“Yale Wife” No More

In February of this year, I flew to Boston to teach for a month, mainly in the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD). Teaching in the GSD was a lot more intensive than Australian postgraduate planning education; the students were also an international and multicultural bunch.


The privileged Harvard student body I had witnessed in the 1960s (visiting from New Haven) was nowhere be seen.


At Tufts University, I gave a class to their planning students on community visioning, using my model called “Heartstorming”. I also gave a colloquium on “NIMBY psychology”. At MIT, I spoke to planning students about the forces that influenced my career as a social planner and my passion for community engagement. At the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard, I gave a lecture on “NIMBY psychology”, unpacking the deeper reasons behind people’ s negative responses to proposed housing density increases.


In the 1960s…

In the 1960s, I was what was called a “Yale Wife”, living in New Haven, Connecticut, in my early twenties with my Yale postgraduate student husband. It was a demeaning term (Yale College was not co-ed at that time). Wives were “non-persons”, attractive and empty-headed “appendages” in those days. Even at Yale. And that’s how I saw myself, having no real professional direction.

The "Yale Wife" 1965


The first female planning student in South Australia

When I began studying planning at Adelaide University in 1971, I was the only woman in my postgraduate course. Even though I held two degrees, I had to do an “admission assignment” that no other applying student was required to do.   (I did it.)


My then husband (an academic) was asked to sign an affidavit stating that he had not helped me with it. (He signed it.)

When I topped the planning course in the second year, the Adelaide News sent around a photographer, who asked me to pose in the kitchen, stirring a pot, to show I was still a “real woman”. (I refused.)


Adelaide News, December 1972

Adelaide News, December 1972

 

 



I have been an academic off and on over the past three decades. But always life has intervened and kept me from a full-time academic career. In 1978, I left a tenure-track academic position in Adelaide to seek my fortune in California following the break-up of my first marriage and my enduring heartbreak. I ended up teaching at Berkeley for two years.


Train to New Haven

One frosty February day, during my time at Harvard this year, I took a morning train to New Haven.

It was time to check out the chapel where I’d married my “Yale Man” 50 years before. (It was being repaired so I could not view the scene of the crime.)



I visited the Yale Library and spent afternoon in the Archives, marveling that I’d had to sneak into the library through a back door to use the stacks as I was not allowed in (as a “Yale Wife”).


A walk through deep snow along icy footpaths led me to the apartment building where we’d lived as students in the mid-sixties and it looked exactly the same.   After 50 years! Imagine!


1966 and 2013


The world’s best pizza

Before I caught the train back to Boston, I devoured the best pizza of my life in our old haunt, Frank Pepe’s Pizzeria, still operating after 80 years.

The waiter chuckled when I explained I’d traveled 17,500 miles and waited nearly 50 years for my dinner! (That was heaps better than seeing inside the chapel!)

The world's best pizza!

The world’s best pizza!

 

 

 

 

 



Gratitude

Spending a month at Harvard and lecturing at Tufts and MIT was a real thrill. No longer a “Yale Wife”, I was speaking about my own work as a practitioner.

It had been a  long journey.

And it felt marvelous.

An Expert Blind Spot: Fear of Falling

Back in the 1980s…

 

Back in the mid-1980s, my social planning firm did a roaring trade in ageing. Every Sydney developer fantasized about making a fortune in retirement housing. We were a small firm of social planners – trying variously to dissuade them or help them. Most were beyond help: so gripped by greed that they could not discuss matters as banal as gerontology. Blessedly, the fashion passed and we returned to homelessness and poverty (not ours – our subject matter).

Seating Design

Seating Design

 

The good thing was that we learned so much about the physical and psychological factors associated with ageing. Then in my forties, I could not imagine my own elderhood; it was a distant reality. My most brilliant employee, in her early twenties, was a young architecture graduate.


Together we trawled through volumes of research and crafted detailed site-planning and design guidelines for older people’s housing. Tromping around retirement villages, cursing their failings, we became experts in non-slip surfaces, sheltered seating, walking circuits, natural surveillance, ramp design, handrails… And, considering the older residents themselves: limited visual acuity and peripheral vision, susceptibility to glare, inability to hold a mental map, disorientation in space and, most emphatically, fear of falling.

 

Falling down

Recently, a dear friend of mine fell and broke her hip (she’s 79). She was squatting to inspect a cupboard when a mouse jumped out and startled her, causing her to fall backwards. She spent a month in the hospital and is recovering well. But now my feisty friend (who walked the width of England in her early seventies) emails to say she’s afraid of going out for a walk on crutches.

 

Afraid?

 

Once I might have found that hard to believe.

 

But now I understand.

 

Not paying attention

A few years ago, not paying attention (actually peering somewhat rudely at a building under construction), I slipped on roadside gravel and dislocated my shoulder. It hurt a lot. I was terrified of falling again; I began to feel fragile, old and crippled. A wise friend instructed me to return and walk confidently past the house. After I did that repeatedly, my fear abated. To combat my fear of knocking my shoulder, our compassionate local hospital nurse recommended a sling when I travelled by plane. Who would be mean enough to knock a nice old lady with her arm in a sling? It worked a treat. (As did the odd pre-booked wheelchair for long air journeys.)

