Places (and Things) Worth Caring About

September 23, 2007 psipsina

Cleaning out my inbox, I ran into this link that Ginger sent me several weeks ago.  The video is just under 20 minutes long, and this was my first opportunity to watch it.

I am not exaggerating when I say that this made me teary-eyed.  In just 20 minutes, James Howard Kunstler touched on a half dozen things that matter to me so intensely that I once considered becoming an architect – until I discovered that, at least in 1994, architecture schools were part of the problem, not part of the solution.  I really hope this has changed in the intervening decade-plus.

1.  If there’s a Hell, it’s in the suburbs.  I could be happy virtually anywhere but a suburb.  I live in urban Cambridge, MA, by choice; I grew up in a small town, and while I don’t think it’s the ideal environment for me (too few cultural opportunities, and too car dependent), I could readapt; I even think that, with some difficulty, I could adapt myself to rural life, though I would be even more car-dependent than in a small town.

But suburbia makes me itch, makes me feel trapped and crazy.  When we visit the Red-Haired Boy’s parents in Bethesda, I feel like a caged lionness – all kinds of energy, and nowhere to go.  We do go for walks, but there aren’t enough sidewalks, and it’s not the same as city or small town walking.  A walk in the suburbs is an Event, or a Project, or something – it has to be worked into your day somehow, it’s never spontaneous.  When I am at home, I walk 4 to 5 miles a day, virtually every day, and most of that walking also accomplishes something – gets me to work, or the grocery store, or the drugstore, or a restaurant, or a coffee shop, or even, when I lived in nearby Somerville, to the vet.  That is to say, Cambridge (and Boston, where I work) is full of those destinations that Kunstler talks about, places people want and need to go to.

If I lived in Bethesda, I guarantee you my ass would be even fatter than it is now, because the nearest destination is literally 2 miles away.  So I’d run all my errands in a car, and then have to squeeze in exercise separately.  And if I was busy, exercise would be the first thing to go.

2.  The private passenger car is ruining America, both aesthetically and financially.  Kunstler touches on the aesthetic ruin; I want to talk about financial ruin.

Anecdote:  when I told coworkers that the RHB and I were buying in Cambridge, which is notoriously expensive, they immediately gave me that “she must make a shitload more money than I do” look.  A couple even said, “Oh, it’s because you have two incomes and no kids.”  Well, no, I don’t, and it’s not – we made a point to borrow way less that we felt we could afford, in case one of us wanted, for any reason, to cut back our work hours or take a lower paying but more interesting job or go back to school.

There are a number of factors that helped us buy in Cambridge, but the very biggest factor is simply:  neither the RHB nor I owns, or has ever owned, a car.  The average annual cost of car ownership per year is a staggering $4,000 to $8,000, depending on a number of factors, including insurance rates in the area, the owners’ age and driving record, whether the car is new or used, variations in the cost of gasoline nationwide, availability and cost of parking, likelihood of getting parking tickets, and so forth.  (Bikes at Work has an excellent Real Costs of Car Ownership calculator.)

So how much would car ownership cost us?  Eastern Massachusetts is a very expensive area of the country, so you can figure on the high end of that range.  On the other hand, neither of us is much into status, so we’d probably buy a good quality, reliable used car.  So figure we’d be smack in the middle, with a $6,000 annual expense per car.  Take that $500/month and sink it into your mortgage over 30 years, and you can borrow an additional $84,500.  And if we moved somewhere where we each needed a car, we’d double that to $1,000 per month, or an additional $169,000.  In some parts of the country, $169,000 will buy you a house.  Here, unfortunately, it’s considerably more expensive, but it is still a huge help in making Cambridge affordable.  (And don’t forget that we’ve never had that $4,000 to $8,000 annual expense, which means we’ve been able to save for a downpayment.)  Houses that cost $170,000 less than ours are at least an hour from our jobs, an hour that we can’t spend doing much of anything but driving (on the T you can read or knit or sleep), and since I work downtown, I have nowhere to park anyway.  When you factor in the value of our time, it’s not an exaggeration to say that we simply can’t afford NOT to live in Cambridge!  And I’m glad, too, because the suburbs are Hell (See point #1).  And one of the saddest things about American life today is that so many of our spaces are designed so that people feel (sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly) that a car is necessary.  No wonder our national savings rate is so low.

3.  Cities are a far better environment for raising children than suburbs.  Kunstler is rather snide about this, but he’s absolutely right.  Cities are great for both children and the people raising them.  How many parents are secretly dying for their kids to reach the age of 16, so Aidan and Caitlin can get their licenses and will no longer need to be driven around in the minivan?  In a city, kids can ride their bikes to the park or the library, walk to the corner store, and encounter other children spontaneously and naturally.  Heck, when I was a kid, I went to the dentist alone!  (That was probably excessive, but it does show what’s possible in a walkable, densely populated community.)  In the ‘burbs, parents (mostly Mom) drive their kids everywhere, including to carefully arranged play dates with carefully screened kids who don’t live anywhere nearby.  Parents are literally choosing their childrens’ friends.  This teaches our children not only to be addicted to cars, with the tremendous financial strain this causes (see point #2), but it also enforces an artificially stunted development, where the child is dependent on Mom for far too long, all events have to be planned to fit into Mom’s schedule, and kids don’t learn to make friends spontaneously.  (This is also a feminist issue – we have an entire class of women  – we call them Soccer Moms – who are spend much of their lives chauffeuring their children around.  Think of what those women could do if Aidan and Caitlin could bike to the soccer field.)

