Saturday, June 04, 2005

The Way We Live Now

On my way to Europe I read Kunstler's Geography of Nowhere, which I recommend. He's mostly preaching to the choir with me, but he emphasizes a lot of issues which often get lost in the discussions of suburban vs. urban, etc.

It will always puzzle me how much of our country chooses to organize their existence, that a certain kind of suburban living has been elevated to the ideal existence. Discussions of this often end up devolving into a strawman dichotomy of "suburbia" versus "Manhattan." This is due to a number of factors, including the fact that other options for existence have been reduced and we frequently lack a common language to discuss these things in terms which people can collectively understand.

As longtime readers probably know I'm a suburbia hater. Discussions of this stuff often get pretty heated because people find what they perceive of as criticisms of how they've chosen to live their lives. But, such discussions shouldn't be taken that way - the issue isn't how people choose to live their lives, it's about what has determined the range of choices/prices that most people have access to.

I'm also not one who thinks that suburban primacy and automobile supremacy are ever going to go away (unless perhaps if Kunstler's more apocalyptic predictions come to pass). People like suburbs. They like cars. They like big box retail and large parking lots. I don't question any of this.

But, people also like other things. People like some imagined ideal of the "small town." As Kunstler points out, people spend massive amounts of money on vacations to "small towns" - Main Street, USA, Woodstock, etc... Some of these, like Disney's, are total fakes. Some are actual small towns which have been turned into tourist meccas. And, increasingly the fake "urban downtowns" (Disney Downtown, Irvine Spectrum, etc...) have been added to the fake or fakey small towns which are popular destinations. These fake urban downtowns lack one thing that would make them almost real, any actual inhabitants, and exist in the middle of acres of parking lots (large enough to require shuttle buses).

What puzzles me is the fact that there are relatively minor changes to how we construct our suburbs which would both allow some people (not everyone probably) to reduce their degree of auto dependency while simultaneously adding a bit of nearby "small townness" for the rest of the nearby residents. One can transform an absolutely tiny piece of land into something more resembling a town - build a few blocks of mixed residential/commercial development with street level shops - without fundamentally transforming the way most people live. (As an aside, the entirety of what's considered the downtown area of Providence, RI would fit within the footprint of a local suburban mall and its parking lot). Many of the early suburbs already have this (and many such earlier suburbs tend to be incredibly pricey, and not just because of their proximity to the urban core) pattern of development, but it's rarely replicated these days.

Anyway, I could bore people with this stuff for days so I'll let this post end...

Geography Of Nowhere: The Rise And Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape
Geography Of Nowhere: The Rise And Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape