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Skeletons in the Closet of the Suburban Frontier, by Kris Price
 

For the past five decades Americans have turned to the suburb to fulfill the dream of home ownership and a quiet, safe place to raise family. Yet inherent in the romanticized suburban frontier is a disconnect between the meaning suburbia holds in our collective unconscious and the reality it delivers. Suburbia comes without some basic ingredients for human dignity and purpose found in the true community of a people in relationship to their place. Intimate knowledge and stewardship of the unique local landscape is traded for the daily flight out of the suburb. Civic traditions and collective responsibility for continuity of values are traded for a sterile side-by-side existence. America's suburbs showcase a preoccupation with individual gratification above an awareness of community consequence.  From Anasazi cliff dwellings to Italian hill towns to Chinese river villages, community forms express the human relationship to the land and to each other. Sadly, our monument to relationships is the wasteland of parking lots. Ironically, suburbia manifests a desire for relationship with the land, but one gone awry.

American suburbia is in a class by itself.  The abundance of land in America, coupled with peculiarly American values and the advent of technology in the form of the automobile, have shaped the low-density, car-dependent suburb as we know it. Suburbs are an industrial creation, a means for America's industrial upper class to get away from the noise and filth of the city. By locating in forested enclaves outside the city, the business elite could retain a relationship to the land not otherwise attainable without farming for a living. The shift from factory to corporation occasioned a shift from the imposing owner's estate, dominating the industrial property as overseer, to executives who dealt increasingly with information management rather than with people and so could be absentee after business hours. The phenomenal growth of free highways, mass-produced cars and cheap fuel brought suburban living and land ownership easily within reach of middle Americans. Since it represented a step up from meager inner-city dwelling and home of the toiling masses, suburban living took on standing as a status symbol.

The suburban frontier in America is an experiment in private property.The suburban frontier in America is an experiment in private property. Coming from European countries dominated by aristocratic landlords, American settlers coveted their own property, with the productivity accruing to them and no one else. Land ownership conveys the opportunity to unleash one's creativity on the land, whether through farming, ranching, keeping horses, landscaping, or simply owning and thereby vicariously possessing the qualities of a wild, beautiful landscape. Effectively, land ownership by the masses enabled differentiation, or the multitude of individual beliefs, abilities, and opinions which forms the foundation of our democracy. Just as they are entitled to private property, Americans are entitled to other choices.

How then has the egalitarian concept behind suburbia exploded suddenly in today's impassioned sprawl debates? Relatively well-educated, well-off, fast-paced Americans have become alarmed about the creeping inconvenience of sprawl. Paradoxically, Americans can meet such diverse challenges as living within the limits of their own pocketbooks and strategically guiding companies to multimillion dollar revenues, both of which entail knowledge of limits, constraints and capacities. Yet Americans are ignorant of the constraints of place. "Place" is not just a lawn. It is a bioregion composed of watersheds and ecosystems and places both suitable and unsuitable for human development. Like any system, place has limits and we have the responsibility to understand and work with them. 

Place is also a regional process, affected as much by the accumulation of our individual actions on the land as by the forces of nature.  Our language, and therefore our understanding, affords many ways of describing the landscape of wilderness or of a rural setting. But when it comes to describing the gestalt of a community upon the land, our language fails us, there are too many reductions, we grasp the pieces but not the whole. We have no over-arching goals for the community's relationship to the land, except as a commodity to be used piecemeal.

The carrying capacity of our landscape cannot meet the demands we have for it to provide everyone a gentrified 'rural' setting. It should come as no surprise that the increase of a community's population in a market which offers one- to two-acre lots for the single family home, 1.2  cars per person and roads connecting everyone to everything,  spread out over many suburbs, will produce sprawl. How could it be any other way? Ironically, many of those suburbanites will raise two kids and wish for each of them a nice home and lawn when they grow up, in spite of the worrisome effects of suburban sprawl their parents experience. With Americans' concern with immediate gratification so pervasive, has anyone given thought to what the countryside will look like fifty years down the road, when the US population will have grown by 122 million, nearly half again the current population? Suburbia was not built with the future in mind - it is immediate gratification writ large upon the land. Suburban development is design without a sense of consequence.

As language shapes our thoughts, so the pursuit of individual happiness in suburban development outside of cities has had its own shaping influence on our cities. Namely, it has embedded the urban in our world-view as undesirable. We have poured more money and talent into auto design than into planning civic spaces. In fact, human scale has been left out of urban design altogether: we have designed our communities for the convenience of cars. As our highway system begins to take on a life of its own, we realize that the original reason for community, the development of culture, has been abandoned. Cities have historically been laboratories for ideas and vital to the rise of democracy, yet the American attitude has disdained the city and idealized the rural. Of course, a lawn that abuts the neighbor's house is a far cry from a rural homestead of one's own, but the idea satisfies us more than the reality. For us the suburban frontier still plays to the tune of personal success at the expense of community success.