Boston Sunday Globe storm_crop_small

The Blizzicane

Recently, I spent a month teaching at Harvard: the highlight of my career. And a shocking and salutary experience for a person turning seventy.

I feared my boots (from Myers department store in Adelaide) would not pass muster but my Boston host thought I might survive February.

How wrong she was!

A week into my visit, the fiercest blizzard in 57 years blanketed Boston.

Massive.

A Blizzicane. Nearly a metre of snow fell in a few hours.

 

Outside my friend's house

Outside my colleague’s house after the blizzard and before the snowplows arrived to bank the snow

After we dug ourselves out, I took my credit card to Eastern Mountain Sports in Harvard Square but fear had me in its grip. Now I had warm boots with good tread but I was absolutely terrified.   Terrified of the footpaths at night (our classes ended at 6 pm; taxis were out of the question).

 

Not surprisingly, every path on the campus of America’s premier university was plowed within seconds.

 

 

 

All clear at Harvard!

All clear at Harvard!

That wasn’t my problem.

My problem was low-density suburbia.

Despite Boston’s admirable transit network, suburban Boston is crap for pedestrians.   Everyone drives gigantic cars with snow tyres. There I was in my overpriced `showerproof’ down coat (bought in Melbourne in January) and new boots that weighed a ton. And a backpack full of books and a laptop.

My nightly walk home from the Harvard bus was six long blocks along poorly lit and partly plowed footpaths (and out into the street at the unshovelled patches). Sharing the carriageway with the cars – all of us skeetering between high snowbanks through rutted snow.

 

God!

All I could think of was my dislocated shoulder. And my fear of falling.

 

Actually, that’s not true. My shoulder worries paled in comparison to Fear of the American Medical System! Even with travel insurance, I imagined myself chained to a hospital bed, held to ransom with a broken arm, leg, shoulder, hip . . . you name it . . . in a hospital charging a trillion dollars a day.

I’d taken an elderly Canadian friend to hospital in Honolulu five years ago and she’d barely escaped!

 

Meanwhile, my younger colleague completely discounted my fears. The same fears we’d researched decades earlier.

 

What’s your problem? The snow will melt. It’s only six blocks. You’ve got boots. You’re sorted.

Femme devant paper-board

 


Raffi to the Rescue

My Armenian cousin, a long-time Boston resident (and my age) was my saviour.  Before the snow melted, he took immediate action to avoid my melting down. Brooking no interference, he moved me – coat, books, boots, laptop and decaf tea bags – into his apartment in Charlestown (a dense inner city neighbourhood with well-lit streets, plowed and navigable). Close to the subway and with caf©s and pubs to die for.

 

Raffi's street in Charlestown


And there I stayed for several charmed weeks, happily travelling about Boston on public transit. Grateful for the blessings of his generous hospitality.


(Maybe blood is thicker than water?)


The take-home messages from my story?

 

I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said that this experience had a profoundly unsettling effect on me.

I cried a lot.

 

And then (finally), I got to thinking. What can I make of this?

What can I learn? What can we learn?

 


First, as our Baby Boomer generation ages, we need to understand mobility – and immobility. It’s not just physical; it’s also psychological.

 

Second, we’d better start talking openly about these matters and not be afraid or ashamed. (What’s there to be ashamed of, in any case?)

 

We're going to have learn how to ask for help

We’re going to have learn how to ask for help

Third, we’ll need supports. And we’d better get them in place before an emergency. We need to know how and where to ask for help.

My friend with the mending hip is well networked into her community where she’s lived since 1974. She’s having gourmet meals delivered and local people come to clean her house as part of a community program. She’ll be fine.



The age-friendly neighbourhoods initiative is a good way to start. South Austalia has made a good beginning:

https://www.sa.gov.au/upload/franchise/Seniors/Office%20for%20the%20Ageing%20-%20Publications/Publications/Age%20friendly%20local%20gov.pdf

 

Fourth, we must accept that some of our younger colleagues are firmly in denial about ageing – ours and theirs. You know the types: the cyclists, yoga enthusiasts, marathon runners, extreme athletes”¦ (Please pass the chocolate”¦)

 

As an example, take my younger colleague. She has a lot to learn.

 

Sad but true: ageing is an expert blind spot.

 

By speaking out about our fear and demonstrating our resourcefulness, we can teach her.

 

So that she can teach her students.

 

And we all can benefit.

 

I guess, in the end, that it’s all about care. (Didn’t I write a PhD thesis about that?)

 

care

Reflecting as a CPTED Practitioner on Harvard and Yale

 

Harvard Yard February 2013

 

 

Spending February teaching at the Graduate School of Design (GSD) at Harvard sparked all sorts of thoughts in me about pedestrian safety.

