In 1954 — the year of my birth — my parents moved our family from Chicago to a freshly built home in a newly developing suburb on the city’s outskirts. As with most American suburbs, our neighborhood was created with little regard to the local topography. What had once been an upland, prairie-oak savanna with a few scattered farms and wetlands had overnight become a patchwork of streets and blocks of nearly identical houses. The farms were bulldozed, the wetlands drained – even native plants and trees were dug up and replaced with exotic trees, shrubs and grasses. Thus transformed, developers often gave these instant communities names like King’s Cove or Mayfair, giving them a foreign flavor and wiping out even the local history. My own neighborhood was called Sherwood Forest (minus the forest). As children we often gravitated to the few remaining patches of woods and meadows, finding them more interesting than the carefully manicured ballparks we were supposed to play in, but these too were soon replaced by houses, strip malls, fast-food joints, parking lots and freeway exchanges.
This was the environment I grew up in, where our fathers disappeared in their cars on weekdays to work in the far off city, mowing the grass on the weekends. We rode to school in buses and to church in cars. There was no corner store to walk to – and no sidewalks to walk on. Going anywhere at all (the movies, the skating rink, the public beach or swimming pool) meant negotiating with Mom, the family chauffeur, to take time out of her busy schedule to drive us there. Being newly transplanted urbanites, a few of our neighbors tried valiantly to maintain a sense of community by organizing backyard gatherings, but these became less and less frequent as I got older. Eventually all our neighbors put fences in their backyards to keep the family dog in and the neighborhood children out. By the time I was a teenager, every last vestige of community life – like every last bit of wilderness – was gone, and there wasn’t much left for us to do but hang out at the mall, watch television, escape into a drug-induced stupor, or finally become a licensed driver.
This is the environment that most Americans now live in, where the automobile reins supreme and privacy is paramount. Community life, if it exists at all, is restricted to public schools and libraries (grudgingly funded), parks and the occasional community celebration. Perhaps there are those who are satisfied with this arrangement, but I suspect there are a growing number who, like me, find it distressing and long for something more. Why do so many Americans flock to Europe or older neighborhoods in cities like New Orleans if not to experience something missing in their own daily lives and environments – a place of beauty built to human scale, where one can feel both physically safe and spiritually renewed, where the common good is valued as highly as individual rights, where participation in civic life is the focus of a meaningful life? Our disconnected, car-dependent, suburban lifestyle is relatively new. As James Howard Kunstler noted in his book, The Geography of Nowhere, “eighty percent of everything ever built in America has been built in the last fifty years, and most of it is depressing, brutal, ugly, unhealthy, and spiritually degrading.” This may sound a bit harsh to those who choose to live in the suburbs. After all, weren’t they supposed to embody the American dream, with all the advantages of the city and country but none of the disadvantages? The reality of life in most American suburbs is far different.
Small businesses, “mom and pop” stores, farmer’s markets, public squares, theaters, museums, opera houses – all the spaces that make a place robust and exciting – are conspicuously absent in the suburbs. Even schools are far away, and convenience stores are confined to strip malls alongside highways with acres of parking lots. This is because the suburbs are essentially “bedroom” communities – places where people live but do not work or play. Indeed they were designed to be just that, with schools, shopping centers and office parks located far away, making the family car indispensable. But as anyone who has experienced the regular traffic snarls that are a common feature of the daily commute knows, cars no longer hold the promise of freedom and adventure as they once did. In fact, cars have become a liability, draining the incomes of families, taking more than their share of public expenditures, making life increasingly miserable for everyone. It is time to begin planning for a post-automobile world and to rethink constructing communities around cars. Instead of suburban sprawl, with its monotonous subdivisions, strip malls and highways, we can begin the process of building livable, sustainable communities worth caring about.
The Geography of Nowhere and Home from Nowhere, James Howard Kunstler.
Suburban Nation, Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck.
Thinking Like a Sustainable Community, contact Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance-Sustainable Communities Team: 651-296-34417 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sierra Club: North Star Chapter
Great River Earth Institute
What You Can Do
Spend more time at home. Get to know your place and your neighbors. Learn to live with less: consume less, drive less, shop less. Focus more on the quality of life: take more walks, bike more, use public transportation. Get involved in community life. Working with others creates community, and communities can put pressure on local decisionmakers to be more responsive to community needs. We all long for a sense of permanence, and over time we can redesign our neighborhoods to be more people friendly, less car friendly; where our homes are integrated with our workplaces, our schools, playgrounds, small businesses and plenty of green, open spaces. By doing so we will discover a sense of deep belonging to a very specific part of the world.