I won’t make any wild claims about causality here, but isn’t it at least possible that the decline of creative and critical thinking skills in our country has something to do with this artificial dependence, which lasts until the kids themselves are deemed sufficiently mature to handle the 2- and 3-ton death traps known as motor vehicles?  And if Aidan and Caitlin have never had to solve the problem of how to get from point A to point B on their own hooks, why do we as a society think they have the cognitive skills to handle navigating the parental Ford Excess anyway?

4.  Kunstler doesn’t say this, but a prime reason Americans are so fat is because most of us never walk more than 20 feet at a time.  And the reason most of us never walk more than 20 feet at a time is that those 38,000 public spaces that aren’t worth caring about are the only choice for many of us have for running the basic errands of life.  And these 38,000 public spaces are designed for the convenience of the automobile, forgetting the basic truth that everyone is a pedestrian when we get out of our cars.  Heck, even I, on the dozen or so occasions a year when I drive (borrow, rent, or use Zipcar), tend to park as close to the entrance of the mall or the Home Depot as possible – it’s neither safe nor pleasant to cross the typical suburban parking lot.  And Kunstler is spot on when he calls the trees a Nature Band-Aid – the typical suburban parking lot tree is so stunted in its 5X5 foot “tree box” (yes, that’s what they’re called) that it doesn’t even provide shade for your car, much less any real atmosphere.

By the way, if you don’t have a car, you waste less money on stuff you don’t need – another way car ownership contributes to financial ruin.  I can’t remember the last time I went to the mall – probably some time before my wedding last year.

5.  Mixed use is absolutely critical for the health of our communities.  No one in America, with the possible exception of people with severe physical disabilities, should have to get into a car to purchase a quart of milk.  And the only way to achieve this goal is by making sure that there are, duh, stores in residential areas, the kinds of stores that people use during the course of normal daily life.  We need grocery stores and drugstores and dry cleaners and coffee shops and restaurants and hardware stores, not precious and trendy little trinket shops where we might occasionally buy a birthday present.

I remember many years ago, a former boss of mine ranting and raving because someone wanted to open an ice cream parlor on the corner of his street in Lexington, MA.  He bragged that he and a few neighbors managed to get this shot down by the zoning board.  This was nearly a decade ago, and I am still scratching my head over this.  I mean, I have a little NIMBY streak, too – if Cambridge suddenly gets the idea that the public park down the street would be a good place for a medical waste incinerator, I’d fight it tooth and nail.  I might even be a bit irritated if someone wanted to open a bar next to my house.  But an ice cream parlor?  What the hell was the matter with these people?  Were they afraid some sugar-drunk 10-year-old was going to break into their house and hold them hostage with a pea shooter, demanding their loose change so he could get another fix?  And now, of course, they have to get into their cars to take Aidan and Caitlin for ice cream.

Zoning has its place – no one wants a dump, or a brewery, or heavy industry next to a residential area.  But we have to stop using zoning like a battle axe and start using it like a precision instrument, which means applying some intelligence and creativity to zoning decisions.  In some parts of the country, it may even mean re-zoning entire communities.

6.  And that brings me to my last point.  What the hell has happened to our civic life?  Where are those interactions we had with our neighbors, as we were out walking our dogs or pulling up weeds in the front yard or watching our toddlers chase butterflies or running out for that quart of milk or waiting at the bus stop, or, yes, going out for ice cream?  Now we drive our dogs, for heavens’ sake, out to the doggy run, and our neighbors don’t see us pull the weeds because we have a seven-foot privacy fence in the front of the house and our toddlers are having play dates in some other town and we shut ourselves up in our cars to buy milk at Costco and only poor, black people ride the bus anyway and a small group of dimwits can keep an ice cream parlor from opening up in a residential area.  We have three-car garages where our front porches used to be, and if we have outdoor time at all, it’s on our private back patios.  When do we get to know our neighbors?

So we’re broke, depressed, fat; our children have developmental, cognitive, and social problems; we’re desperately lonely; young single adults have difficulty finding suitable people to date; and there is virtually no political discourse to speak of any more, only an alternation between preaching to the choir and shouting down the opposition.

The fact that so many of our public spaces suck isn’t just a cosmetic issue; it is a very fundamental problem in our world.  But it doesn’t have to be this way.

These are things I think are worth caring about.


Entry Filed under: boston, car, cities, culture, driving, economics, environment, house, immaturity, life, magnificence, money, mortgage, politics, porch, quality, rant, small town, society, subway, teenagers, urbanism, waste

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. cars » Places (and &hellip  | 

    […] Alfa wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerpt … even provide shade for your car, much less any real atmosphere…. … he owners’ age and driving record, whether the car is new or used, variations in the cost of gasoline nationwide, availability and cost of parking, likelihood o f getting parking tickets, and so forth…. … need – another way car ownership contributes to financial ruin…. … think it’s the ideal environment for me (too few cultural opportunities, and too car dependent),… […]

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