I’ll be the first to admit that in a lot of what I write I come off as a sanctimonious prick. When I write about lifestyle issues like public transportation, population density, urban sprawl, and city versus suburbs I say some things that a lot of people don’t want to hear. I don’t write to offend people—at least not on any sort of personal level. I write about these issues for a number of reasons.
First of all I feel that there is almost no criticism in our society for the suburban city model that has been adopted almost exclusively across the entire country. I write about these issues because I don’t see anyone else addressing the concerns of urban planning. From what I see of suburban America, planning has been entirely ceded to the big franchise businesses that span the continent and have turned our country into one large, homogenous strip mall. We are supposed to find this homogeneity comforting but for me it has the exact opposite effect. I find the sameness of suburbia extremely disorienting. I have a hard time finding my bearings and I can’t tell if I’m in Seattle or Miami when I am standing in a strip mall.
I write about these lifestyle issues because I think they are the most important issues we face as humans. Love, and hope, and sex, and dreams are all surviving on the street as the song goes, but we often don’t have a lot of control over those variables. We can control how we build our cities. Where and how we live is one of the single biggest influences on our pursuit of happiness or whatever you want to call it.
When I write about my simple urban style of living, a lifestyle barely influenced by the automobile, a model based on population density where walking is actually easier than driving a car, I do it not because I am trying to be smug or superior, I do it because I think that many Americans don’t even know that this sort of living arrangement is possible. This lifestyle certainly isn’t for everyone but it could be a better way to live for a lot more Americans if they only considered it. It is important to me as a writer to get people to consider city living with all of its advantages.
City planning is much too important an issue simply to be left up to those who are only interested in how to best facilitate commerce. There are many other factors in deciding optimal living quarters than square footage. I think that a lot of people would make the sacrifice of living in a small apartment if they realized that they are in close proximity to scores of shared public spaces. A lot of people would reconsider owning an automobile if they absolutely didn’t need one to make it through their day.
So many Americans adhere to the belief that suburban life is calmer and more tranquil than city living. That may or may not be true at times but certainly not when you are driving in suburbia. Driving in downtown Seattle you can’t even go fast enough to get into a serious accident. With suburban sprawl you have much greater distances to travel and so speed becomes a necessity. With increased speed there is increased danger.
One of the many concepts that I have learned from the brilliant Canadian political philosopher, John Ralston Saul, is the importance of common sense in relating to the problems of the modern world. A ten year old child could look at a city plan of suburban sprawl, of countless mini-malls that are almost completely devoid of public spaces and determine that it has huge flaws, yet we continue to construct American cities using this model almost exclusively. At the same time we completely ignore existing city models that are efficient and provide a vastly superior quality of life than suburbia.
I repeat that I am not trying to be smug about a mode of living that I have adopted. I feel that a dense urban environment is much more sustainable for the future. Can the American dream still be represented by a huge house miles away from businesses? What is wrong with a city model in which there are several hundred apartments above a host of businesses? I will use as an example a building on 1rst Avenue in Seattle a few blocks from where I live. On this one square city block there are two pizza parlors, an Italian restaurant, a fine-dining restaurant, a Thai place, a coffee shop, a sushi joint, a dress shop, a grocery store, a sandwich shop, and a great bakery and breakfast place. I may be missing a couple of businesses. The few hundred people who live in the building could have a great weekend of going out without walking off their block let alone getting in their cars. Where is the down side to that model?
On the other hand, is the suburban lifestyle plan sustainable? We haven’t even been making the obvious choice of demanding more fuel-efficient cars that would make the suburban model a little more viable. In Jared Diamond’s recent book, Collapse, he tells the story of how the Norse settlement in Greenland met its demise after four hundred years because they failed to learn how to survive in their harsh environment, how they refused to learn from their Inuit neighbors. I am not a scientist but common sense tells me that 18 lane highways and 10 cylinder trucks are not wise lifestyle choices for a shrinking planet. We need to learn from the successful urban models that surround us and abandon those plans that are destined for failure. Common sese tells us that the sooner the better.