Saturday, June 26, 2010

Walkability and Diversity

Today's Writer's Block question on LiveJournal asks, “Do you prefer to live in an urban or rural environment? Why?”

Believe it or not, the pivotal and most interesting word in this question for me is “prefer.” When posed with the city-living-versus-rural-living question, I'm inclined to delve into big picture abstractions that turn on questions of viability and sustainability, but when asked what I prefer, I delve not into theory, but into memory. I have lived in very large cities, including New York City and Nagoya, Japan, and I have lived tucked away in the woods in Washington, Arkansas, and Maryland. And, of course, I have lived in suburbia. When it comes to quality of life, as much as I love trees, and creeks, and birdsong, I'm leaning toward city living as my preferred mode.

I grew up in suburbia. My father worked a job in which promotion meant re-location, and as child I remember living in the suburbs outside of St. Louis, Spokane, San Francisco, and Kansas City. As a child growing up in suburbia in the 70s and 80s, it didn't really occur to me that there was any other mode of life other than the suburban form, and in retrospect, suburban life had a lot going for it. I grew up in the days before children spent their pre-college years under practical house-arrest. Even before I started first grade, I would leave home on my bicycle with my friends and explore my suburban environment without adult supervision. I remember riding with a pack of other kids on bikes when I still had training wheels on my own bike.

I lived in Pleasant Hill, California from the latter half of first grade through the end of my third grade year, and I would disappear on my bicycle for hours to roam the network of trails through the undeveloped hills behind my house. This was normal for the mid-seventies, and unless I missed dinner, my mother wouldn't worry about my long absences. I returned to my old Pleasant Hill neighborhood as an adult. The hills where I used to ride my bike were covered with suburban houses. No child living there today has the opportunity for wholesome, adult-free adventure that I enjoyed in 1976.

I lived in the Kansas City suburbs from the start of fourth grade through high school and two years of community college. Again, I had friends and bikes, and there was no expectation on the part of a parent in those days of being able to pinpoint your child's exact location within a matter of seconds, and again, suburbia hadn't filled every inch of undeveloped space, and there were pastures and woods into which kids on bikes could escape adult supervision and engage in all the acts of imagination, cruelty, and pyromania that used to be purview of childhood. As with old my California stomping grounds, the process of suburban infill has erased those Temporary Autonomous Zones from that suburban landscape, and children living there now live in a panopticon.

I'll spare you the harrowing details of my close encounters with death as a teenager in suburbia. Suffice it to say that automobiles, alcohol, and no place for teenagers to go is not the most workable combination of elements imaginable.

When I left home, I went to the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri where I lived in a dormitory. Again, I had friends and no adult supervision, and I lived in the marvelous walkable environment of a university campus. My food came from the dining hall, and since I was 21 years old upon arrival, I could buy alcohol for my freshmen dorm-mates, which meant I mostly drank for free. That was pretty much the ideal living arrangement, but we all know that college is a temporary dream-world which vanishes long before we appreciate just how good we have it, so I won't include it in the list of candidates for my preferred living arrangement.

After a semester of dorm life at UMC, I spent the next year living in a dormitory on a small college campus in the very rural town of Nakajo, in Japan's Niigata prefecture. Again, on a college campus I had everything I needed within an easy walk, and lots of friends with cars made alcohol an easy acquisition. Again, it's the fantasy bubble of college life, and so it doesn't count.

After I finished college I wanted to return to Japan. I applied for the JET program, a system administered by the Japanese government that places native English speakers in Japanese public schools to teach English, but I didn't get it. Instead, I spent a summer in Alaska trying to make enough money in the commercial fishing industry to get back to Japan under my own financial steam. That summer I got a taste for life aboard a boat. The 18-hour workdays and exploitation by unscrupulous employers keep my memories of the life aquatic from being fond ones, but I could well imagine life on a boat agreeing with me if I had any say in who else lived on board and where we went.

Eventually, I did make it back to Japan, and shortly thereafter I had my first apartment. It was actually fairly large by Japanese standards, and I could only afford it because it was old, not in great repair (by Japanese standards) and apparently owned and administered by the local Yakuza (organized criminals). I lived two blocks from a subway station, and I could be in the commercial center of the city within 45 minutes of walking out my door. The city has castles, parks, museums, zoos, and endless opportunities for amusement and diversion. 

I lived there with my American girlfriend, and she attended Nanzan University, which was about a half-hour's walk from our apartment. Between home and the university was a small, unassuming Buddhist temple called Tooganji that had an enormous metal statue of the Buddha in their back garden. I spent a lot of time there, and the priests never hassled me or asked me to move along.

Wikipedia describes Nagoya as the fourth most populous urban area in Japan, and just about everything one could want, other than solitude and quiet, can be found there. What's more, just about all of it is accessible by public transportation. If there were any American cities that offered the immense range of activities and the kind of car-free mobility that I enjoyed in Nagoya, I would probably be living there right now.

