our society. We've designed our society such that there are few, if any, institutions meeting places in your physical place where you live.

aerial photography houses
Photo by Blake Wheeler / Unsplash

If you think about society, we used to live in bounded communities. Bounded, meaning that there was some physical distance, and that all the institutional life or most of the institutional life was place-based. And so you had overlapping place-based institutions. You had lots of ways people could meet. Clearly, the car has had a dramatic impact. But it's also, we've done many things in terms of how we design institutions, how we thought about success, how we've built our landscape. That basically have ensured that most Americans don't even live in a place. They live in what I would call a placeless environment, in which you might have a house. There might be streets with lots of houses. There might be green areas. I'm thinking 10 minutes from me, they built this ideal area. Houses are nice. Streets are nice, lots of places to walk. There's no place to meet people.

Our idea of a beautiful life, if I may say so, is an isolated life where you have your career, you have your house, you have your green. I think green is great. I live a couple of blocks from the woods. But we don't think more than that. So we basically thought of happiness as being alone. Then you wonder being alone, or at least your household being alone. But to some extent, it's about just being alone. Then you wonder why we have loneliness, despair, mistrust. It's all actually natural. We've created a society that promotes these things, and then you wonder how we ended up with them. I don't think it was intentional. But basically. the design of the society in terms of institutions and places and everything is basically designed for the individual to be alone.

Brandon: Let's talk about solving this problem. I mean, you argued that the approach that's needed is not top down or bottom up. It's not a kind of government policy-driven solution, nor is it some sort of market driven solution. But sideways. What does that mean? I would love to think through a couple of examples. But maybe if you could talk about, for starters, have something like Life Remodeled in Detroit is an exemplar of this sideways solution.

Seth: I would say that you cannot create relationships with policy. There are some policies or some government actions which I think could be very important, but they're not your traditional way. We tend to think of policy as something material. We're going to give you more time off from work if you have a baby. We're going to give you more income. We're going to encourage people to work. We tend to think — Americans do not realize how atomized their way of thinking is. They tend to think of everything in terms of individuals. They tend to think a lot of things in terms of policy, which means material.

I think what we really need to think about are structures. The key thing here is if we want to address this problem, we need to build structures. And so I'll get to the Life Remodeled example. But the single most important thing is to re-envision our country such that everyone lives in a neighborhood, and to think hard about what it means to create a country full of flourishing neighborhoods. That is, for me, the big vision. It's if every place, if every person lived in a well-recognized neighborhood. When I give book talks, I list 10 items in terms of an identity, a center, community, school, other places to meet, local institutions, all the things you can list. Some of them are just things you would see in any good neighborhood. We need to think about society as set of neighborhoods, and then we need to work hard to ensure each of those neighborhoods are flourishing. But again, ultimately, what has to happen has to happen in society. When I say horizontal, I mean horizontal on two levels. One is the relationships within a neighborhood. And on a second level, it's thinking across neighborhoods. So it could be relationships between neighborhoods or that we work simply place by place by place. We don't think of policy government downward. We don't think of, it's nice to have the spontaneous, locally-led efforts. That's also great, and we should support that. But we have to think that there's 330 million Americans. There are literally hundreds of thousands of neighborhoods or potential neighborhoods. We need to think as a country that each of those needs to flourish.

The Life Remodeled example was that Detroit — Detroit used to be a city with very identifiable neighborhoods. Cities that were built before World War II, I mean, it was housing, a lot of housing-driven. It was probably because of the automobile was built there. But historically, we had a very, pre-World War II and I would say even pre-20th century, we had a very organic model of development. Detroit has partly that. But, of course, because of the car, it's like this in between but it had a lot of neighborhoods. It also had one of the largest populations in the United States. Then sometime around 1950, it began to go in reverse. Today it has one third of the population it had 50, 60 years ago. So to actually physically go to Detroit and drive around, it's like a landscape that you cannot imagine in many parts of the world. Because basically, most of the world has been seeing population growth, landscape growth. In Detroit, you have the reverse. You have all these houses that have already been knocked down. If I went there 15 years ago, I would have seen a lot more houses that needed to be removed. Today you still see lots of houses that are decayed, broken down. But now you see literally grass. You see grass and trees and blocks with almost no houses. It's almost like a post-nuclear war or whatever post-war pattern in which the people have been removed, and there's some physical stuff left.

So the thing is, this organization chose one neighborhood. It wanted to work on building up that neighborhood. It had done a lot of work in many neighborhoods across the city. It did something called the Six Day Project, which basically brought a lot of volunteers, up to 10,000 volunteers, together to basically remove blight, clean up streets, help fix some houses, give people, in some cases, some help on their houses. A great volunteer effort. But then, they wanted to be more systematic. It chose a very particular neighborhood. It thought it had made good relationships with people in the neighborhood. But because of the nature of its initiative, it was basically offered by the city of Detroit, by the education authorities in Detroit. Offered this incredibly beautiful, talking about beautiful, beautiful building built in the 1920s that was a middle school and offered them, you can take this building and turn it into a neighborhood hub. You can bring all these organizations together. Those organizations would be a way of creating more of an institutionalized life. There'll be lots of opportunities for people in neighborhood to come together. So this is like a community building, as well as a practical helping initiative.

