Lost Connection

I have vivid, joyous memories of growing up in a small Pennsylvania town. Living in a neighborhood with sidewalks, my friends and I walked or biked everywhere; even into another state (NY state was 25 minutes away on foot). We enjoyed backyards, public parks and even two wooded areas surrounded by an open greenfield to play everything from football to X-Men in (the cartoon was big then). I walked to school, cut through several backyards in a trek to K-Mart to buy a snow sled after a winter storm, had fights in neighbor’s front yards who were not home (with one exception disastrously), shoveled snow from some of those same neighbors’ driveways and I stayed in a perpetual state of grounding from the very week we moved to the town in 1992 for exceeding my bounds*. I knew more than two dozen kids in my neighborhood within my age range and was constantly at play or ‘hanging out’ with one or more of them when I was not grounded and the weather was not too menacing. We lived and the sidewalk was our highway to everywhere!

*Not yet 10, in the summer of 1993 I rode a bike to the next town over, stopped at a corner market for a Yoo-Hoo and was spotted by my father and the Snap-On salesman having lunch across the street.

Right before 7th grade, my father’s new job took us to the Triad region of North Carolina. We moved to an apartment complex aside a busy state two-lane highway. There were no nearby parks, no backyards for sports besides two basketball courts, and definitely no sidewalks in sight. My seemingly vast group of friends was replaced by a few kids who I played basketball with from time to time. I started to play video games much, much more than I ever had and when I bored of them read even more books than usual. The internet’s arrival in my apartment eliminated my boredom, especially in the heady days of AOL chat where I could enjoy incredible conversations with fellow music and book fans.

However, something was wrong about where we lived. Sure, I felt safe in the complex and riding the bus to school was no tragedy (until I was still riding it as a high school junior!). Still, life had dramatically changed, though I could not explain it except to bring up long-gone friends and the absent freedom of being able to independently walk or bike damn near anywhere I wanted.

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Ten years later, I was completing a research project on the pedestrian experiences of the elderly. The results were grim, especially for those in poor health who needed the outdoors activity of walking the most. A super-majority of elderly lived in ‘neighborhoods’ without sidewalks. Grocery stores and public parks were out of reach, accessible only by car and in rare instances public transit.

It all dawned on me personally then.

Studying urban planning (among other things), I knew the relationship between developers, zoning regulations and urban form. The same options denied to me as a middle-school teens had been denied to many of the elderly I studied. We, indeed a majority of the country, had been presented with a dubious choice: you can get anywhere you want anytime, as long as you have a car. Those without a car were often left behind in planning and governance. They now comprise a quarter of the population and are growing in number. 

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Such arrogant policy is no longer a prudent or justifiable mode of planning and development with the demographics of today and tomorrow. The policies that coerce people into this lifestyle with burdensome regulations and developer giveaways, bribe them into accepting it with future generations’ money paying for waste, and hold them to it with a dubious real estate valuation model are wrecking the country’s finances and harming its productivity. 

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Simply put, we have enormous issues as a country. I want to write about them on this blog and will link them when possible to planning and development.  When I cannot, I will instead look towards the future and do my best to imagine how they will shape the cities and towns of tomorrow. 

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3 thoughts on “Lost Connection

  1. I have a similar experience. My family lived in Heidelberg when I was 8 years old, for 6 months. I had a tremendous amount of freedom as there was zero fear of crime and everything was designed for people on foot. The other 17.5 years of my childhood we lived in a car-bound suburb, 500 yards from an expressway. As I became a teenager, I was able to bike places, but the distances were too long for a little kid.

  2. ‘Everything was designed for people on foot’. What a novel concept in modern America!
    My wife’s culture shock was greatest with the layout of the Southern city we lived in first. It was just too much. The idea that a bus only came every hour, usually not on time, and without a sidewalk to access it with (instead walking in usually muddy grass for 1/2 a mile from our apartment) was just alien to her.

    At least you could bike though. The few kids in our complex who tried that would be warned off by police officers- a 55 MPH road designated a state highway was not the place to ride a bike on.

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