 

And a day at Yale and in New Haven, Connecticut confirmed that I did not feel safe there as a female pedestrian. Reflecting as a CPTED Practitioner policing and street safety at on Harvard and Yale really made me question the wisdom of intensive policing.

 



See my guest blog for Greg Saville’s SafeGrowth Blogspot:

 

https://safe-growth.blogspot.com.au/2013/04/boston-terror-reality-of-street-life.html

 

Many thanks to Greg, my colleague and friend of nearly 20 years.

NIMBY psychology at Harvard University February 2013

 

NIMBY psychology comes to Harvard — from Australia!

 

February was an exciting month for me. I spent it teaching in the Graduate School of Design (GSD) at Harvard University and giving lectures and classes at MIT and Tufts University.

 

It was exceptionally cold for a person who lives in the sub-tropics. A huge blizzard dumped 20 inches of show on Boston days after I arrived.

 

 
Harvard in February. Brrr!

 

The highlight of my month-long visit was a   lunch-time lecture for the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University on 22 February.

 

I spoke about the relationships between environmental psychology and community resistance to housing density increases to an audience in the iconic Gund Hall, which houses the Graduate School of Design.

 

See: https://www.gsd.harvard.edu/#/events/what-s-psychology-got-to-do-with-nimby-with-wendy-sarkissian.html

 

Gund Hall, Harvard University

 

NIMBY

 

Throughout the Western world and especially in Australia, we are seeing strong initiatives to increase housing density to achieve sustainability initiatives. Paralleling these types of initiatives are concerns about the social impacts of higher density housing, confirmed by a widespread Australian research and a recent visit to Canada. Even in Hong Kong, there are community concerns about housing density increases. Where governments have mandated housing density increases, the results have not always been positive.

 

The much-lauded CityPlan community engagement process in Vancouver, Canada, resulted in a strong support for housing density in the late 1990s and early years of this century, (with planners believing that they had converted NIMBY to YIMBY (“Yes in My Back Yard”). However, currently a strong community backlash in Vancouver reveals that these gains were short-lived. After tens of millions of dollars spent on community engagement about density increases, residents and others are strongly opposing further housing density increases.

 

In many Western cities, the early optimism of what community engagement could deliver with respect to housing density increases has faded. The irony is that success in this arena is much more important that it was in earlier decades as the pressures of Peak Oil and climate change begin to be felt more powerfully by communities and governments.

 

So, if density increases are needed and resistance is increasing, what is the answer? What really is at the core of peoples’ concerns? Which approaches might work to engage communities with the issues of housing density?

 

What if we could achieve our sustainability and housing density goals without causing community unrest, dissatisfaction – even uproar?

 

Could communities respond positively to density increases under the appropriate conditions?

 

I believe that all of that is possible. But we must understand more about the psychology of housing to be effective.

 

We need to appreciate why governments must continue to campaign for increased housing density. It’s as though these two initiatives are at opposite ends of a spectrum. Yet they are connected by the very concerns that seem to place proponents of density increases at loggerheads with community members.

 

Caring

 

The issue that unites them is caring. Governments who care about the future of communities are alert to the many signs that automobile dependence and urban sprawl are expensive and ecologically unsustainable artefacts of a bygone era. We can no longer afford low-density suburbs. (Actually, we never could but we thought we could.)

 

Similarly, community members who care about the future of their communities are concerned that clumsy and ill-considered initiatives will make neighbourhoods unliveable cauldrons of noise, traffic congestion, parking problems. They will have no environmental quality. Some even say: `the slums of the future’.

So, if everyone cares, where’s the problem and what is the secret?

 

A key to understanding these conflicts (occurring in our communities today) is to understand more about housing. It’s not merely `product’, as some developers say. It’s more than a `commodity’ as economists would say. For some, it’s everything: a haven, a nest, protection, security”¦ many qualities that have little or nothing to do with density, tenure or whether one’s name is on the mortgage document”¦

 

Home is a deeply archetypal concept. Humans aer animals and, like other animals, we are hard-wired to protect our territory, the “territorial core” of our home. It’s complicated and that’s partly why people’s responses to a threat to their housing often get so very `complicated’. Our Homing Instinct is a deep-seated desire to protect what is personal, precious and `home’.

 

The psychology of place and housing

 

 

Here’s a link to the Harvard lecture and the PowerPoint presentation:

 

https://www.jchs.harvard.edu/event/what%E2%80%99s-psychology-got-do-nimby-exploring-deeper-meanings-community-resistance-proposed-housing

 

Social planning was having a good month!   The lecture was also picked up by the real estate blog, The Fifth Estate: Our Planet, Our Real Estate:

 

https://www.thefifthestate.com.au/archives/45397/

 

Here’s the lecture in a Word document:

 

Sarkissian Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies lecture 22 February 2013_revised for web

 

Many sincere thanks to Eric Belsky and his colleagues of the Joint Center for generous support and hospitality and to Professor Ann Forsyth of the GSD.