Sprawling Apart

Lady's Mantle Sprawl

Lady's Mantle Sprawl

Dear Reader:

Here in my rural subdivision, life goes on as usual–at least on the surface of things. The Fourth of July weekend brought an unusually large number of ATV’s careening down our (posted) roads, an impressive parade of decorated motorboats chugging across the lake, and a barage of illegal fireworks booming behind the sheltering pines from dusk ’til midnight. The smell of grilled meat wafted across shaggy, soggy yards. Neighbors we hardly ever see strolled by, blinking in the novelty of sunlight after two straight weeks of rain. Friends stopped in for potato salad, bratwursts, and strawberry shortcake.

Looking around, you’d never know there was a recession on or staggering-close-to-ten percent unemployment or a war. Maybe that’s part of our American charm–our optimistic belief that sooner or later everything will work out just fine and yankee-doodle dandy. The ungraspable debt will be paid off. Terrorism will be defeated forever. Want ads will sprout like weeds in the classifieds section of the newspaper. Solar and wind power will totally replace oil energy. We will go back to building our subdivisions, taking thirteen car trips per day, and listening to talk radio on our hour-long commutes to and from work in the city.

The fact is, people here in Maine (like the rest of the country) LIKE suburbia.

In 1999 the Maine State Planning Office conducted two homebuyer surveys to see where people were moving and why. They discovered that 42% of people who were buying homes opted to move from a city to the suburbs or rural outlying area. 33% were already in a suburban setting and moved to another suburban setting. An analysis of the survey sums up:

These homebuyers appear to value being within walking distance of
a corner store and the library, knowing neighbors by name, knowing
they can drop by a neighbor’s home and that he or she will feel
comfortable doing the same. They say they would as soon be close to
gyms, ball fields, movie theaters, and cultural activities as be able
to walk out the back door to hunt, fish, ski, or snowmobile. They
value running into friends and acquaintances at the coffee shop on
Main Street as well as seeing wildlife out the windows of their home,
and visiting neighbors on their porches after dinner as much as
watching a solitary sunset from their homes. Some prefer privacy to
contact with neighbors but still want proximity to stores and services
and don’t want to be forced to get their privacy by moving to largelot
suburbs or the country. Still others may prefer a rural setting,
but if they knew they were contributing to the loss of wildlife
habitat, working farms and woodlands, or open space around towns, they
would reconsider.

The sad fact is, the suburban model of housing development is so ubiquitous that we homebuyers feel we have no other choice than to move to the suburbs if we want to escape conjested streets, too-close neighbors, concrete landscapes, and social isolation. This urban sprawl has eaten into our valuable agricultural land and has eroded wildlife habitat. Ironically, when we do move to the suburbs in search of a sense of community and small-town neighborliness, we are often disappointed. Let’s take each of the values listed by homebuyers and compare those values to the realities of my homeowner’s association (which shall remain nameless.)

#1 Walking distance to corner store and library: We can’t. My housing development was built in the 1960’s on rural land at the edges of two separate towns. We have very few points of entry from town roads and state routes, and there are no sidewalks or even breakdown lanes amenable to walking or even bicycling, even if we were inclined to walk or bike the miles between our home and the distant town centers. Zoning rules prevent any retail development in our association, so we have no coffee shops, corner stores, booksellers, or newspaper stands within walking distance. The only businesses of which I’m aware are home-based childcare operations and perhaps some telecomuters working out of their basement offices.

#2 Knowing the neighbors by name: In old-fashioned, small-town or city neighborhoods in years gone by, houses were built close to the street. You knew all the neighbors and their kids. You chatted with them over the picket fence dividing your properties and waved at them from your front porch. You sat in each others’ kitchens and drank coffee. You worked with them at businesses in town. You went to church with them on Sunday.

While this theoretically can take place in a subdivision, the reality is much different. Built on a series of cul-de-sacs, our houses sit back from the road. Decks and porches are relegated to the private, backyard area rather than the social, front lawn area. Few of us work in our actual towns, commuting instead to jobs in the city. We have no churches or other traditional gathering places in our association, though we do have a couple of clubhouses. We have compartmentalized our lives–working one place, socializing another, coming home to the subdivision to sleep. We could make more of an effort with our neighbors–probably should–but neither the design of the subdivision nor our car-driven lifestyle lends itself to old-fashioned neighborliness.

