An Editorial: The Great American Escape

Preface

This piece is undoubtedly going to hit folks the wrong way.  It’s likely going to anger people I care about.  It’s going to strike a chord in many people that might be difficult to digest, and it will cause a many to become defensive.  Please know I am completely respectful of  the lifestyle choices we all make, especially as it relates to how we raise, provide for and protect our families.  Please understand that the following isn’t an indictment, but rather a chance for all of us to look at the choices we make collectively.  I’m not trying to change minds, nor am I trying to imply that city life is correct for everyone.  What I will ask below is simply the question of why we as a culture seem to be running away from something instead of trying to fix it.  As populations continue to move sprawl away from urban and even suburban centers, why are we making the choice to escape to more rural confines?  And I will NOT remove myself from this question… as urbanistic as I am, I still live in an area slightly away from the city center, and admittedly could probably do a lot more than I do to change the negatives in my city.  But I’m always working on that, as I think we all are in some way.

So now that I’ve thrown myself on the fire as well, I urge you to please see the topic below from a general, conversation-starting perspective, not a personal one.  We all need to, occasionally, step back and ask ourselves the questions of why we do what we do, as well as, “is there another way?”  Only then can we be completely honest about the future of how we live in our country.

The Question

We urbanists talk endlessly about smashing the long-standing barriers that infringe upon connectivity in our cities in the belief that, when we have a greater opportunity to blend and mingle with people from all walks of life, we are inherently stronger.  Whether it’s a “street diet” that slows traffic and allows our pedestrians to easily traverse a roadway, adding an urban path to connect neighborhoods or bringing that urban highway down to street level, we are constantly advocating for the barriers we have knowingly or unknowingly created to be banished, allowing the lively flow of our cities to be maximized.  So if this works, if it’s so obvious that removing these long-standing artificial barriers that have served as moats for so long is healthy for a vibrant and diverse downtown, then why is it so hard to convince people that these are positive steps?

The answer, unfortunately could not be more simple.  Americans love fences, barriers and buffers.  We love them so much that we will empty our wallets and spend hours behind the wheel every week to ensure that our buffer zones are properly financed.

Photo from Unsplash.com


I’ve written a great deal about how cars contribute to our desire to escape these “variable environments” for the comfort of our coveted remote buffer zones, but talked little about how this same goal is all-pervasive in our desire to live and house our families.  Indeed, it seems our hunger to work hard, get that promotion and climb the ladder is motivated in large part by our unrelenting obsession to separate, move away and distance ourselves from any and all potentially negative encounters, while potentially robbing us of positive ones.

In this country, money can buy a lot of things, but the most coveted assets continue to be land (as much as you can afford), a big house (as big as you can afford), and finally these things should exist in an area where people are all relatively alike (similar income, value system, etc.).  In sum, personal wealth in this country is expressed in three major ways… how much physical buffer you have from the world, how much personal privacy you enjoy, and how able you are to surround yourself with like individuals.  If you are fortunate enough to enjoy these “luxuries,” you are privileged to make the all-important choice nobody wants to admit that they like to make… they have the choice to see people as little as they see fit, or at least be able to strictly dictate who they want to see and when.

In contrast, being poor in this country means that generally you are at the mercy of chance when it comes to who you mingle with on a daily basis.  Renting a cheap apartment means you have little privacy as thin walls and no buffer zones force you to hear, see and sometimes even smell people you don’t care to associate with.  You have little space to distance yourself from anyone.  And finally, you have no ability to choose whether or not your neighbor is a person like you, or someone who’s lifestyle, values, speech, or general demeanor might conflict with your vision of an ideal person.

Interestingly, I posted a preview to this blog on several social media sources, which met with a very mixed response.  As expected, many people who have already made the choice favoring the 3 acre, rural or suburban home with the 30+ minute commute expressed displeasure that I would insinuate their decision was flawed.  Cited were reasons of personal preference, a desire to escape the noise, traffic, crime, bad schools, and a number of other factors that led them away from even the most mildly dense urban areas.  These are all perfectly understandable reasons for wanting to live in a more secluded area, one in which the antithesis of these factors is the core benefit.  In fact, when you break it down, moving away from one’s urban center simply means more of an ability to minimize any surprise variables that might conflict with one’s ideal lifestyle.

