The small towns some of us remember were essentially urban environments. Think about it: a vital commercial center with buildings taller than one story and the best locations and most beautiful buildings reserved for public uses; surrounding core neighborhoods with sidewalks on both sides of narrow grid-like streets, on street parking, tree plots, alleys for servicing the houses, narrow side lots, with houses and porches close to the sidewalk, and mixed uses that included neighborhood schools, groceries and cleaners. In Indiana there are towns with populations as small as 2,500 with this pattern.
If you grew up or visited grandparents in this small town, you know a bit about new urbanism. Now think about where the sidewalks end. They end where suburbanism began, where the streets began to curve, the yards got bigger, the uses restricted, and the alleys and porches disappeared.
As much as I like the poems and children’s stories of Shel Silverstein (especially The Giving Tree), Where the Sidewalk Ends (1974) draws a rather grim and dark picture of urban living, from which children must escape.
There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind.
Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And watch where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.
Yes we’ll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And we’ll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
For the children, they mark, and the children, they know
The place where the sidewalk ends.
The promise of the suburbs was, indeed, to provide an alternative to the asphalt city, a life in the country, where nature abounds. In such an idyllic setting, who needs sidewalks?
In fact, nature does not begin where the sidewalk ends. The suburb exists between the polis and nature, in that liminal space which is neither. Isolation (single use) zoning creates homogeneous residential areas separated at a distance from such (urban) uses as stores, workplaces, health care, and even schools. Enter the automobile – the family truckster – to mediate the connections among these uses for every individual and family. What, for the resident of the town center used to be a short walk or ride to reach “nature”, now requires further effort (carbon-based fuel) to get beyond the intervening sprawl.
I believe that history will treat the classic suburb as a mistake in human design – see what might have been a hybrid as a mutant. I may be long gone, but I believe that small towns and cities will be reinhabited and restored as vital, however small, urban centers, encircled by natural features, and connected to the global village not so much by concrete as by digital highways.
The aging of our society can provide a significant point of leverage to recapture our small towns and cities. Lately, we have been spinning old people to the margins of our communities, building housing on the fringes and pulling out those worn but glowing images of a pastoral serenity that is supposed to be appropriate for old age. Let’s not repeat the mistake. Let’s look for ways to keep and bring elders to the heart of the community – make existing towns and cities the new “campus” for quality of life in old age.
A few days ago I challenged a smart group of long term care administrators to imagine such “continuing care retirement communities” without walls. I suggested that the gated retirement community on the edge of town will be a thing of the past. Some bought it, some didn’t. But all agreed that only a comprehensive community development approach where everyone takes a risk would work. Given the alternative – the death of small towns and cities – I think it’s worth it.