Struggling with sprawl, increasingly outrageous commutes and the tedium of pavement and stoplights on a daily basis, we may not realize how community, the relationship of people in a place, has evolved over time. One of the oldest communities in America can be experienced at the Anasazi ruins scattered across the canyon country of southeast Utah. In these communities the human element is a minute center of order and activity in a vast, timeless landscape. Time, embodied in nature, was the dominant force. Change occurred so slowly it seemed hardly to occur at all. The human presence endeavored to accommodate itself to the landscape by an  acknowledgement of interdependency.

Our 21st Century society has cmoe far from that mode.Our 21st Century society has come far from that mode. One of the most realistic visualizations of a future community can be found in a 3-D movie at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Produced by NASA, the movie presents the first orbiting colony being planned. This community will be housed in a satellite made of two circular tubes whose opposite rotation creates gravity. Here again is the human element seemingly minute against a spacious backdrop. This time, however, accommodation is not the order of the day. The human stubbornly, perhaps desperately and despite the environment, carves out a niche created entirely by technology. Depictions of the community reveal little about how residents will relate to each other. One fact is evident--there are no cars. Does this mean that connectivity, rather than separateness, is emphasized?

In contrast to the American obsession for separateness, many cultures exhibit another basic human longing--the need for social bonding. In some cultures community represents the sacred thing larger than oneself, and accessibility to fellow community members is unconsciously paramount. Perhaps Americans cannot be blamed for landing on a wild, untamed continent requiring stubborn self-reliance. The single-family lawn is a vestigial celebration of this challenge met. While the suburban population continues to grow, this celebration of individuality has not added up to community success. Instead, our abundance of land has bred a poverty of community. The price is high, and we pay in multiple ways, from lost time with family to alienated youth. We haven't yet made the connection between suburban sprawl and kids who bring guns to school, but in time we will. The automobile is a terrible surrogate for community.

Suburbia is a modern day example of complexity theory. The theory describes how small differences compounded over time, add up to big effects. Sprawl occurs incrementally, quietly, bit by bit here and there, until it all begins to connect into one drawn-out congested effect that we find increasingly undesirable. Clearly we need to plan for the larger effect that we would like to have. We need to pay more attention to relationships. The problem has been that we make a sharp distinction between public and private life, with little emphasis on the connections that sustain both.

I am reminded of old women in Venice, Italy, who early every morning sweep the street and steps leading up to the church doors. No one asked them to do this, but their action is essential to the community fabric.  An important aspect of true community is a sense of that which is neither yours nor mine but ours, and that we are invested in using and caring for. Currently we only confer that status on national and state parks, which in our minds must exist outside the community. The fact is, this sensibility for collective stewardship can only occur in human scale environments such as pathways, promenades, riverwalks, beaches--highways do not elecit feelings of guardianship.  The rapid development of American cities during the heyday of the automobile virtually assured the absence of human scale environments. And so we have carefully designed a system of private property connected by through-fares for cars. Suddenly, sprawl is erecting an inescapable mirror reflecting the effects of valuing individual rights to the exclusion of community interests.

If perceived correctly, the sprawl debate offers the opportunity to improve the functioning of our communities.If perceived correctly, the sprawl debate offers the opportunity to improve the functioning of our communities. This could occur through the design of communities for connectivity of people rather than for the convenience of cars. Our technological prowess could allow us to build gorgeous compact architectures of community, integrated complimentary systems of public, private and the local environment. People need proximity to choices, not mobility. Community design as an art form would optimize both planned and spontaneous opportunities for work, leisure, and learning in human scale environments. Planning for this effect could be called community ecology, properly a study of interactions between individuals, community and place.

By infusing the sprawl debate with a discussion of community ecology we avoid 'fixing' sprawl with solutions like road-widening schemes that only get at the symptoms. Addressing the relationships at issue allows us to seize the opportunity for cultural development. Design based on the integration of technology with nature's services, such as the value of trees for filtering the air and controlling climate, would represent a fruitful application of science to the needs of community. The sacred notion of private property must be balanced by the inclusion of design in all those aspects that connect the private property of a community. For example, mandating well-planned tree plantings to mitigate the urban heat island effect, shade buildings and provide an abundance of comfort, variety and beauty for pedestrians accomplishes multiple community interests. A few trees planted here and there will not do. Rather, community forest management is needed. Clear-cutting and leveling a piece of property upon which to impose a suburban development would be considered an inefficient waste of natural services and amenities. A set of rules should be instituted to respect and utilize the uniqueness of place and optimize human scale. Such system design may require abandoning planning for the car altogether to allow for campus-like civic spaces in certain neighborhoods or downtowns. With the goal of integration between the human and natural, design should build upon and enhance the natural setting.