But in order to attain this, one must be more than financially stable, he or she must be financially capable.  The highly sought-after lifestyle goal of minimizing exposure to unwanted American realities is, in large part, based on how much financial freedom a person has.  This is, by no means a new or foreign concept… after all, it’s the American dream to be able to work hard, make a decent living, buy a house for your family in the suburbs and live happily ever after.  There are, however, two problems with regard to this thought system… a large percentage of this country will work hard and still never be able to enjoy this reality, and even more importantly is the question, why is this dream so highly worshiped in the first place?  Why is it that buying a home with oodles of land in a remote area, miles away from any practical resource save silence and exclusivity still so vital to a happy American family life?  What could possibly make commuting an hour each day, or traveling 5 miles to the nearest grocery store more appealing than having everything you need right near by?  Furthermore, why would someone spend MORE money and more time attaining this reality when a more efficient possibility of living close to everything is attainable?  Are the luxuries of silence, exclusivity and a big yard so important that they overtake the simplicity of living centrally among other diverse Americans?

Many are beginning to revisit the idea of living in or near their city centers once again, as urban areas across the country are experiencing a resurgence of tremendous proportions.  While metro areas continue to sprawl, there is an increasing number of Americans who are making the choice to live downtown again.  This is likely driven by many factors myself and other urbanists have talked about endlessly, but a key motivator continues to be the desire to be close to everything.  While these urban trend-setters are typically younger and childless, or older “empty nesters,” it is the return of the idea that our cities can once again be thriving, livable environments.  Unfortunately, as this trend continues upward, so does the cost of downtown housing, while most cities still lack family-friendly environments and good schools.

Even with this urban resurgence, most of our cities are still experiencing an exodus, and one that in many ways is understandable.  Higher performing schools and far lower crime rates than city environments make the suburban escape a “no brainer” for families who want their children to grow up in a safe, comfortable environment.  Much of this choice is also perpetuated by the stereotype of “that’s just what you do” when we have children and a family, as generational models of what family life “looks like” continues to influence the choices we make.

But by removing the unwanted variables of crime, low performing education systems and lack of privacy, aren’t we also robbing our children and families of the lessons of diversity, understanding, problem solving and the beauty of spontaneous human interaction?  By making our lives and the lives of our loved ones safer, are we negating the potential life benefits of learning how to interact in a complex urban fabric, where a vast array of lifestyles and thought systems blend every day?

Of course we are.  But the fundamental and all important fact is, the wealthier we are, the more we generally have the potential to create and maintain our own reality.  Moving away from a diverse environment with many working variables allows us to minimize all the real world influences a city might present, giving us the bubble-like luxury of having our worldview unchallenged and unopposed.  We have the ability to give our children a strong public education, while ignoring the fact that often the best life lessons are taught in environments where not everyone looks and acts like us. Through our unsustainable infrastructure and our chaotic, work-driven lives, we have knowingly or unknowingly proven the point that the most coveted of goals is to avoid any kind of potential adversity at all cost.

And again, no one can argue with a parent who is just trying to “do what’s best” for the family.  But what if we looked at “what’s best” a different way?  Isn’t raising our children in an environment that favors racial and socioeconomic diversity the greatest vehicle for teaching our children the values of positive change and understanding, as well as multiple perspectives and the ability to think critically?  Or is it best to be safe and limit their exposure to any environment that might challenge their (and our) worldview in the name of safety and security?

These are the questions we all have to ask ourselves today.  As our country continues to sprawl outward from our urban centers, pushing the limits of sustainability with regard to our desire to escape our cities, now is the most important time to search our reasons moving forward.  I am not condemning the choice to live further away from our fellow American, nor do I believe I will change anyone’s mind here.  Obviously, these issues are at the heart of what we struggle with in our country today, causing us to polarize further and faster.  I am simply asking that we all take a moment to really explore our motives for escaping to the perpetuated realities we are all guilty of creating.  I truly believe that if we all dig deep enough, we will find a motive that conflicts with who we believe we are.

 

 

All photos were legally retrieved from unsplash.com