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Downtown Reflections. Photograph by Brian Cohen.
Downtown Reflections. Photograph by Brian Cohen. | Show Photo

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Why you should say hello to strangers in Pittsburgh

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Each spring, I am struck by the dramatic transformation that converts our city from winter wasteland to green, bustling metropolis by the end of May. This year, after a particularly light winter, the flowers are in full bloom, the birds are singing and even the Pirates standings appear chipper.
           
So it came as little surprise that an article entitled “Why You Should Say ‘Hello’ to Strangers on the Street” by Taylor Falk should appear in the Atlantic Cities last week. In the article, Falk described a pleasant spring walk through his neighborhood in Washington, D.C. to the local farmer’s market, and his spontaneous—though largely rebuffed—desire to greet fellow pedestrians.
           
Falk devised an experiment along his walk, greeting passerby and assigning each an “acknowledgement point” for reciprocated greetings. His results were somewhat alarming: only 3 of the 25 people he greeted acknowledged him—a measly 12.5 percent. “To put it another way,” wrote Falk, “A higher percentage of American males have strokes than acknowledged me on the sidewalk last weekend.”
           
These informal statistics got the editor of Pop City wondering: how would Pittsburgh measure up? Pittsburgh, long known as friendly, has been named the country’s Most Livable City more than once. Surely, a city ranked high on factors such as safety, affordability and job availability could do better than 12.5 percent. We're known as friendly. We decided to put it to the test.
           
Using Falk’s “acknowledgement point” system, I began greeting pedestrians and cyclists alike on a bike commute from Pittsburgh’s Northside to my rented duplex in Squirrel Hill. My ride took me through four of the city’s most vibrant neighborhoods, beginning in Lawrenceville at the 40th Street Bridge, continuing up through Bloomfield along Liberty Avenue, through Shady Side then into Squirrel Hill.
 
Along the way, I passed 32 people, including four bicyclists, three couples, two men sitting on their porches, one group of small children, and several joggers. I greeted each with a smile and a wave or head nod—something to indicate that I was greeting them directly—and was rewarded 15 out of 32 times. That’s right. Approximately 47% of Pittsburgh residents acknowledged me greeting them on the street.
 
Even more impressive, several of the residents I passed went out of their way to greet me. A woman on Main Street in Lawrenceville hailed me from her modest porch garden before I had the chance to smile.
 
“Are you on your way home?” she asked.

“Yes…”

“Then take some flowers with you! You can put them in your hair.”

I kid you not. She gave me three yellow wildflowers for my hair.
 
Later, as I cruised through the intersection of Liberty and Millvale Avenues in Bloomfield, I jumped at the sound of a car horn. Concerned, I turned to make sure I had not unwittingly obstructed a car with my bicycle, but instead of finding an angry motorist demanding that I take up less of the lane, I was passed by a man waving and smiling from inside his red Toyota Corolla. Truly—he was smiling.
 
Of course, not everyone I greeted wanted to actually talk to me. For many, a simple head nod or half smile was enough and that's fine.  Others either ignored or chose not to see me—a phenomena that Eric D. Wesselman, a professor of psychology at Purdue University, refers to as “being looked at as though air.”
 
In a study cited by the Atlantic Cities last week, Wesselman explains the correlation between eye contact and feelings of recognition or happiness within a community. According to Wesselman’s study, eye contact—or the lack thereof—contributes directly to an individual’s sense of inclusion in his or her community and can affect a population’s overall happiness.
 
The study’s conclusion seems to echo the mission of organizations like Project for Public Spaces, a non-profit dedicated to helping people build and sustain stronger communities by improving public spaces. This includes creating easily accessible public food markets and promoting “multi-modal” transportation, like walking or biking instead of driving.
 
Project for Public Spaces subscribes to the idea that buildings, streets and public spaces play a key role in public health issues—and they’re not alone. Local organizations like Western PA Conservancy, Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, Pittsburgh Downtown Partnerships, BikePGH and many others have long been working to enrich public spaces here in Pittsburgh for this reason and more.
 
Pittsburgh’s prolific collection of farmer’s markets (my faves are the markets on Smallman Street in the Strip and at Phipps Conservatory), in combination with the city’s bike-friendly legislation and extensive trail system, may contribute to the strong sense of community felt here in the ’burgh.

But we’re not off the hook completely—Pittsburgh was nowhere to be found on a recent Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index (more commonly known as the list of Happiest U.S. Cities).
 
The Well-Being Index, which evaluates cities based on six key categories (Life Evaluation, Emotional Health, Work Environment, Physical Health, Healthy Behaviors and Access to Basic Necessities), indicates there may still be room for improvement.
 
But as Jane Jacobs, author of Death and Life of Great American Cities, wrote in her 1961 critique of urban planning: “lowly, unpurposeful, and random as they appear, sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life must grow.”
 
Editor's note: We welcome similar experiments from all--male, female, young, old, and different races and ethnicities--to further test this. Report back to us and we'll do a follow up story. Comment below or email us.

Francesca Fenzi just graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a degree in Fine Arts. This is her first article for Pop City.

Photographs copyright Brian Cohen
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