Monday, August 24, 2009

Living the American Nightmare

Immediately upon returning from my short stint in Mexico, I was struck by how barren and desolate it seemed here by comparison. Although I really can't tell that I am living in a Madison suburb with a population of 25,000. Based on the number of people I see out and about, on the streets, in the parks, etc...for all I know this city could have a population of about 20! There are countless factors responsible for this "ghost town" effect, and I think plenty of books have already been written on this topic, especially the irresponsible growth patterns of American cities, urban sprawl, etc. However, I can only write about my own observations, biased as they may be.

Street Level Views:
The picture on the left was taken in a residential section of Guanajuato, Mexico. The picture on the right was taken in a residential section of Sun Prairie. The photos are illustrative of how building patterns impact social and environmental well-being.

The story of Guanajuato Mexico.

Even though this city is unique for Mexican standards, it still serves as an example of how sustainable building and living can be achieved. The city's buildings are terraced along the slopes of the surrounding mountains, giving a "stacked" look to the cityscape. Although people are literally living on top of one another, creative architecture and angles give every home plenty of windows which overlook the city and the neighboring homes. Bricks and stone provide solid housing and privacy even though walls are shared between living spaces. Due to the city's compactness and design, and the socioeconomic status of its residents, very few people own cars. Therefore, there are no garages, driveways, or for that matter, streets. A few roads pass through and underneath the city, but for the most part, the city has mostly pedestrian-designed alleyways and pathways. The result is a populace dependent on walking or public transportation, which is not a problem since the city is well-connected to other nearby communities with a cheap and efficient bus network. Because almost everyone is on foot, local merchants enjoy a steady stream of customers throughout the day. And the stores are jammed together in the same manner as the houses, which means you can pass by 25 different stores within 3 blocks. So the local economy does quite well, merely because driving to a nearby mall or Wal-Mart Supercenter is not an option.
As a result of all the above factors, the streets are teeming with people both day and night. It gives a sense of a much larger city than it actually is, and certainly creates a vibrancy that maybe is only experienced here in Madison during festivals and special events. And with everyone outside, being connected and networked with others is natural and easy, keeping people free of the lonely confines of their computers and cell phones. So even though there were many times I felt lonely in Guanajuato, I never felt alone.

All alone at home...
So the majority of this comparison centers around "new urbanism", a fancy term used by developers so that they can get their plans approved by ignorant city councils. Ideally, higher density residential homes and nearby stores and businesses are supposed to create a mini-community, where residents can hopefully ditch their cars on occasion and walk to the grocery story, bank, etc. However, as shown in this "New Town" development in Sun Prairie, the immense sizes of these homes and the refusal for Americans to give up their love affairs with their cars make this would-be dream into a far-fetched fantasy.

What bothers me is how they pitch these developments to would-be buyers, touting homes that have no street-facing garage, old-style porches, and plenty of parks nearby. From an environmental standpoint, it seems even worse than traditional suburban neighborhoods. Because all the garages are in the back of the homes, mini alleyways need to wrap around the backside of the houses. This creates more paved surfaces than a regular neighborhood would have, and therefore, gives LESS greenspace. The picture below illustrates the enormity of the homes being built in a more "dense" neighborhood, as well as the concrete required to get the Escalade parked safely in the 2-car garage.

As I biked through this eerily empty neighborhood, I realized that if irresponsible housing patterns are ever to change, we as Americans must change our individual lifestyles. Setting up a fortress-like house in a former cornfield and quickly filling it up with every comfort one can imagine does not lend itself to spending much time out amongst your neighbors. Indeed, we are making it so that we never have to leave our homes, and curiously pride ourselves on accomplishing this tragedy.

I guess the point I am trying to make about all of this is that better options do exist, and are certainly possible, as far as how we live is concerned. I think the sense of community and connection that so many people crave is severely impaired by the infrastructure we already have in place, and is further exacerbated by our sense of entitlement and not wanting to share our space. As if the crushing loneliness we experience in life isn't bad enough,
it is so tragic that we live in a society that almost encourages us to be alone.

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