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    Geography of Nowhere: Picking on Suburbia?

    December 15, 2008 by Brandy Vencel

    A wonderfully logical, basic question {or comment which infers a question} came up in the comments yesterday:

    I never have understood why the target is suburbia.

    My reply at the time was that my guess was that Kunstler didn’t consider suburbia a place because he has a fairly strict definition of the word. During my reading last night I found the answer:

    [C]onsider…why the automobile suburb is such a terrible pattern for human ecology. In almost all communities designed since 1950, it is a practical impossibility to go about the ordinary business of living without a car. This at once disables chidren under the legal driving age, some elderly people, and those who cannot afford the several thousand dollars a year that it costs to keep a car, including monthly payments, insurance, gas, and repairs.

    I have occasionally run across people who cannot drive due to various factors, such as epilespy, and I do see how they are at a disadvantage in an automobile-driven society. Kunstler goes into a lot of detail at this point in the book, discussing how the width of streets in residential areas encourages driving speeds that aren’t safe for pedestrians, mostly small children who are endangered by the presence of the streets in their neighborhood.

    However, Kunstler’s book is a bit outdated. My own “suburb” {technically it isn’t a suburb because it isn’t a separate city that exists purely for commuters, but only a part of a larger city that is reserved for mostly residences} has done some things to combat the disadvantages that Kunstler was decrying back in the early 90s. For instance, parking is allowed on the street {this slows down traffic near the houses}. There is landscaping along the streets, including trees that, in a few years, will offer shade for pedestrians. Small marketplaces were planned into the area so that there is a place to run if you need a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread. Apparently, earlier suburbs didn’t consider such things.

    However, Kunstler still wants a “place” to contain more than my own zip code contains. His ideas are good ones, I think, at least in an idealistic sort of way. He writes a bit about a “sense of place”:

    …the idea that people and things exist in some sort of continuity, that we belong to the world physically and chronologically, and that we know where we are.

    The extreme separation and dispersion of components that use to add up to a compact town, where everything was within a ten-minute walk, has left us with a public realm that is composed mainly of roads. And the only way to be in that public realm is to be in a car, often alone. The present arrangement has certainly done away with sacred places, places of casual public assembly, and places of repose.

    I have spoken with many people who feel like there are separate lives within their own life: there is the work life, the running-errands life, the home life, the church life. Part of the reason for this, I think, is due to the literal, geographic separation between “lives.” I won’t likely run into someone from the neighborhood while visiting my husband at work because his work is thirty minutes from our house. And there is a chance that my neighbors, even if they are Christians, won’t attend the church I attend because churches are no longer tied to geography. With the advent of the car, Christians were able to choose their favorite flavor of church without regard for its proximity to home. Not only is our community fragmented by such a lifestyle, but our internal self begins to show some splits, as evidenced by the talk of the different “lives” I mentioned before.

    Of course, one thing we might need to bring up at this point is that humans aren’t always engaged in dignifying work. We certainly insist that prison guards commute to somewhere far from here, and none of us want the local factory to locate itself across the street just so we can all feel like our lives are one unified whole.

    This is probably a good time to bring up an example of the ideal, worked out by thoughtful folks living in our own time. This is a project Si and I have kept our eyes on for a couple years now. The place is called Simpler Times Village. Their website explains:

    Simpler Times Village is unique because residents will be able to live, work and enjoy agriculture all in one place. You can open a bed and breakfast, own a simple vacation cabin or build a fine estate. You can have gardens and chickens in your backyard. You may hang up a pretty sign to say that you sell pottery from your home! There will be plenty of open space for recreation, pasture, gardens and orchards. There will be more than 50 acres of forest to explore. Walking paths will connect everything. And home will be at the center of it all.

    This is a true place within Kunstler’s definition, for it contains all the aspects of life, public areas, private areas, and ability to intersect work and home, walking distance to everything, safe for pedestrians, room for little ones to safely roam, places to relax with others, and so on. The town places an emphasis on beauty, reminding me of times when folks understood the ability of external factors like music and art to uplift the soul.

    The Broken Window Theory of crime, by the way, would express the exact opposite, that the indignity of an environment is a magnet for all sorts of seedy activities, that ugliness not only reflects back to society a level of uncaring, but actually encourages a spiral into darkness.

    But I digress.

    My real point was made in the beginning, which is to say that Kunstler picks on suburbia because he doesn’t consider it a place.

    I, on the other hand, am undecided. I certainly prefer where I live to living inside a city. I would probably prefer even more to live in the country since I value intangibles like room to roam, connection to the land, being able to see the stars at night, and so on. But I certainly think it is going too far to say that God doesn’t have room in His great world for both the City Mouse as well as the Country Mouse, and also this new-fangled thing we call the Suburban Mouse.

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    1 Comment

  • Reply Kansas Mom December 16, 2008 at 6:09 am

    Newly moved to the Country (from an admittedly small City, but not too many years ago from The City), I have a few things to say. I very much miss being able to run down the block for a gallon of milk. The stars are indeed incredible. And may I please be a Country Owl instead? I’m not on friendly terms with Those Particular Animals.

    Your post deserves some more thoughtful comments, but I’ll leave that to others as I should really be in bed. (First I’m going to have a piece of pie.)

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