What We Have and What We Want: A Neighborhood Study

What defines the wellbeing of a neighborhood? Is it access to health and education, or affordability, or relationships between people—or is it just happiness of people living there?

As part of a project at Design for Social Innovation in SVA, we were asked to “map our neighborhood’s wellbeing.” I have lived in New Brunswick, NJ, for the past year and, even though I have spent a fair amount of time at home, I realized I didn't know much about my neighborhood’s wellbeing. First, what defines the wellbeing of a neighborhood? Is it access to health and education, or affordability, or relationships between people—or is it just happiness of people living there?

I began to think about how I could research effectively. Counting the number of hospitals and schools nearby? Interviewing people? Photographing them. Or just observing? The culture of my neighborhood is very “non interfering” and I wanted to find a way that would give gave my neighbors a choice to answer or not to answer. Inspired from Candy Chang’s "Before I Die" project, I put up posters that said “I have…” and “I wish I had…” to understand what they are thankful for and what they dream of having.

Soon after the posters were put up, I started getting some interesting responses. There were some that made me laugh and others that were heartwarming (“I wish I had a million dollars to give to my parents so that they don’t have to work anymore”). But more importantly, each one actually narrated a story in itself.

Every morning, when I would go to check the responses, I would get smiles from neighbors and people who realized I was the one behind this silly little game in the apartment building. Without words or direct interaction, I received so much information about my neighborhood—and all in only two days.

The next part was actually converting this wide set of data into a map that pointed towards the wellbeing of my neighborhood. After a lot of contemplation, I categorized and mapped this information that gave some very fascinating insights.

Adding up the numbers, a few things stood out.

  • The majority of people care about love, peace, and happiness
  • Even though so much of money is spent on healthcare and religion, the fewest number of people mentioned these in my survey
  • A large number of people wished for more love and an even larger number acknowledged the love they already have (signifying that people are happy with the love they have but want more?)
  • On money & career, many people wished for more and very few expressed their satisfaction for what they already have

In retrospect, it was an exciting and surprising experience to get responses from an otherwise “no interaction” neighborhood. It was intriguing to note that two basic questions can result in getting rich data about people’s gratitude and dreams. And it was fascinating to realize that behind every physical arrangement—in this case, a neighborhood—there is an invisible structure of people’s relationships and experiences, all contributing to the environment of the place. Ultimately, it is people that make neighborhoods—and the world.

Screenshot via (left) Wikimedia Commons (right)

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