The organization and the leader, Chris Lambert, thought this is great. We ought to do that. Except when they announced it that they were going to get this property for 50 years for $1, there was a backlash. The backlash was, I think, most importantly because he was white. He was an outsider. The neighborhood was black. The key thing to understand is that he, the outsider, thought that he had built trust. Building trust to pick up your blight is a different kind of trust. I'm going to take over the most important building in the neighborhood. I'm going to do it for $1. By the way, no one in the neighborhood was offered the chance to buy this property and do what they're doing. And so people feel like this is going to be gentrifying them out. This is some sort of exercise.

So when I write in that chapter, I think that chapter in my book is trying to accomplish a few things versus talking about what does it actually mean to build trust when there's no trust. He laid out, eventually, a five- or six-step process about literally meeting people, breaking bread, identifying local leaders, hiring local people, doing a variety of things, such that his organization managing this beautiful, beautiful site actually became a local organization in a way that it wasn't before. He is still there. Some of their staff are not from there, but many more of the staff are now from there. They have a couple of advisory boards and people from the neighborhood — one with students because it was a former school. One with you might call senior statesman or whatever you want to call them from the neighborhood. They basically now are guided and directed and led by people from the place. Immediately, that gives a complete different image of the place and what they focus on.

This chapter was, one, discussing this process of building trust and, two, the chapter is talking about how do you actually build community and a place that's so devastated. It's about building institutions. It's about building places where people are to gather. It's about having these institutions cooperate. The term I use is collective efficacy. They're trying to boost the collective capacity of a place. It's really hard, because there's probably about 15% or 20% turnover of people. As there are many, many poor neighborhoods in America, there are some people that are very stable and some people that come and go. Every time new people come, they got to start over again, at least with that part. But they have surely stability, and they've achieved a lot. They have 39 organizations in this hub — some of them local, many of them not — doing lots of things that are there to help the neighborhood. But for me, the most important part is the social, in addition to the economics.

Brandon: I saw a lot of resonance between this and the other example you gave of Purpose Built Communities in Atlanta, the East Lake miracle, the revitalization of a distressed neighborhood. I suppose the model there was a bit different with mixed-income housing. Could you talk about that and then the role of this community quarterback in that model?

Seth: Yes, thank you. I think in my book — I think I want to step back and answer the question. When I think about what makes a neighborhood thrive, I thought of five different things that matter, one is the physical landscape and four involved institutions. We have to understand that social thriving or flourishing is about the nature of institutions and norms in terms of how people are connected, what people expect of themselves and of others, how people behave. It's not like you just snap your finger, and we all have relationships.

In my neighborhood, I have friends but I also have a lot of people I just know. If somebody asked me for help, I would do something to help them. I feel comfortable asking them for help. We have WhatsApp groups for carpooling. We have WhatsApp groups for things we don't want and we want to give away. Again, we have all these opportunities to meet. So there's a lot of people I know and I share a life with that are not my friends. That's important. I think it's really important. That's about institution. Going back to the physical landscape, and then I looked at community building, the role of school in place, the role of marriage in church, and then the role of inter-family, basically inter-family or family structures but it's very much about inter-family networks, supporting a family that has weak family structure, all of those things matter.

Now Purpose Built is the one organization I looked at that tries to make comprehensive change. If you think about the other four examples, it's all relationship by relationship, institution by institution, incremental and about how to scale up institutional change and norm change around a place. The Purpose Built example is about, we're going to a distressed neighborhood. That would not be a materially well-off neighborhood. That would be a distressed neighborhood. We're going to make a more comprehensive plan, and we're going to focus on three. The way to do that is those neighborhoods, because they don't have strong collective action, they tend to be in a vicious cycle where the poorest people live there, and there's no opportunity. They tend to be cut off from other parts of the city. The housing is all low-income or poor housing stock. There's no shopping and no community amenities. So there's a huge vicious cycle here going around that it's really hard for one person to stand up and say, I'm going to make a difference.

brown concrete building near green trees during daytime
Photo by Pierre Jeanneret / Unsplash

You could do that, and you could play some role. But they're trying to do a bigger vision, so they established a neighborhood or a community quarterback. It could be some people from the neighborhood. But it often is stakeholders from around the city, because this is focused on urban, I think you could do this on non-urban, but they focused on urban. The idea is that this quarterback develops a vision, this quarterback develops a strategy for housing. Again, mixed-income housing, very important. So this neighborhood becomes not distressed. It means very, very high poverty. Most of the housing that goes in there is only for poor, which is not a way to create a flourishing neighborhood.

