An Alien Landscape

Alienation is a big topic nowadays. It’s not my purpose here to dive into its myriad causes. I want to consider what part planning and land development play in this problem.

We moved around a lot, so I grew up in several different houses. Most were rural, surrounded by woods and farmland, and some were more low-density suburban. What struck me at the time, though I wasn’t able to articulate it, was how different my experience seemed from what I saw in movies. The Sandlot in particular. Here were a bunch of kids that lived in a neighborhood, close to each other and to a park, and they could walk around this environment at will. They had a motley crew of different personalities, and all this socialization seemed to form a bent of mind that seemed somewhat foreign to me.

To see my friends, my parents or theirs had to put us in a car and drive us ten, fifteen minutes down the road for an afternoon or a day. If we were lucky, we could get three or four friends all dropped off at the same house at the same time.

There’s something profoundly isolating about this. Something artificial about it. Something that feels like being a pod person, grown in a lab and inserted into “play dates” at scheduled times. Quite apart from any issue of family structure, culture, or what have you, most American kids of my generation (Millennial) were unable to form organic, casual friendship networks (i.e., community) because of the nature of the built environment we found ourselves in. We didn’t have that freedom that urban kids do to explore with others, experience webs of community and relation, and understand ourselves as part of a whole.

Of course, we understood we were part of various “wholes.” We were driven to various communities, like school or church maybe. But the place where we slept, where we woke up each day, where our families were rooted–these places weren’t part of a whole. They were pods that segregated us off from the rest of the world, until we were “scheduled” to go meet it.

We are physical beings. Definitionally physical. The space around us is not ancillary to our existence: it is our existence. And it has a profound impact upon our subconscious. Modernist city planning, like all modern ideas, believed that it had solved the space problem. Get people out of the dark, dingy, crowded cities. Force the buildings to be separated, pushed back. Then give everyone a personal automobile so they can traverse this new giant-size environment. But living in a space designed for car-size and car-speed is to live in a space not designed for humans. Everything’s too far, too vast, too distant for us.

Kids, who can’t drive, feel this most of all. Maybe that’s why rural and suburban kids are so deadset on age 16 and the driver’s license. With a car, you can finally move about your habitat in the way it was designed to be traversed.

Unless you’re a farmer, you ought to live in a dense neigbhorhood, if you have kids and you want community. The alienation we all feel is because we’re living in alien environments designed for a larger race of beings with wheels and windshields instead of legs and eyes. We might as well be on the moon.

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