Smart growth strategies which aim for more sidewalks and mixed-uses may not be enough of a response to sprawl. For a community to be truly walkable for the variety of destinations any one person might have in a day requires a rich diversity of uses in a very compact zone. Simply putting homes closer together, with plenty of sidewalks and a commercial center nearby doesn't adequately address the problem. It takes just as much effort and time to load a young family of four into the car to drive three blocks as it does to drive ten miles. The working parent who has to be at work by a certain time is not likely to walk his or her child to daycare unless it is less than two blocks from home. And if that working parent also needs to care for an older parent in between picking up the child and putting together a quick late supper, there will be more driving unless that second stop is also within a block of home. Cars take up so much space for both driving and parking that when we get rid of them altogether, we end up with a whole lot more space for rich, walkable, human scale environments.

By infusing the sprawl debate with a discussion of community ecology we avoid 'fixing' sprawl with solutions like road-widening schemes that only get at the symptoms. Addressing the relationships at issue allows us to seize the opportunity for cultural development. Design based on the integration of technology with nature's services, such as the value of trees for filtering the air and controlling climate, would represent a fruitful application of science to the needs of community. The sacred notion of private property must be balanced by the inclusion of design in all those aspects that connect the private property of a community. For example, mandating well-planned tree plantings to mitigate the urban heat island effect, shade buildings and provide an abundance of comfort, variety and beauty for pedestrians accomplishes multiple community interests. A few trees planted here and there will not do. Rather, community forest management is needed. Clear-cutting and leveling a piece of property upon which to impose a suburban development would be considered an inefficient waste of natural services and amenities. A set of rules should be instituted to respect and utilize the uniqueness of place and optimize human scale. Such system design may require abandoning planning for the car altogether to allow for campus-like civic spaces in certain neighborhoods or downtowns. With the goal of integration between the human and natural, design should build upon and enhance the natural setting.

Smart growth strategies which aim for more sidewalks and mixed-uses may not be enough of a response to sprawl. For a community to be truly walkable for the variety of destinations any one person might have in a day requires a rich diversity of uses in a very compact zone. Simply putting homes closer together, with plenty of sidewalks and a commercial center nearby doesn't adequately address the problem. It takes just as much effort and time to load a young family of four into the car to drive three blocks as it does to drive ten miles. The working parent who has to be at work by a certain time is not likely to walk his or her child to daycare unless it is less than two blocks from home. And if that working parent also needs to care for an older parent in between picking up the child and putting together a quick late supper, there will be more driving unless that second stop is also within a block of home. Cars take up so much space for both driving and parking that when we get rid of them altogether, we end up with a whole lot more space for rich, walkable, human scale environments.

The second reason for community ecology as an antidote to suburban sprawl is less obvious than those benefits reaped by engineering science, only because it hasn't been studied and discussed as much. The lack of community ecology applied to suburban development hinders the evolution and productivity of our society. Crime and delinquency are only the most extreme results of a suburban culture in which the human is alienated form nature and from itself. It really does take a whole village to raise a child - neither the car nor the TV will do. A community is not merely an agglomeration of houses. A community is something larger than the sum of its parts. It has continuity, a relationship with the past and a concern for the future. It has pride in its uniqueness, including support for those products and services which uniquely come from its particular landscape and culture. And it cherishes its children. Our communities are designed to get ahead, both in the car and in the economy. What if we designed for kids? We would plan for homes surrounding the community activity, including parks and playspaces for kids, with cars relegated to the outside. The focal point would be the public spaces, safely accessed by little people on foot and within view of many loving watchful eyes. Pedestrian access would also make it easy for youth and teens to get to the daytime activities of part-time jobs, apprenticeships, internships and mentors. As it is, with everyone under sixteen needing a driver, young people sit isolated at home during the awkward years between day care and college. This kind of planned ecology in which everyone has plenty of direct access to age-appropriate options would surely deepen individual learning and character and subsequently enhance our collective democracy. In the past when America was more rural, the car was our ticket to freedom, our way into town or across town. Today the car is our jailor, keeping us from time with family and chance meetings with friends and keeping us off the streets as pedestrians.

The third imperative for community ecology comes from the surprising direction of outer space. The suburban frontier must not be transported to the space frontier. Yet already individual living pods are being designed for individuals residing on the moon for mining or scientific purposes. The stark image of the moon littered with residential pods conjures up images of trash on Mt. Everest left by countless trekking groups who couldn't be bothered after their ordeal to clean up the frozen landscape. Yet spent oxygen tanks on Earth are much easier to retrieve by later, greener parties, than are residential pods on the moon. Based on what has been accomplished on the moon so far, it wouldn't be difficult to design a living community complete with civic pods for community purposes. Individual pods could be erected as needed according to the design, with the civic spaces to be filled in later. As both this example and our current car-dominated suburbs show, the effects of technology upon community should be a primary concern of community ecology.

Accordingly, there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon.  Internet technology continues to stitch us together into an electronic fabric. Fortunately perhaps, Internet success and all the services it will bring, unimagined as yet, depend on connectivity. Smart communities based on connectivity may be able to replace traditional communities based on mobility. Such an evolution, if we took it, could provide us with a window of opportunity to build communities supporting, rather than frustrating, human connectivity.

  

Kris Price is an ecologist and writer. Her particular interest is the study of  how our communities influence our relationship to the land, each other and the values that we pass on to the next generation.
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