Flourishing neighborhoods should have mixed, should have cross-class population, mixed income. Housing is very important to create cross class. Ideally, you should be cross-politics, cross-class, diverse on many levels. We've talked about racial and others, religious diversity. But I think I also mean diversity in terms of personalities, politics, everything. There's many ways to think about diversity. But the key thing is, from them, they work on the housing stock. They work on the school. Because the school is incredibly important to attract people to a neighborhood. They work on what they call community wellness, which is everything from, I guess, nonprofits. You could participate to shopping, to the gym, lots of things, the YMCA, things for kids to do after school.

Again, they're thinking that these are the three elements that will make a neighborhood successful. And if they put enough middle-income housing, and they make the school good enough, and they work on the physical landscape well enough and then the other community amenities, this neighborhood in 10 years will be quite significantly changed. Then they work with the Department of Education. They try to work with different parts of government and different nonprofits and different philanthropy. It's a model that has worked in a couple of dozen locations across the country. So it's another example of what you can do if you have the resources and the vision to do that.

Brandon: I had a chance to visit the place, the Atlanta model a few years ago. It really was quite impressive. What are the big lessons, the big takeaways, you want people to glean from these case studies?

Seth: I would say there's two levels. I have my last two chapters. One is operational lessons and my last chapter is what can each of us do. On the level of government, the level of nonprofits, the level of philanthropy, or even if you yourself was going to start an initiative, I think the lessons learned are that, first, we have to rethink our landscape around place and neighborhoods. That's like this overarching theme. We need to ensure that every neighborhood is flourishing. So people there feel a stake in their neighborhood, and they feel more optimistic about their future. I think you can see a lot of the alienation and the anger and the frustration being driven by people who are not necessarily happy where they live. Or, they're happy on a certain level but they're just vulnerably isolated because of the nature of the social dynamics. To the extent that every neighborhood was socially and economically flourishing, I think you would see a very, very different mood in the country. So that would be overarching. That's certainly something that leaders can do on many levels.

I would talk about the importance of youth. I would talk about the importance of if you're going to do something, you're going to focus on the right population to start with. So even though I was focused on youth, which youth do I focus on? Or, if I was going to think at a city level, what neighborhood would I start with? So I will discuss in the book why are some neighborhoods more likely to see progress in the short term than others.

I talked about this importance of, for example, religion. Religion could play a much larger role. As part me, of myself, selling or marketing the book, I literally am reaching out to religious leaders and asking them basically, why is, for example, the church most prominently, what could the church do to heal basically our social fabric? There's a few suggestions I have for church leaders. One is, think much harder about the role of place. One, think much harder about what it means to build community. I think too much religion in America is about the sermon and the consumer products. You go in for an hour, two hours. You have some need that you have that your church, or synagogue, or mosque addresses for you. The transaction cost is limited. The religion is not asking too much of you. That's comfortable for a lot of people. I think the religious institutions are responding to that.

white and black church under blue sky
Photo by Ruvim Kerimov / Unsplash

But that's not what our country actually needs. Our country needs in this day when there's so much alienation, and there's so much isolation, and there's all these social problems, I think our religious bodies, our churches or another religious institutions, they need to be building more place-based community, which for me, means thickening the social practice, thickening the institutions that are bringing people together. I think I'm asking for a more demanding version of faith, not a faith of numbers but a faith of commitment around people and place. And so that would be a very practical thing that I would argue for.

Another level is, I think we need to focus on what I would call translocal institutions. If we can find things that work, if you look at my organizations, the one that works on — the Purpose Built we just talked about, they are now in 27, 28 locations. So they've developed a network. An organization called Communio, working on marriage through churches, their goal is to basically partner with churches all over the country. I have another chapter on what used to be Partners for Education in Appalachia, they have now in the last three years since I wrote that, they're now Partners for Rural Impact. Their goal is to basically create versions of their model in many, many parts of the country. I think we need translocal organizations. The best would be ways for us to have these neighborhood associations or place-based associational life like we had across the country at one point. Can we reproduce that so that every neighborhood has this rich, social, institutional life? I mean, these are all examples.

Just to pivot to what each of us should do, my last chapter ends with, how could you rethink your life? I think, for example, clearly, I believe family is very important. We should double down on our commitment to family. But beyond that, in terms of our social engagement and what we consider it means to be our political or our role as citizens, I think being a good citizen is not just about national elections. It's about participating locally in your local situation. I think social engagement is not about social media. It's not about advocacy in Washington. It's not about sending a check into some nonprofits. It's about you personally volunteering or participating in some way in a local institution. I'm on the board of one local institution in my community, and I participate and contribute to several others in different forms.