#3 Close to gyms, ballfields, cultural activies, etc.: This we have. Our homeowner’s association amenities include an outdoor pool, two indoor pools, tennis courts, clubhouses with billiard tables and meeting rooms, etc. Most of us could walk to at least some of these amenities, and the use of them is included in our association dues. Sadly, while we have the space for cultural activities that might invite more civic participation and neighborly interaction, we homeowners are so disconnected that these sorts of activities are rarely planned and sparsely attended. The infrastructure is there, however. While we can’t do anything about the road layout, we could, if we wanted, hang out at the gym or hold movie nights at the clubhouse.

#4 Wildlife out the window: Ah, we have this, too. Our rural subdivision has wildlife preserves in place, dirt roads, a lake with lots of marshy areas, and quite a few undeveloped (and undevelopable) lots. I’ve seen deer, moose, loons, herons, foxes, and turtles while driving or walking in my neighborhood or canoeing on the lake. Proximity to nature–animals, trees, wildflowers, wild berries–is a big plus. We can swim in the lake, hang out on one of the many association beaches, cross-country ski through the woods, and sit outside beneath a shady beech or oak tree.

All in all, my rural subdivision is a pretty good place to live . . . for now.

But what happens when things go wrong? If energy costs become too prohibitive and traveling back and forth to school, to the grocery store, and to work becomes a financial hardship, many of us may choose to leave. Others of us will be stuck here whether we like it or not, struggling to figure out a way to live in a place with very little to offer in an energy-depleted world.

Would it be possible to transform our suburbs into sustainable communities where we could shop, work, and play all within walking distance of our homes? Or would the suburbs become the future American slums as some New Urbanists predict?

While we still may have some time before the realities of peak oil hit (when demand outstrips supply in a real way as opposed to the artificial shortages of the 1970’s), the time to address the cons of our suburban design while continuing to protect the pros is now.

The Maine State Planning Office survey revealed that those same homebuyers who were flocking to subdivisions would just as soon live in walkable, urban communities if city and town neighborhoods were planned to reduce traffic, to provide areas for privacy as well as common areas for community, and to design parks and other wildlife areas. Adding a good pubic transportation system within the urban neighborhood will also be a big plus on the side of urban development. State planners encourage this kind of New Urbanist vision as a way to reduce sprawl into our valuable agricultural and wild rural areas, and there are indications that buyers are already moving back to the urban centers. Click here to read about The Great American Neighborhood program. How will our old sprawling subdivisions fare in competition? How soon before home values begin to fall?

If we want to protect our investment, we’d best be thinking about how to provide those things that future homebuyers will be seeking and the current subdivision model doesn’t provide. We need to think about transitioning our single-family residential communities into walkable, mixed-use villages where people can work and worship and play and shop. We need to devise some kinds of “Main Street” areas for community gatherings and cultural activities, and we need to figure out how to provide public transportation. We need to think about education and how to get our schools back into our neighborhoods rather than on the edges of town. It wouldn’t hurt if we figured out how to feed ourselves by promoting the creation of backyard and community gardens, farmer’s markets, and food co-ops.

If we don’t take care, those who can will go elsewhere . . . and the rest of us will be stuck at the end of our cul-de-sacs wondering how it all went wrong.

2 responses to “Sprawling Apart

  1. When my wife and I bought our current home, we decided to leave a congested inner suburb (S Portland) for a more rural, lower tax based outer suburb (S Windham). We had a few reasons for our exodus to the country. One reason was the inherent need for space, and a desire for land to call our own. We found a sense of serenity that only nature could provide. The amenities of city (which are only 10 -15 minutes away for us in three directions) was secondary to the quiet, safety and distance. We wanted to country setting free of traffic for our kids to explore and for us to be at peace. The second reason was value. We’d pay a several thousand dollars more to buy the same house in the city on a tiny lot. We’d also have the obligation to pay nearly a thousand dollars in property taxes. Lastly, we felt God had established us as a family here. He provided us this land for our family. It is a spiritual connection to our home, which has been an incredible blessing to us. The bottom line is we love our two acres and all the advantages it has!!

  2. Hi Chris: It sounds as if you and your wife fall squarely into the demographic the State Planning Office survey revealed. My husband and I do as well. We want space and green things and safety and quiet that we can’t get in city neighborhoods as they are designed right now.

    I’m not dissing the suburbs as nice, quiet places in which to raise a family. What concerns me is how dependent we are on the automobile to make suburban living work. I don’t know about you, but it would probably take me forty-five minutes to walk to the nearest grocery store. The library would be at least an hour-long hike. Ditto a church.

    We have an acre of land, mostly wooded. Not great for growing food. On your two acres, you could probably grow a really nice garden, though:) So, again, it’s not that suburbs are a bad bargain NOW. It’s the FUTURE I’m worried about.

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