Wow. It’s been forever since I updated. I’ve been extremely caught up in my new non-profit job, which is essentially what I want to do for the rest of my life. To everyone who ever said non-profits weren’t worth it because they didn’t pay enough: you were wrong; they may not pay enough in cash, but they more than make up for it through experience and fulfillment.
Now, on to the title.
As we speak I’m watching a documentary on the Documentary Channel called “Subdivide and Conquer” and it’s all about urban and suburban sprawl. It’s a bit dated (it’s from 1999) but still is an important take on American culture. It all began, like much of what is wrong with our culture, with the military-industrial complex that developed in America following World War II.
Returning veterans needed a place to live, so a construction company called Levitt & Sons built the first mass-produced suburb of NYC starting in 1947, which they called Levittown (the Levitt family later created the extremely popular ranch house). The formula of near-identical single family homes on the outskirts of a major city proved popular and spread across the U.S. For returning veterans and their new families, the house with a “white picket fence” evolved as part of the American Dream.
A dream that centered around cars.
The American obsession with the personal automobile is perhaps the single biggest culprit in the disintegration of community. The car and the infrastructure created for it – suburbs, the interstate highway system, and strip malls – have homogenized America’s communities and destroyed cultural diversity (not to mention the environment and the public health).
Current zoning laws in most communities restrict or prohibit mixed-used development; that is to say, development where commercial mixes with residential and apartments mix with single-family homes. And increasingly, subdivisions and housing developments are grouped by cost, the less-expensive houses in one area, the more expensive in another, segregating communities by socio-economic status. But zoning laws did not come out of nothing; they were a reaction to dirty industry and meant to protect people from pollution. Ironically, the rise of the suburb and the skyrocketing number of cars on the road and commuter hours spent getting from place to place have brought the pollution to the people.
Suburbs have always been created by expanding populations. Paris, France, is an excellent example of this: within the city are rings of fortified walls created to protect its inhabitants from attack. But soon, the population spilled outside the first ring of walls, and eventually another ring was built, and another, and another, and so on as Medieval Paris expanded. This same formula was repeated over the centuries. But those suburbs were built as communities in and of themselves, with mixed-use neighborhoods that mimicked the city as a whole. You didn’t have to drive across town to do your shopping because your local grocer was just down the block.
You do today. That’s because American suburbs are not communities, they are housing developments, sometimes charmingly referred to as “bedroom communities” because the inhabitants only return there to sleep, as they work, shop, and play in the neighboring city. American suburbs feature what I like to call “cookie-cutter” houses; in the more affluent developments, they are McMansions. That is, houses built from relatively the same floor plan, with only a few varying shades of beige, blue, and white, and featuring the garage prominently in the front of the house. They have little or no backyard, often no sidewalks, and have winding, meandering roads meant to deter speeding, but which actually cause confusion and more traffic because there are only a few ways to get out. The backyards and front yards are small, often without trees (the either didn’t exist in the agricultural land the houses were built on or were razed during construction). Asphalt and roofs are the primary ingredients in suburbia.
But why would people live like that? For some, moving to the outskirts of town was a way to feel like they were living in the country while still having all the amenities of big city life. What most don’t realize is that if you don’t own the open spaces you live next to, you can’t guarantee that it, too, won’t be developed. For others, McMansions offer a visual display of wealth and status (similarly to SUVs). In reality, the exchange is often time, money, social life, and health.
Commuting takes time. A lot of time. So does running errands when everything is miles from where you live and accessible only by highway. Gasoline costs money, as do cars, as do the houses in the suburbs themselves. Suburbia is also a lonely place. In a development where everyone comes home from work or school by driving into the garage and closing the door before they even get out of the car, it’s rare to even see one’s neighbors, much less get to know them. Without sidewalks or community spaces like parks or cafes, you’re unlikely to see a single soul outside of their car. And then there’s the health issue. All that driving not only costs time and money, it means less exercise and more pollution.
I won’t even get in to the aesthetic atrocities of suburbs. Who said living in a nice place had to mean ugly?
There are other factors to consider. As new developments and suburbs are built, older communities and downtown areas are abandoned to urban decay. Without taxes of middle class and affluent families, without children for schools, without business for stores, the city center shuts down. Historic buildings start to fall apart, crime rates go up, public institutions like libraries go underfunded. A city goes into cardiac arrest as its vibrant, unique heart starts to fail. Meanwhile, the homogenized suburbs don’t even notice. In cases like these, the suburbs really are a donut, all the economic activity is relegated to an outside ring, leaving a gaping hole in the middle.
So what’s to be done? Smart growth, for one thing. Building up, not out. Green spaces, sidewalks, mixed-use development, good public transportation. In other words, building communities, not developments. Places where the streets are full of people walking, strolling, or biking to work, school, the library, the corner grocery store, or a local cafe. Rennovating abandoned historic buildings for new uses, preserving others. Constructing new buildings that are well-designed, instead of cheap and quick.
That’s my dream place to live: where a good grocery store is just down the street, where there’s a farmer’s market in the city center every weekend, where libraries and museums are shoulder-to-shoulder with apartment buildings and office space and restaurants, where single-family neighborhoods are small and close-by and have trees and sidewalks and logical street layouts and houses that are different sizes and shapes and colors. Where parks and pedestrian-only zones and terraces create public spaces that are green and inviting. Where the grocery stores and restaurants and boutiques are locally-owned. Where people care more about their neighborhood than how much money they make, where people talk to their neighbors, where they have a local hangout, where they get involved in local government. A place where people care about not only the quality of their own lives, but of everyone in the city.
Of course, this dream city isn’t perfect. There’s still crime and poverty and lines between social classes. But the crime is less serious and less frequent, the poverty less abject, and the lines are a lot blurrier than they used to be.
We need to change the way we work and live. A pretty big task for anyone. So what’s to be done? Find out where your city Planning and Development Office is; go and visit. Talk to your city commissioners, lobby to change zoning laws to limit and penalize urban sprawl and encourage community revitalization downtown. Run for public office. Join the local Historic Preservation non-profit. Don’t have one? Start one (by visiting the National Trust for Historic Preservation). Communities are about people. They’re a lesson in civic duty and passion and compassion. Get involved. After all, it is your community.
I know I will.