In the early days, when travel was limited to horse and buggy, communities were in some ways more diverse and convenient than they are today because basic necessities, such as food markets, general stores, doctors’ offices, and post offices, were within a short distance of one another. With the advent of the automobile, however, things could be spread out more, but generally were still within convenient distances of one another. When I was a boy in the in the early 1940s, for example, my family lived about four miles out of town. But once we drove into town and parked the car, we could do all of our shopping within walking distance of where we parked.
The community in which I grew up was friendly. I don’t know of anyone who locked either their home or their car. I’m not even sure that in the early years my parents knew where the key to the house was. The neighbors all visited with one another and people were friendly. My father knew the man at the gas station, which in those days was a “service station,” the president of the bank, and went to the same barber for years. My mother knew the milkman and the postman, both of whom always had time for a kindly word. My mother also knew the druggist and the grocery clerk. And our family doctor made house calls with a smile. In short, people cared, genuinely cared, about one another’s welfare. People seemed to be important to one another in those days, and there was a corresponding sense of mutual support.
Even the landscape around my hometown was friendly. Fields and forest surrounding the town were connected by swift forest streams, which fed meandering valley rivers. And I was free to wander over hill and dale without running into a “No Trespassing” sign on every gate and seemingly every other fence post.
The code of the day was to leave open any gate that was open and to close after one’s passage any gate that was closed. It was also understood that one was free to cross a farmer’s property as long as one respected the property by walking around planted fields rather than through them. And, if I asked permission, I could wander, hunt, fish, and trap almost anywhere I wished.
Much of the Coast Range and most of the Cascade Mountain Range of Oregon that I knew as a boy were covered with unbroken ancient forest and clear, cold streams from which it was safe to drink. Although the streams were still filled with trout and salmon, the forests and mountain meadows were already devoid of wolf and grizzly bear.
In the valley that embraced my hometown, the farmers’ fields were small and friendly, surrounded by fencerows sporting shrubs and trees, including apples and pears that proffered delicious fruit, each in its season. In spring, summer, and autumn, the fencerows were alive with the bright colors of flowers and butterflies and the melodious songs of birds. They harbored woodrats and rabbits, pheasants and deer, squirrels and red valley foxes. The air was clean, the sunshine bright and safe, and the drinking water amongst the sweetest and purest in the world.
When World War II came along, the seeds of change were sown with respect to the sense of community in my hometown. The war effort pushed mass production to new levels and brought the impersonalization of humans killing humans to the fore with such labeling of cartons containing weapons as “mine, one, anti-personnel,” which indicated that the person the weapon was meant to kill was simply a military abstraction.
Although World War II eventually drew to a close, the impersonalization of mass production carried over into the post-war boom years. Gone was the simple wisdom of building communities and neighborhoods within communities for people; it was replaced by the strategies of massive wartime production developed in defense factories.
Instead of paying careful attention to all the necessary details that made a neighborhood within a community a pleasant, nurturing place to live, the post-war planners focused narrowly on churning out great numbers of cracker-box houses on an assembly-line scale. Although they succeeded in cranking out housing for millions of middle-class citizens, they sacrificed quality, neighborhood, and community in favor of quantity and the financial bottom line.
Little or no thought was given to how children might get from home to school to basketball practice or ballet lessons and home again. Little or no thought was given to what would happen when suburbanites grew old and could no longer drive an automobile. At the same time, however, the government offered incredibly generous loans to returning GIs so they could buy new houses. But there was no money available to purchase and fix up existing houses, and so communities began their rapid decline.
Towns, including mine, started to sprawl rapidly in largely unplanned ways. Cookie-cutter houses were concentrated in developments that were isolated from virtually everything dealing with community.
Speed, rather than care, began creeping into the building trade, and I watched as houses sprang up in blocks and lines and circles—each built for speculation. As speculation crept into the housing market, speed, sameness, and clustering became marks of efficiency and greater profit, setting the tone for the future—a tone reflected in the night sky as the once brilliant stars of the Milky Way disappeared into a seemingly eternal mask of light pollution.
With the stage set by the post-war housing industry, things began to change noticeably as corporate depersonalization commenced its insidious cancer-like growth into the heart of community. Roads became bigger, straighter, and faster and increasingly went through prime agricultural land to connected shopping malls. Then came larger and larger subdivisions with cheaper and cheaper ticky-tacky-tract housing, some of which was constructed in floodplains or on unstable soils. And so began the decline of consciousness and quality in the housing industry—a lack of consciousness that continues apace.
I remember, for example, looking at a house for sale in Las Vegas, Nevada, in 1990, where the kitchen counters were literally pulling away from the wall. I asked the builder if the situation was going to be corrected. “Nah,” he said, “somebody will buy it.”
Centralization had arrived on the landscape as it had earlier in corporations. Driving on superhighways became a necessity, and with it came pollution of air and water, which increased with every extra mile that had to be driven and every additional automobile on the road. And the gentle motion and the relaxed pace of the traditional street gave way to ever-increasing speed. As author Jean Chesneaux observed: “The street as an art of life is disappearing in favour of traffic arteries. People drive through them on the way to somewhere else.” There is no word in the English language with a positive connotation for going slowly or lingering on streets as a way to participate in a sense of community.
