“Conviviality is an economic actor”

The reason the title of today’s blogpost is in quotation marks is because, well, it is a quote. How I wish it had been my coinage, this phrase. It is, instead, a quote by Patrick Bernard. Who is Patrick Bernard? A person behind the idea of Hyper Voisins, or Super Neighbors.

I was re-reading Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel Prize lecture to prepare for yesterday’s post, this paragraph came up:

“Evidence pointed out three mechanisms that increase productivity in polycentric metropolitan areas: (1)
small- to medium-sized cities are more effective than large cities in monitoring performance of their citizens and relevant costs, (2) citizens who are dissatisfied with service provision can “vote with their feet” and move to jurisdictions that come closer to their preferred mix and costs of public services, and (3) local incorporated communities can contract with larger producers and change contracts if not satisfied with the services provided, while neighborhoods inside a large city have no voice.”

https://www.nobelprize.org/uploads/2018/06/ostrom_lecture.pdf (pp 411)

Patrick Bernard’s idea is to challenge this notion by creating many small to medium sized cities within large cities. Actually, he will likely (and correctly) disagree – the idea is to have many small to medium sized communities within large cities.

More than 1,200 of these so-called Super Neighbors communicate via 40 WhatsApp groups dedicated to queries like finding a cat sitter or seeking help to fix broken appliances. They hold weekly brunches, post-work drinks and community gatherings at which older residents share memories with younger generations. To much fanfare, the group also hosts an annual banquet — La Table d’Aude — for the residents on a table 400 meters long, about 440 yards, running through the middle of a street.


Why does this matter? Because (some) urbanists have long pushed the idea of mixed-use neighborhoods, and it is a truly powerful idea. The modern, arguably cooler way of referring to this is to talk about 15-minute cities.

If you are an Indian living in a major Indian city reading this, you might think ah, Zepto. Or Swiggy Instamart, or BlinkIt, or something similar. But nope, that’s only half the puzzle. Or if you prefer, that’s only the hardware aspect of a 15 minute city. It is, in fact, less than half the puzzle, because 15 minute deliveries may actually make things worse. How could the convenience of fifteen minute delivery possibly make things worse?

A more astute reading of the culture would have paid attention to the longing for connection in American life, a condition the pandemic has only deepened. Isolation, as sociologists remind us over and over, is rampant. It was hard not to notice that restaurants in New York City were packed once they were brought to life again in the summer of 2020. Part of the pleasure of shopping in a neighborhood grocery store or a farmers’ market or going to the gym is the prospect of human contact — catching up as a matter of improvisation, serendipity remaining a singular and animating force of metropolitan life.


In other words, cities are as much about software as they are about hardware – in fact, they’re more about the software than they are about the hardware. It is people that define a city, not its infrastructure. Don’t get me wrong, infrastructure matters. I stay in Pune, boss, and we can go on for hours about our (for lack of a better word) infrastructure. But the infrastructure matters for the people who stay in a city, and a city is made a city by the interactions of people who stay within it. So called dark stores prioritize convenience, by paying the opportunity cost of a feeling of isolation.

Patrick Bernard wants to fight this feeling of isolation, because isolation is the lack of a sense of belonging to a community. And any sociologist will tell you that the sense of not belonging to a community is very much Not A Good Thing.

The challenge, as with everything else in economics, is scalability. A neighborhood successfully implementing a solution such as this, while a wonderful thing in and of itself, isn’t a scalable solution. How should one think about scalability? They’re thinking about it already:

Looking further afield, the group is exploring ways in which its vision of cities carved in the image of, and powered by the bonds between, their inhabitants can be replicated and scaled up. It believes the answer is the creation of trained and paid roles — so-called Friends of the Neighborhood — to coordinate each district.
“People have begun to listen,” Mr. Bernard said. “Everyone wants their neighborhood to be like ours. Now we need to find out how to make our approach more systemic and to adapt it to the different challenges and contexts that every city in the world has.”


Five other links related to this topic that you might enjoy reading:

  1. The Global Observatory of Sustainable Proximities
  2. Placemaking Europe
  3. Coverage by Pop-up City
  4. Coverage by the Guardian
  5. The OG, Jane Jacobs

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