Blurring the lines between community and family

Family has a way of being messy and uncomfortably vulnerable. For some, the word family can come with a ton of baggage, pain, and really bad parties. Community is safer. Friends, I can control, but family…not a chance! I get it. Here’s the deal though, communities (the good ones) provide opportunities for deeper friendships to happen, and friendship, when risked, can transform into family-likeness. It’s not fiction; it’s an invitation. Obviously, this is not the same as a biological family member or some sort of weird polygamist commune. It’s a state of being, and I have personally experienced what family could look like in unconventional places like neighborhoods.

Let’s face it, most of our neighborhoods create enormous barriers to spontaneous human connections. But what if the ways we compartmentalize our relationships is part of the problem?

Before we moved to Northern California, our neighbors in Cincinnati became like family to us. This is why it was so hard to leave our home in Ohio. It was because of Chris, Trisha, Jeff, Cathy, Jessica, Michael, Sammy, Denis, Marianne, Zak, Cebastian, the Taylors, the Ericksons, the rest of the Gladstone family and others. We were known and we knew all of them. There was a level of risk, and over time, a real love and trust for one another.

This didn’t just happen overnight. It was a combination of random and chance conversations, late night cigar stokings, front porch musings, occasional dinner parties, babysitting, yard projects, and severe storm power outages that all contributed to the depth of our friendships. The simplest explanation is that we were present and available. Before this, we were like everyone else scheduling time to “hang out” with friends. That scenario required a calendar, stuffing kids in vans and carseats, and then hauling it 20 miles across town one-way. Shoot me. No wonder we didn’t do it very often.

Thankfully, we’re starting to experience a kind of richer connection again in our current neighborhood. Spontaneous co-cooking dinners and playdates are a regular around here, which in turn creates space for rich conversation and deeper connections. One of our neighbors is also moving with us at the end of the year to Shiloh Park, a new neighborhood we’re creating that is designed to make these kind of connections easier.

WARNING: Risk is involved!

Regardless of the possible outcomes, we have a way of making conscious efforts to live separated from consistent closeness and vulnerability with others (which is my definition of family). This decision is one everyone has the power to make. We have the choice to sit on the sidelines while others make intentional space for more meaningful and rich friendships. But is that what you really want?

Even so, I believe there is more at risk in our soul when we create walls that isolate us–especially in our neighborhoods. Culture says we need more privacy. Churches say we need more community. I think we really need more family, everywhere. Community is nice, don’t get me wrong, but family is just better.

Over time I’ve noticed some biological family members become better friends and not just forced relationships you feel obligated to nurture. Similarly, some of our friends have become like family. I don’t know what to call it exactly. It’s above my pay-grade, but I think it’s blurring the lines in these relationships that makes life so sweet.

I hope you are inspired enough to try the messiness and joys of building neighborhood “families”. It pays incredible dividends. Trust me.

Books I’m reading:

Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design

Walkable Cities: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at aTime

Co-Housing: Building Sustainable Communities

Joshua Johnson is the designer and developer of Shiloh Park, a charming co-housing community in Northern California. He is actively pursing projects where he can create space for easier human connections through beauty, design, and exceptional neighbors.