August 18, 2005

A Happy Big Box Wasteland

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Mark Morford speaks for many of us when he rails against the soul-less sameness of strip-mall America.

Do you want to feel like you might as well be in Tucson or Boise or Modesto or Wichita or Muncie and it no longer freakin' matters, because we as a nation have lost all sense of community and place?...

There is the Target. There is the Wal-Mart and there is the Home Depot and the Kmart, the Borders and the Staples and the Sam's Club and the Office Depot and the Costco and the Toys "R" Us and of course the mandatory Container Store so you may buy more enormous plastic tubs in which to dump all your new sweatshop-made crap....

Our crazed sense of entitlement, our nearly rabid desire for easy access to mountains of bargain-basement junk has led to the upsurge of soulless big-box shops which has, in turn, led to a deadly sense of prefabricated, vacuous sameness wherever we go. And here's the kicker: We think it's good. We think it helps, brings jobs, tax money, affordable goods. We call it progress. We call it choice. It is the exact opposite.

Result No. 1: Towns no longer have personality, individuality, heart.

I actually like the Container Store - and Borders, with the upstairs cafe (although I wish the deck looked onto a much better streetscape than the parking lot and Rte. 9) - but he has a point, and the column is worth a read.

It's a corollary of what Paul Krugman was talking about in his outstanding column French Family Values, when he noted that a "French family, without question, has lower disposable income [than an average American family]. This translates into lower personal consumption: a smaller car, a smaller house, less eating out. But there are compensations for this lower level of consumption." French schools are uniformly good, so families don't have to worry about getting kids into a decent district. They also don't worry about "losing health insurance or being driven into bankruptcy by medical bills.

"Perhaps even more important, however, the members of that French family are compensated for their lower income with much more time together. Fully employed French workers average about seven weeks of paid vacation a year. ... To the extent that the French have less income than we do, it's mainly a matter of choice."

How do we define quality of life? Is it how much money we have, how large our house is, how expensive our cars, how many TVs and computers we can buy? Or do things like leisure time, social ties and sense of community matter, too?

How do we definte quality of community? Is it strictly increasing tax revenues, higher property values and an attractive environment for large corporate development? Or do things like sense of place, walkability and appealing streetscapes matter too? I say they do. And I'm not alone.

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