Colin Mills: Building Community, Face to Face

Colin Mills/File photo Winter has come early this season! Being a snow lover, I welcome this early taste of the white stuff.

Certainly, it’s a welcome change from the largely barren winters we’ve had the last couple of years. The snow and ice meant a surprise four-day weekend for my daughter Leslie. For my wife and me, this meant working from home.

While I was tapping away on my computer and watching the flakes fall, I thought about the phenomenon of telecommuting. It’s pretty remarkable that technology has advanced to the point where we can be practically as productive outside the office as in it.

One of Bob Simon’s founding principles for Reston was that “the people be able to live and work in the same community.” In a way, telecommuting is the ultimate version of that goal: people living and working in the same house. And there are people who think that this is the future: widespread telecommuting will be what saves us from traffic paralysis and environmental degradation.

Maybe they’re right. But the move toward telecommuting is emblematic of a troubling trend in our society, toward less face-to-face human interaction. That trend runs the risk of damaging our sense of community.

We live in an increasingly atomized society; we spend less and less time in the company of others. For a lot of folks, life is a continuous cycle: from home to work to shopping and back home again. With the new self-checkout feature at grocery stores, you can get in and get out without having to talk to another person at all. It’s a lonely way to live.

Civic and fellowship organizations are a lot less popular than they used to be; so is going out for bridge night. Many of today’s leisure activities can be done at home alone (video games, surfing the
Internet, etc.). Lots of people work out at the gym, but that’s a solitary pursuit too, a time to plug in the headphones and unwind from (or get ready for) the day.

The office is one of the few places where we really spend time with people outside of our families anymore. If we’re no longer going into the office every day, what happens then? We are social creatures; instant messaging and video conferencing aren’t a real substitute for face-to-face contact as our primary source of human interaction.

Moreover, that’s not how you build and sustain a community. A community isn’t a group of individuals holed up in their hives; it only happens when people come together. Interaction and relationships are how communities are built. In a world where people tend to be more isolated than ever, we need to explore other ways to bring people together.

Fortunately, in this way as in many others, Bob Simon was ahead of his time. By developing village centers that were built around plazas, he created spaces that fostered human interaction. Plazas force us out of our cars, and they increase the likelihood of chance encounters between neighbors, friends, and strangers. They are a breeding ground for community.

Plazas also serve as a staging ground for festivals, which are a great opportunity for bringing people together. Lake Anne Plaza is Reston’s best example of this. It was the original home of the Reston Festival, and today it’s the home to celebrations from Founder’s Day to the Multicultural Festival to the Jazz Festival. Not to mention the Farmer’s Market, where I run into at least a few people I know every time I go. If you want to bring a community together, you need to have spots for them to gather.

I remember the plazas well from my youth. We lived closest to Tall Oaks, so I spent plenty of time walking through their on my way to get baseball cards or sodas from Giant. But I remember being especially taken with the plaza at Hunters Woods; the multi-colored flags hanging from the pergola-style roof always made me feel like I was in a foreign country, somewhere European, perhaps.

Empty Tall OaksUnfortunately, many of our village centers have abandoned this original concept; today, all of them besides Lake Anne are strip malls rather than village centers. That may make them more efficient places to shop, but it’s not good for encouraging people to interact. The heart of the “village center” concept is that it’s not just a place to shop, but a place for people to commune.

I’m hoping we can bring the plazas back as Reston redevelops. And I’m not the only one. During the Master Plan Task Force, Bob was a big proponent of making central plazas a part of any Village Center redevelopment. RCA strongly supports Bob’s suggestion. Community is created when people come together. Bob was right 50 years ago, and he’s still right today: plazas help make that happen.

And as I’ve suggested in the past, perhaps we should start with Tall Oaks. If ever a village center needed a shot in the arm, a reason to get people to come, it’s that one. If we re-envisioned Tall Oaks around a community amenity like a plaza, or an amphitheater, or a public park, we’d be creating something truly distinctive. Tall Oaks would have a genuine draw for the first time in years, a reason for people to seek it out. Maybe we could even hold a revived Reston Festival at the revived Tall Oaks. The possibilities are endless.

Many things about modern life are individualized and isolating. There’s not much that we can do about that, but we can help mitigate it by creating common spaces for people to gather and interact with each other. These spaces were a hallmark of Reston in its beginning; with thoughtful planning and redevelopment, we can get back there again. I hope to see you all someday at the plaza in one of our revitalized village centers. Communicating online is nice, but it’s even better if we can talk face-to-face.

Also, time’s running out for Citizen of the Year nominations! The deadline is Sunday, so if you haven’t submitted yours yet, download the form and get writing.

Colin Mills is the president of the Reston Citizens Association. He writes weekly on Reston Now.

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