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Bull Hill
by David Rothenberg : Editor, Terra Nova

The Selfish Landscape

The American dream is a suburban dream.  There are many kinds of us, but they teach us to want that nice yard that's for our family, no one else´s.  Green and safe, happy and private.  Do you want to change something about this?  Well, remember the American dream has changed into this, the individual family's quest for a house and room to breathe of their own, with as much freedom as possible to decide where to live, where to work, and where to shop.  None of our choices should be confined, and why should they be, as we have so much open space spreading for empty miles into God's country.

We often want what the land cannot sustain.  We would rather have our own identical and fenced-in backyards than cluster our homes together to leave more room for common open space.  If one person is abusing their property, building too much or using too many resources, we want the right to make the same selfish blunders ourselves.  It's a free country goddamnit.  Don't tread on me.

Yet at the same time we expect things to go just right for us.  We don't want to see any smog, we don't want any traffic as we race to get to work on time, and we don't want anything built that ruins our view.  Selfish desires such as these have their good side-perhaps they lead us in the other direction to want to protect what we have and rally together with other people who want the same thing.  Look at these rows of identical houses being plastered across the landscapes nationwide!  Someone out there believes everyone wants the same thing.  We can all have that only to the extent that we want to live in a spread out world of sameness.  Perhaps all is well.  If everyone can afford a big house with all amenities in a neighborhood full of people with similar privileges, what could be wrong with that?

I think deep down many of us feel there is something wrong with the spread of residential and commercial sprawl across the landscape.  It's as if the compartmentalization of our lives is finding concrete form in the way we build our places.  Why do we find old houses charming?  What's so cute about old towns?  Not just that they are different from the mainstream ways of today, but that they manifest a certain necessary essence that our freedom to construct efficient landscapes has removed.

Maybe it's only that things happen so fast today, that in the old days less damage could be done because everything happened so slowly.  I don't think speed is everything here.  We have become people who want things only personally, not for our communities.  We have driven our desires inward and then built places that reflect these inward desires.

There must be something comforting about living in a landscape where your house looks equal to everyone elses, with the promise of shared values so clearly visible.  It's supposed to look fair to all, but I intend to show that this is a landscape quite selfish: it's not fair to the land, and it's not fair to people's need to depend on one another and live together to define a real place in the natural and social world.

If we really wanted to save the commons and not carve it up into everyone's little piece, then how come there aren't more clustered developments surrounded by open space?  Sure, there are some, but often these are surrounded by gates and you still must drive miles from their perimeters to find anything to buy or eat.  The greatest tragedy of that kind of isolation has to be the example of the Heaven's Gate cult all of whose members committed mass suicide, inside a prosperous, safe, gated community.  Their leader's final words, captured on video, were, "we're getting ready to leave this place." 

Of course it's not fair to use extreme examples, but we want to create places that we don't want to leave, but where we want to stay.  Some of us can always run farther from the centers to quieter and wilder places, but that won't help solve the problems where the people are.  Flight from so many cities led to the inner dilapidation of our sense of community, and we no longer buy or work near and among people we live with.  Our settlement pattern has been thinned out into ambiguity.

This is where the regional planning process becomes an issue of values and philosophy.  As much as we talk about new forms of public transport, new ways of building housing so that it is closer to where we buy and where we work, new ways of living where we might walk or bike from home to the places we need to be, we must realize that we live in a nation where only 2 percent of the trips made are made by public transportation.  In Europe, in areas of similar or higher economic stature, up to 40 percent of travel is by train or bus.  It's a whole different world, and different choices have been made along the way.  You might say it is because those "old country" towns are so old, they came into being before grid-based planning and before the car made the grid an idea that could be easily realized without regard for the real texture of the terrain.  But it's more complicated: people, and the state, made choices.  People wanted to interact with others in their neighborhoods each day, on the way to work, shopping, and traveling.  There are cities, there is the countryside, and there are villages.  There is no sprawl without the car.  There is no sprawl with the individual holding supreme rule over the community.  There is no end to the potential of sprawl, save the desensitizing of people to their homes.  When all is anonymous and accidental, not necessary, we will cease to have anything to care for in our towns and let them all go to seed.  We have the choice to participate, to put up with what we've got or to change it.  We'll get as selfish or as cooperative a place as we deserve.


David Rothenberg's latest book, Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution, was published by Bloomsbury in 2011. His latest CDs are Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast and You Can't Get There From Here. His next book, Bug Music, will appear in 2013. Catch up with him at www.DavidRothenberg.net.
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