There is growing need for our communities and our nation to forge a dramatically new path if we expect a sustainable future rich in a rewarding quality of life. Our path for much of the past century is conventionally known as “The American Dream.” This dream has been dependent on endless low-density (and therefore community-destroying) development, forced and isolating travel by car, and high levels of consumption—mostly fueled by cheap oil. It is an inherently unsustainable path that a number of analysts now fear may be leading to the end of the American empire.
One reason that the standard American (suburban) Dream cannot last, as noted by Christopher Leinberger (in his The Option of Urbanism), is that the suburban lifestyle tends to be degraded when more of it is built. Because suburbia is premised on isolation and low densities, the suburbanite finds it detrimental when more suburban development is planned in the vicinity. By striking contrast, compact and walkable urbanism is enhanced when more residential density or retail intensity is proposed nearby. More of this development in a walkable neighborhood usually means there are more places to walk to, more neighborhood conviviality, more security, better property values, and more vibrancy.
As a result, as Leinberger points out, in suburbia, “more is less” (which is inherently unsustainable). In walkable neighborhoods, “more is better.”
Similarly, disconnected suburban roads tend to be unsustainable, because only a small amount of new development and a small number of new car trips on disconnected, cul-de-sac road networks are necessary to create congestion. Again, by contrast, the connected, gridded, short-block streets in walkable, compact neighborhoods are able to absorb an astonishing amount of new development and new car trips without a significant increase in congestion (and even if congestion were to occur, compact neighborhoods allow residents to opt out of the congestion by walking, bicycling or transit—not so in suburbia, where everyone is forced to be stuck in traffic in their cars).
There are a number of undesirable behaviors and traits that characterize much of America. Traits that are both emblematic of this conventional American Dream, and a symptom of unsustainability. A sampling of these behaviors and characteristics that endanger our future include:
Promiscuous and subsidized motoring (excessive dependence on car travel).
Costly and subsidized suburban sprawl. A sprawl so homogenized and lacking in craftsmanship that the endless strips of “Anywhere USA” roads create plastic, inauthentic places not worth caring about.
Our lack of transportation (except car) choices and lifestyle (except suburban) choices.
Our habit of poisoning our cities with “gigantism” (a toxin that is thought to have led to the end of dinosaurs and the Roman Empire).
Our penchant for opposing “smart growth.”
Our “war on drugs.”
Our efforts to act as the world’s policeman.
Our systematic suppression of mutually beneficial community ideas (as described by Kemmis in Community and the Politics of Place).
Our creation and promotion of an economy which must have high levels of consumption.
Our growing lack of civility and cooperative action.
Our dysfunctional health care system, suffering in part from an increasingly inactive, obese society.
Our dysfunctional tax system.
In sum, the American Dream has become the American Nightmare.
Much of our future will be about restoring and re-using and renovating old, historic, traditional, lovable buildings. And demolishing more contemporary, unlovable, throw-away buildings (and roads). Indeed, it is noteworthy that while “modernist” buildings in recent times tend to feature more impressive energy conservation designs than older, traditional buildings, it is these more traditional buildings that tend to be more sustainable over time because they are more likely to be more lovable (and therefore more likely to be protected by the community). Modernist buildings are too often characterized by bizarre, quickly dated design that is commonly a despised or embarrassing building that the community is often all too willing — understandably — to quickly demolish.
The science of ecology teaches us that those species (and, in my opinion, those societies) that are rigidly incapable of adapting to changes in their environment (or are unwilling to) typically face extinction. Most all of the above-mentioned behaviors and traits are characterized by being non-adaptive to change (or are premised on the impossibility of endlessly toxic growth and endless cheap energy).
Too often, when a society in the past was faced with a choice between fundamentally changing its behavior and extinction, that society has chosen extinction.
This blog newsletter is dedicated to not opting for extinction. Much of the work of opting to avert extinction will require finding the courage to point out the elephant in the room. To point out that the emperor wears no clothes. This newsletter is intended to be a collaborative conversation about how our society can take steps toward a better, more enduring future – a future that is more durable and more hopeful because society has taken the path of striving to shed behavior and characteristics that are counterproductive to a sustainable quality of life. And replacing them with lasting, community-building, equitable, affordable, and pride-inducing concepts.
In short, for the formulation and adoption of a new, more sustainable, more rewarding, more affordable American Dream.
It is essential – financially, environmentally and with regard to our quality of life – to return to the timeless tradition of designing to make people happy, not cars. To design for modest speeds and modest sizes and dimensions.
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