And so I think we should rethink our idea of what it means to help society, and get away from this. We've overly nationalized and over politicized how we think of change and improvement. We should think harder about what it is we can do in our neighborhood or in our immediate area in terms of our commitment. I think all of us can play some role. Every person can do something that will help their place and help the people in their neighborhood no matter how little time you have. There's always something you can do. Sending a check to some faraway place may make us feel good, but it doesn't have an impact on real people, in real places. That's what I advocate for.

three people having a toast on table
Photo by Pablo Merchán Montes / Unsplash

Brandon: It's really crucial. I appreciate the fact that you've laid out a number of practical steps that people can take. Do you have any suggestions for universities and those who are educating people? I think we tend to emphasize public policy a lot as a field of study. But the thing you're talking about, this sideways approach, I don't know if there's this too much emphasis on it. What could it look like for us to cultivate that at the level of higher education?

Seth: I would say two things. One is the educational aspect which you're identifying is surely the coursework or the programs. There's no program, or there must be some. But could we create programs geared towards developing better social civic leaders in our local neighborhoods and communities? What does that mean? Could we take everything from urban planning to economics, to architecture, and add an element to them to think about how their work has implications for social life? There's many, many subjects in university in which they see the role of relationships and society plays zero role in the curriculum even though the type of students that go through there and graduate, what they do in their careers will have enormous impact on social life and society. And yet, they're not trained to think that way. So that would be one whole area.

I think the second area I would say is, university should marry their neighborhoods or their immediate neighborhoods. Some universities have done this in the last 15 or 20 years. But what does it mean is that university should say this surrounding area, I have a stake in it. How can I or how can the university help the neighborhood? That would mean everything from helping train people in the neighborhood. That might mean investing in the neighborhood, literally investing in buildings and the development of the neighborhood. That might mean encouraging lots of programs to become practical by having people join local associations and doing things, volunteer, or for credit in the neighborhood.

The more that universities many of them are very wealthy, many of them are full of educated people, many of them run programs that theoretically ought to be applied in their immediate surroundings, but they are not tested on the ground, all of these things could be leveraged to actually help not only one neighborhood but several neighborhoods. I mean, universities have a stake in the success of wherever they are, and they ought to be acting out on that very proactively. They're one of the best entry points in terms of institutions, because they are strong institutions in neighborhoods often that aren't very strong.

Brandon: Yeah, they often don't really engage with them very much at all.

Seth: I mean, they would rather not bother. Again, it's this idea that most people in our country, let's have a frictionless life. And so what it means is that we train people to be leaders who don't understand large parts of our country, are divorced from large parts of our country. And somehow, to be honest, they feel entitled because of the school they went to, to be in a certain upper-class or upper-middle class of society. They look down on everybody else.

We are meritocracy. But the point is, we need to recall this idea of stewardness. We need to rethink hard that our flourishing — as an individual, or as a family, or whatever we believe, wherever we are — our flourishing depends upon other people flourishing. We have a stake in everyone flourishing so that the country will flourish. And people who are scared by what our politics ends up should ask themselves, did they make choices that advanced their flourishing but not other people flourishing? Is that anger being funneled into politics? If we don't look down on other people and we consider our responsibilities to try to uplift other people — I'm a capitalist, so I'm not arguing for anything in terms of changing our economic model. But I do think we need to dramatically change our social model.

white and brown concrete house near green trees during daytime
Photo by Braxton Apana / Unsplash

Brandon: Yeah, fantastic. Seth, do you have any final comments, any final thoughts, any final takeaways from your book that you want to communicate that you haven't shared yet?

Seth: For me, the most important thing, of course, I would love for viewers, for listeners to buy the book. I would love if they were to engage in the material. You can find me. If I can help with anything, I'm very active on LinkedIn. I've been so surprised by literally hundreds of people who have reached out to me because of some of the content which is related, a book I've been putting on it.

But in terms of last takeaways, I would say, do not underestimate your ability to contribute in some way to the place that you live. We all have a role to play in supporting the success of our neighborhood. The more we can join, even if it's a volunteering, some association, the more we can make an effort to know our neighbors, I think each of ourselves will have a richer life. To the extent that we can do more so that our neighborhood is more flourishing or set an example, I think we all have a role to play here to rethink what our country, what does the American dream mean, and what is flourishing in our day in age. To the extent that we all could do something to shift how we think about things and to proactively live it out as a model to others, we will all make a contribution to help and show we all live in a flourishing place. So thank you so much.

Brandon: Yeah, fantastic. Thank you, Seth. Fragile Neighborhoods comes out October 17. So please, do buy the book and take a step towards building more beautiful and flourishing neighborhoods and communities wherever you live. Seth, thank you again for joining us. It's been such a pleasure.

Seth: Great pleasure. So much a pleasure we could do this. Thank you so much.

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