October 13, 2008

Sprawl and quality of life

When post-World War II suburbs were designed, the idea was to improve quality of life -- give people more space to breathe at affordable prices, compared to cities (viewed as too congested and noisy), while still giving them reasonably easy access to things like shopping.

But half a century later, we discovering that suburban sprawl isn't all it was cracked up to be. Post-1970s development took the original idea and expanded on it, giving people so much "room" that development patterns often made it difficult to do anything without a car or even walk around the neighborhood and get to know your neighbors.

When there's no care given to shared public space, when what greets the streetscape is a huge garage door and not a home's windows and entryways, when front yards are never for living or being in but 100% of activity occurs in private spaces where no neighbor-to-neighbor interaction is possible, well, your sense of community changes. And when you can't do anything -- anything -- without getting in your car, when your kids can't even go visit a friend without being chauffered, well, even those who love automobiles can start growing weary of how many hours they need to spend in their vehicles.

Add an increase in traffic jams and ever longer commutes, and older patterns of development start looking more appealing. Imagine being able to walk to the store to pick up a few things for dinner on a nice early autumn afternoon. I grew up going out for milk and bread for my mom, and she still often walks to the grocery store, hair salon, or to pick up a morning paper.

It immeasurably adds to your community to have lots of your neighbors out and about. I saw it on primary day, when I walked to my polling place and ran into several neighbors who were doing the same; we stopped and chatted about this and that. Those are the kinds of interactions that help stitch together a community, that don't happen unless people are out in shared public space. But we can't be out and about that way unless such space exists; and we can't and won't be out walking unless there's an appealing streetscape to draw us out. Useful destinations we not only can walk to but want to because of an attractive pedestrian environment truly add to our quality of life.


  1. There is a big difference between close-in suburbs and far-flung exurbs. Natick, Lexington, and Concord could be considered suburbs of Boston, e.g. They have real downtowns, and large parts of the towns are walkable. Natick even has a train line through it. It wouldn't be hard to tweak their zoning to encourage even more density near the downtowns, until they evolve into nice little cities.

    The suburbs beyond 495, in contrast, are pretty hopeless in a world of high-priced gasoline. Within 10 years, I expect to see large companies involved in the Unbuilding industry, making money salvaging and tearing down nearly empty exurbs in an environmentally friendly way according to new laws to be written for this new industry.

  2. My grandparents, who lived through the Depression and WWII, and slowly climbed the ladder of our society as first-generation Americans, did not have all of the material comforts of today, but they had something arguably more important: community. They lived basically their entire lives within a 2-3 mile radius from where they were born. I grew up in that same city, Quincy, walking or taking mass transit everywhere. You knew a lot of the people in your neighborhood, and encountered them often in streets or in front of their houses. My grandmother used to complain that sending my grandfather to the corner store for bread was a half-day affair because he stopped and talked to so many people!

    Today, when I tell my daughter these stories as I shuttle her around Metrowest in my car, I might as well be talking about the Civil War rather than a few decades ago. It is so removed from her everyday experience. Thankfully in our weekend and vacation travels I have been able to show her alternative environments, in Boston/Cambridge, Europe, and small New England towns, so she understands that there ARE other ways to live. I suspect a lot of people in her generation will be living that way as the great American suburban experiment fades.

  3. When we first moved to Framingham I wondered about how the Nobscot Countryfare market survived. I found myself using it more and more to pick up a few ingredients for dinner each afternoon while taking the baby out for a walk. Once it was gone I had no option but to get in the car--and make sure my once a week grocery list was complete with 7 days worth of meals.
    Thank goodness for the local farms and farmer's markets!

    - Krista

  4. Hello,
    I am writing from L.A., the U.S. capital of urban sprawl. I am just visiting the city as a foreigner because I am from Amsterdam, the EU capital of compact city development. The city of L.A., like many other American ones, relies on cars as the mass transport system. As a bike addicted, I decided to bike all around L.A. in order to grasp real noises and nuances of this massive agglomeration. What I found captivating is the sharp division of the metropolitan area in suburbs. While biking along some boulevards of the city (Venice and Santa Monica as examples), I crossed two big signs apposed by the city council. The municipality of L.A. is trying to persuade its population to commute by public transports instead of by car....

    Sprawl and urban quality, the title of this post is the receipt formula that an immense city like L.A. should take into account. What sounds smart and appropriate is to start to think about the future from the small scale. And a city like L.A. is the best place from which to start with such a practice...
    The argument that I grew is that the sharp division of L.A. suburbia in neighborhoods could be an advantage when it comes to think about a change...
    On a suburban scale, the use of alternative means of transport could be promoted and implemented from people with people, for the people...

    In practice: if I have to go to work miles away from my house, the idea to directly switch to the public transport system is a bit distant from my needs. I mean, when you use the car the whole life, who is gonna convince you to change your habit? A massive sign? ...
    It came to my mind that the first step for a change should be done on a neighborhood way. I mean, why don't organize small events with the goal to teach people which are the possibilities and the advantages of using alternative meas of transports. Why don't promote the use of the bike just on Sunday, just in some areas...just to try... I know that the "door to door" policy are a bit difficult to achieve in a city like L.A., but an immense cold public campaign doesnt really open the eyes of everybody....

    I know that this is only the point of view of a foreigner without any idea about what is really this city doing, but it's just an idea, and that's just a blog...
    Thank u

  5. Thanks for commenting, Francesca! I've never been to Amsterdam, although I've heard from friends what a lovely city it is. And I've been to other European cities where it is both easy and expected to get around by mass transportation.

    Size of the city doesn't mean we can't have effective public transit. In the U.S., the only city where more than half of people take mass transit to work is New York. Reasonable development patterns help, so does a commitment to public transportation and an expectation that people rely on it, not that it's some optional frill.

  6. My wife lived in Amsterdam for three years, long before we met, and counts it among one of her best life experiences. The entire time she lived in Europe she never drove a car. Imagine! Not driving a car for YEARS. And better yet, not NEEDING to drive a car for years. I feel lucky when I go a couple of DAYS without getting behind the wheel.

    Getting around Amsterdam was accomplished by walking, cycling, or, for really long distances or when you were in a hurry, by streetcar. The extensive canal system was another potential transit mode, and many people lived on boats as well. If I lived there I'd probably try to kayak to work. One of her good friends, a Brit, bought a sailboat in Sweden, sailed it down to Amsterdam, and then lived on it for years. Try living in your car for a few years!