Did you know that Somerville, MA is the 17th most densely populated incorporated region in the United States? I love to drop this little-known fact at parties – it’s often shocking even to people who live in the Boston area. At 17,776 people per square mile, Somerville is more jam-packed with residents than any part of San Francisco, Chicago or Miami, and even neighboring Cambridge (24th on the list).

With this surprising fact in mind, I came to TEDxSomerville looking to see if any ideas would inspire me about the future of shared living. What wisdom did Somerville’s thinkers have to offer a world increasingly struggling to share urban living space and keep cities clean, healthy, prosperous and fairly governed?
Quite a bit, as it turns out:

  • Daniel Hadley from the City Of Somerville / ResiStat presented the result of his city-wide happiness survey, which he claims is the first such survey in America. Among the fascinating findings, he observed that aesthetics and tree-density correlate with happiness.
  • Erza Glenn demoed Interactive Somerville, an experiment in community-based participation in the planned Green Line MBTA expansion. Personally, it looks to me like the interface needs some more polish, but the code is open-source, which means it can be improved easily and could be of value to other cities.
  • In the same vein, Ruth Allen talked about the value of open government in Mongolia and Brazil, and using it to make sure that the most marginalized people have a say in decisions that affect them.
  • Lenni Armstrong wants to turn the pavement in front of fire hydrants into gardens, to let more rainwater percolate into the ground. Clever.
  • Wig Zamore highlighted some interesting research showing the potential impact of hyper-local pollution on people who live or exercise near highways and busy roads. These local pollution levels are not widely measured and are currently unregulated in the US. One preliminary finding of concern (among many) was a 50%-100% increase in childhood asthma in children exposed to this kind of particulate pollution.
  • I found Aatish Salvi’s vision of financial coaching for the poor inspiring. The results and case studies he related were very impressive.
  • A rebroadcast of Graham Hill’s excellent TED talk on the value of minimalism in a tightly packed urban environment really impressed me. This is the future of luxurious living in 420 square feet.
  • Jessie Banhazl and Brendan Shea‘s lessons from growing roof-top gardens seemed relevant and important (though the details of the gardening were, I confess, not interesting to me).

Quite a bit to chew on, but such is the nature of TEDx: a long day of talks with many gems interspersed. Some of my favorite talks didn’t have to do with shared living specifically; I probably enjoyed Sam Sommers discussion of context and Mike Norton‘s experiments on the value of labor most of all. They reminded me of true TED talks: universally appealing and widely applicable, while focusing on a specific enough examples to be defensible. And apparently, these two dudes were college roommates and are now professors in the same field- pretty cute.

If you want to check out more from the event, the #TEDxVille twitter hashtag is jam-packed with the most quotable nuggets. Probably the most retweeted was Mayor Joseph Curtatone’s message to Cambridge: “Our freaks are better than your freaks!”

Editor’s Note: Jon Bittner is the CEO and co-founder of Splitwise, a Cambridge and Providence based start-up tackling issues of shared living, roommates, and financial fairness issues through web and mobile apps.