People started losing their connectedness as centralization within urban sprawl increasingly fragmented the human landscape, and communities began falling apart. A sense of place—of a familiar, friendly community, where everyone left their homes unlocked—gave way to a sense of location as more and more people became transients. Many were (and still are) moved about at corporate or agency will. (Las Vegas, Nevada, had such a transient population in the two years I lived there in the early 1990s that the phone company printed a huge, entirely new phone book every six months.)
By the time I was a teenager, it had become necessary to lock the doors to our house and car, and “No Trespassing” signs proliferated across the landscape. A sense of distrust had begun its insidious invasion throughout the once-closely-knit human bonds of mutual caring that in days gone by had characterized my hometown.
Outside of town, the forests were being cut at an exponential rate, including the town’s water catchment, endangering such species as the northern spotted owl and marbled murrelet. The forested streams, where as a lad I drank of their sweet water and caught native cutthroat trout, now have waters unsafe to drink. Clear-cut hillsides began eroding as forests were converted to economic tree farms. Gone are most of the great native trout and the wild salmon that graced the streams from which I drank. Gone are the huge flocks of band-tailed pigeons that once greeted me in forest and fen. Gone are the elk and bear that I used to see within ten miles of my house. Gone is the forest of centuries. In its place are acres of comparatively lifeless, economic tree farms, some of which may live but a little longer than I.
At the same time, I watched helplessly as the small, protected fields of the personable family farms increasingly gave way to larger and larger naked, homogeneous fields of corporate-style farms as fence rows were cleared to maximize the amount of tillable soil, to squeeze the last penny from every field. With the loss of habitat along each fencerow, the bird song of the valley was diminished in like measure, as was the habitat for other creatures wild and free.
Gone are the fencerows with their rich, fallow strips of grasses and herbs, of shrubs and trees, which interlaced the valley in such beautiful patterns of flower and leaf with the changing seasons. Gone are the burrowing owls from the quiet secluded fields that I once knew. Gone is the liquid melody of the meadowlark I so often heard as a boy. Gone is the fencerow trill of the towhee. Gone are the song sparrows, Bewick’s wrens, yellow warblers, and MacGillivary’s warblers. Gone are the woodrat, the squirrels, and the rabbits. Although these species may still occur along the edge of the valley and in isolated patches of habitat, they are gone with the fencerows from the agricultural fields of the valley floor.
Today, compared with the time of my youth, the valley’s floor offers little in the way of habitat, other than a great, depersonalized open expanse of silent, naked fields in winter and a monotonous sameness under the sun of summer. And then came the coup de grâce—zoning!
Zoning is the predetermined division of land based on what people think its best potential use is. While “best potential use” is meant to be in the most sustainable social-environmental sense, it is usually parlayed into disguised economic growth through political power from which a few benefit financially. Zoning, therefore, like most ideas that are used as tools in human endeavors, has both beneficial and detrimental effects with respect to a sense of community within a landscape. Which of these alternatives comes to the fore depends, of course, on the self-centeredness or other-centeredness (the personal morals and integrity) of those who make the decisions.
With respect to a community itself, zoning has been largely detrimental in the sense that it has been used to foster such things as concentrated shopping malls and isolated housing developments, often in irreplaceable agricultural and/or forested land Such centralized specialization fragments the ability of people to meet their daily needs within a convenient area. Although such convenience may not, on the surface, seem of much importance, it is in at least two ways.
In all the small communities in which I have lived, both in the United States and abroad, the people could fulfill their basic, daily requirements within walking distance of their homes, which meant getting exercise and keeping the air cleaner by leaving their cars behind. This convenience, this centralized generalization of goods and services, also allowed people to meet one another on the street and in the shops, where they got to know one another and often stopped to exchange pleasantries. There were also places, such as a particular cafe or soda fountain, a particular shade tree, or a community well, where local people would gather daily and visit.
As people got to know one another, they became familiar with what each person did and whom they could rely on when in need of help. Because people knew one another, they looked out for one another in a free exchange of mutual caring. Of course there were social problems and interpersonal conflicts, but there was also the greater incentive of mutual well-being to work them out.
With the advent of fragmentation through centralized specialization, people were (and are) forced increasingly to drive from their homes to the grocery store, the doctor, the post office, the hair stylist, and so on. This forced reliance on an automobile not only isolates people from the opportunity of getting to know one another by walking familiar streets together but also isolates them in the shopping malls, where people are in essence visitors from foreign housing developments. And because such centralized specialization necessitates driving automobiles, it dramatically increases the problem of polluting both air and water.
Gone are most of the friendly communities of old, those centered around daily living within walking distance, where open spaces from the surrounding landscape were integrated within the community itself. Increasingly, today’s communities are what I would call “suburban block communities,” where a few neighbors may get to know one another, at times almost as a defense against the larger, more violent and frightening world.
Does it necessarily have to be this way? No! It’s only a choice based on how people elect to deal with the building blocks of sustainability.
Building Blocks Of Sustainable Planning:
© Chris Maser, 2009. All rights reserved.