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Stranger Danger: How Community Stifles Innovation

Free-range kids are economic development.
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(Photo: Amma Cat/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Amma Cat/Shutterstock)

I'm a stay-at-home dad in a town of helicopter moms. Wherever your kids go, the parental peer pressure says you should be. Let your children roam and you will be ostracized. In another part of Greater Washington, D.C., let your children roam and the police will intervene. With excess capacity, the over-educated and underemployed parent other parents. In terms of economic development, the world is poorer for it.

Free-range kids will encounter strangers. Interacting with people you don't know is a social skill, critical for cultivating tolerance. Getting people to interact with strangers, however, isn't a function of population density. Designers of public and quasi-public spaces struggle with this very issue. Just bringing people together doesn't mean they will interact meaningfully. Just bringing people together doesn't mean they will interact at all.

In the rural idyll, everybody interacts. Many (most?) parents seek out such "safety" for their children. But children transform into young adults, our most geographically mobile demographic. Escaping the helicopter mom mafia:

Yet in Soft City I was trying to write about metropolitan life as it had existed since the 18th century – as a theatre in which the newly arrived could try on masks and identities more daring and extravagant than any they had been allowed in their villages or small towns, as a place that guaranteed a blessed privacy, anonymity and freedom to its inhabitants and, most of all, as somewhere where every citizen created a route of his or her own through its potentially infinite labyrinth of streets, arranging the city around them to their own unique pattern. That was why it was soft, amenable to the play of each of its residents’ imagination and personal usage. A town, even a large one, imposes on its people certain fixed patterns of movement and, with them, a set of rather narrow expectations of what kind of character you’re permitted there. If I live in Worksop, Worksop largely defines me; if I live in a great city like London or New York, I can make the city up as I go along, shaping it to my own habits and fancies. In an article published a few weeks ago in London’s Evening Standard, David Sexton cited Soft City and nicely summed up its essential argument in one sentence, writing that the book was about “how we all construct our own different versions of London, in our imaginations joining up the streets and places each of us knows, so that associations and familiarities matter more than the map and thus we all mould for ourselves a different city in which to live”. Aboard his newly bought bicycle, Sexton was busily discovering the intricate geography of his own soft city.

Trying on identities like masks promotes innovation. Where everybody knows your name, the place of high social capital, sucks at knowledge transfer. Talk to people you know well and remain stupid. Talk to people you don't know and move beyond the world of trivia.

Migrating to Big City promotes innovation because migrants mingle with newcomers and natives. For those born there, population density doesn't help. They are stuck in urban neighborhoods that demographically look just like isolated rural enclaves.

Jim Russell, a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development, writes regularly for Pacific Standard.