A Buffalo News story on a backlash against “walkable redevelopment” makes me wonder if we’re not all dancing around the real problem with getting Americans to stop driving so much: it’s not just the distances involved, it’s also the stuff.
The “walkable community” uses a dense, villagelike mix of homes and businesses to create historic-looking neighborhoods where people can walk to get the things they need…
Ah, the things they need. What about the things they want? If there was a Wegmans just a couple blocks from me, connected to my home by lovely sidewalks and crossable streets, and I still had a choice of driving or walking there? I’d drive. How could I possibly lug all those groceries home, even with a cute little handcart? And what about the people who are obliged to buy hundreds of dollars’ worth of groceries for their families every week? Who really strolls down an idealized sidewalk with a single paper grocery bag with a sprig of broccoli pertly poking out the top, like they always do in romantic movies set in New York City? With cars available to tote our weary load, we don’t flinch at buying more stuff.
Who buys an SUV or truck because they want to go into the backcountry, or even just because they want to be up high? They buy them because they’re bigger cars and can hold more stuff. Stuff that you may not have yet. Stuff you’re dreaming of one day bringing home from the store, or one day moving to a bigger apartment or home that may give you room for… more stuff. (And it’s implicit that you don’t need these bigger vehicles for “the children” so much as you need this room for “the children’s stuff” — sports equipment, and so on.)
Here in my burb, a turning point occurred in the late 1950s when the Terrytown subdivision was built by Eagan expressly as a means of housing anticipated shoppers for Eagan’s new Fairmount Fair mall, also under construction. The mall and the tract were conceived as symbionts… no differently than today’s Township 5, just on a physically larger scale. Terrytown was a place for bigger homes than previously built in Fairmount up to that time, so people could fill them up with as much stuff as possible. The automobile was just the grease for the whole machine. The connection between “lifestyle centers” or “green malls,” cars, and consumerism is going to be the same.
Until the intimate relationship-by-design between suburban development, home sizes, cars, and shopping — stuff — is somehow spiritually untangled, we will continue to have fruitless conversations about killing the automobile and making our neighborhoods more human.