Neighborhood Bars Provide a Sense of Community

Watering Holes Fill Demand for Safe, Social Settings Within Walking Distance

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Reuben Duarte is a land use planner and contributor to Planetizen.

Christine Sismondo is author of "America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops."

Lloyd Alter is design editor for Treehugger.com.

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Posted: Wednesday, May 6, 2015 4:00 pm

The neighborhood pub, a popular drinking establishment with reasonably priced cold beer that appeals to both millennials and retirees, is on the verge of a rebirth in many North American cities.

It’s coming back as millennials ditch their cars and demand amenities of urban life that include shopping, restaurants and bars within walking distance of their high-density homes.

It isn’t a requirement that everybody knows your name at your neighborhood tavern. But when you walk in, you should see a few familiar faces and be open to striking up a conversation. There is a degree of familiarity at a neighborhood bar. The atmosphere is casual, but not dirty. The lighting is dark, but not dingy. They serve stick-to-your-ribs food and have live entertainment on the weekends.

A neighborhood bar, like all third places, thrive on social interaction and an open invitation to linger. When urban planners talk about neighborhood bars as third places in cities, many will quote this passage from an article written by Michael Hickey titled, “In Praise of (Loud, Stinky) Bars.” 

“The vaunted ‘third space’ isn’t home, and isn’t work — it’s more like the living room of society at large. It’s a place where you are neither family nor co-worker, and yet where the values, interests, gossip, complaints and inspirations of these two other spheres intersect. It’s a place at least one step removed from the structures of work and home, more random, and yet familiar enough to breed a sense of identity and connection. It’s a place of both possibility and comfort, where the unexpected and the mundane transcend and mingle.

“And nine times out of 10, it’s a bar.”

While drinking is a popular pastime for many Americans, are neighborhood bars really necessary in downtown revitalization or sustainable living?

Bars, like green spaces and bike lanes, are components of sustainable living, said Reuben Duarte, a land use planner working in Los Angeles.

“A sustainable community is not simply a community run on solar power. It is a community where sustainability is spread across all facets of urban life, including mobility,” Duarte said. “You can create a ‘green’ community, but if that green community still requires its residents to satisfy their activities away, its benefits are reduced. If you have to leave your community to grab a drink, that trip weighs down other sustainable practices, not to mention the public safety risk of drunk driving.

“Think about how many times in a week you actually go grocery shopping compared to how many times in a week you may stop at a pub for a drink. A local drinking establishment is as necessary to a complete neighborhood as a local coffee shop, restaurant and grocery store because a truly sustainable community is one where all aspects of sustainable living are promoted,” Duarte said.

Last year, Duarte, an urban development writer for Planetizen, published an article titled, “The Case for Neighborhood Bars … and Why Planning is Like Cooking.” In this article, Duarte wrote “It’s time we embrace the benefits and necessity of a neighborhood bar and recognize that cities and urbanism are a user experience.”

Duarte told Sustainable City Network that the neighborhood bar is “one of the elements to a complete neighborhood.

“The bar anchors a neighborhood far more than, say, a restaurant could,” he said. “Since the early taverns of New England where revolutionaries considered liberty in the colonies, the neighborhood bar served as a community space strengthening a sense of group identity. Local residents would go to learn the news and discuss issues with friends and colleagues over a pint of stout.

“Today, we get our news far more quickly, but the bar remains a place where we meet our neighbors, spend time with friends after work, take our visiting family for pre-dinner drinks, or simply share gossip away from home,” Duarte said.

But what about those of us who don’t have a neighborhood bar?

“If you have to leave your neighborhood to find this space, you begin to lose your connection to your neighborhood and begin to see it as separate — a place where your home is insular, within the walls of your house or apartment, and the neighborhood outside is other,” Duarte said.

Toronto writer and researcher Christine Sismondo also used the word “anchor” when discussing the history and future of the neighborhood bar.

“The bar is the anchor that most communities kind of need. It’s where you can come together, solve problems and establish community,” she said.

Sismondo’s book “America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops,” outlines the role of the local tavern in American history.

“In terms of importance, bars can’t be underestimated. It was the placeholder for all the institutions not yet established,” Sismondo said.

Before there was a U.S. post office, there was a bar. The same can be said for city hall. That’s why businessmen did their business in bars. Due to this convergence of people, the neighborhood bar morphed into a place where people could share ideas.

“That was the second accidental role of bars,” Sismondo said.

In the article “Every Complete Neighborhood Needs a Good Local Bar,” Lloyd Alter, writer and design editor of treehugger.com, wrote, “Bars are not always beautiful, but as I say about heritage buildings, they don't all have to be tourist attractions. Like old buildings, they are part of the fabric of our lives, and it is important that we can walk to them.” 

Alter, who teaches sustainable design at Ryerson University School of Interior Design in Toronto, said there is absolutely a rebirth of the neighborhood bar as part of the high density growth trends.

“More young people are living in smaller spaces. When we are living in smaller spaces, we have to outsource a lot of things we did in our large houses before,” Alter said.

Neighborhood bars provide an extension of “your living room,” Alter explained. “It’s a place to meet people and to entertain your friends.”

Sismondo, who also lives in Toronto, agreed. She said the city is “crammed with condos” and millennials are ditching their cars and favoring public transit instead.

“We are seeing a massive flight from the suburbs into the urban areas,” she said.

But these downtown bars don’t exactly fit Sismondo’s hope for a neighborhood pub.

“You need the right type of bar to fill those needs. Most of the bars you see are out of reach in terms of price. They are inaccessible to the average person,” Sismondo said. “So I’m not sure how much they help the community.”

One way that bars within urban areas do help the community is a reduction in crime and drunk driving.

“Bars do make the streets safer. When you see people out, walking around late at night or sitting out on patios, I feel safer to walk at night and so do other people,” Sismondo said.

Neighborhood bars offer community residents an alternative to driving outside the neighborhood to grab a drink, Duarte added.

“A bar should definitely be placed accessible to public transit. Proximity to transit, or even the walkable bar, is necessary to help foster a community connection to the space, as well as mitigate potential safety concerns, such as drunk driving to and from the bar,” he said.

Should bars be a component in revitalization of urban areas? Duarte said it depends on the stage of revitalization.

“The neighborhood bar is important, but within this question is another question, which is what priority should the neighborhood bar be given in neighborhood revitalization,” Duarte said. “To that question, the neighborhood bar is an ingredient of a revitalized neighborhood, not a catalyst.”

Alter pointed out that revitalization of Toronto’s downtown is being driven by millennials and their preferences. It’s not a citywide project to revitalize the downtown. It’s driven by the market and what millennials value in their community.

If that’s the case, then the neighborhood bar should buy millennials a round of drinks.

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