When I returned from my second stint in Japan, I ended up in grad school back in Columbia, Missouri. This time I lived off campus. Still car-free, I lived in a variety of student slums within an easy walk of the campus and, of equal importance, within walking distance of the old downtown. As with most small cities, the bulk of commercial activity has shifted out to the business loop off of interstate 70, but the old downtown core, being an easy walk from the college campus, is replete with places to eat, drink, play pool, get tattooed, dance, and buy comics, video games, and, if you're into that sort of thing, clothing. I remember spending long hours sitting outside of the St. Louis Bread Company, reading comics, drinking endless refills, and talking to friends and acquaintances who happened by in a steady stream. I've never been to Europe, but as I understand it, this is a fairly typical experience for Europeans. For me, this sort of experience is confined to a tiny portion of my biography, and I have little expectation of finding it again any time soon. 

A friend with a car made it possible to shop at a big grocery store on the outskirts of town and thus secure a source of affordable food to supplement the mostly over-priced fare available downtown. One year, I purchased a campus housing meal plan, which meant that while I didn't live in the dorms, I could eat in the rather nice dormitory cafeterias at least once a day. Again, this was college, but because I was not only a student, but an employee of the university, that living arrangement orbits closer to the realm of sustainable possibility than simply paying tuition and living on faith and student loans.

When I left grad school, I moved to Seattle, and after a bit of couch-surfing I secured a studio apartment downtown. I worked one block from my apartment, and I lived in that small downtown apartment for longer than I've lived in any other place in my adult life. Again, I had no car, and again, I depended on a friend with a car to get me to and from the sorts of grocery stores you don't find downtown. 

This was a marvelous arrangement for many of the same reasons that I loved living in Columbia, Missouri. Everything I needed was within an easy walk of my apartment, and because I did so much walking, my idea of “an easy walk” covered far more ground then than it does now. I could step out my front door and walk to see some of my favorite bands play live, or linger in bookstores and museums. I could reach Seattle's famous Pike Place Market in about 10 minutes on foot, and so I would go there on a whim with no plan in mind.

I have lived in far too many places as an adult to describe them all here, but in addition to all of this city living, I have also lived in the rural hinterlands, and while they have much to recommend them, one thing I really missed while living out there in the boonies was the opportunity to walk. In both rural Arkansas and rural Maryland, my opportunities for walking were extremely restricted. Almost all land out away from rural population centers in this country is private property. The roads lack sidewalks, and to set foot on any of the picturesque pastures that scroll past one's car window is to risk an encounter with a jealous land-owner or the police.

Here at the Ecovillage Training Center on the Farm I have a rather unique living experience. Without getting in a car, it's hard to reach anything other than the restorative ambiance of the woods, but without setting foot off the ETC grounds I come into contact with a steady stream of dynamic and lively souls. I live in an inn, and interesting people stay here. It doesn't offer me the range of social choices I would have in a city, but the social filter of the Farm puts me in daily contact with a choice selection of people. I don't know how long I will be here, but I suspect that I will only come to fully appreciate my situation here in hindsight.

My reflections reveal to me that what I really value is walkability and opportunities to spend time with excellent people as well as the option of being left alone when I've had my fill of social interaction. Knowing that, I could probably satisfy those wants in a variety of settings, but it seems to me that a big city or a college town offer the most promise. The country offers natural beauty, a slower pace of life, less intrusion and micromanagement by civil authorities and a high probability of running into people I know. The 'burbs seem to offer the worst of both worlds, and without a car or the sort of usable mass transit that one rarely finds in the United States, suburbia just isn't even an option.


  1. Nicely written, KMO. It's interesting to read some of your history outside of the handful of years that we hung out together... Good times indeed.

  2. That was a nice read, many childhood similarities there...
    though I have to differ in that at least in the burbs you have your own little cage of yard to make into your own oasis and even possibly grow something to eat in, I think everyone needs at least that much space, not packed on top of each other...

  3. Great points. This walk-ability thing has been a buggaboo of mine as well, and is starting to get some press around here. Here's an article about the damage caused to walk-ability by cul-de-sac construction in the 'burbs.

    I can't say I approve of their term "walkshed", but I suppose some term should be invented to adequately discuss the issue.

  4. I really enjoyed reading and identify with your experiences with various living situations. My childhood was on Staten Island during the 70's when big wheel and bicycle packs of kids roamed blocks and there was portions of land still not developed, although they were surrounded by development. It's obvious to me how having grown up and "imprinted" with life not clamped down by "smother mothers," in a setting without total control, sets me apart from "differently-raised" peoples.
    My parents always grew food in backyard, so I learnt how seeds become edible food (tomatos, peppers, squash, collards).
    New York City is all concrete so at 18 I joined the USMC to escape from NY, so to say. I was a grunt. Finally I saw poeples of different countries living rurally. The people sang, enjoyed the full moon, like to cook, enjoy clean water, but most important to me was they had access to the sky, meaning, they could see it without light pollution. The night sky is another world and consciousness which is difficult to express.
    I landed in 'downtown' Seattle in 1989 and it has been my home. Walking is cool but bicycling in SEattle is nirvana for me. I buy some things at Pike Market, but the bulk of my food comes from the Vietnamese "ma&pa" type food stores in the Int'l District, right over pill hill. So I consider "close in" SEattle non-car life to be the best on Earth, except I can't see the sky at night. I am forced to take the ferry/bus to Marrowstone Island, which is just a few hours.
    Japan is really more mature as a culture, with more human freedom expression.
    Not driving is a no-brainer, however, I live in Seattle. Although automobile blight is everywhere in Seattle, the secret is you have a greatly increased quality of life without one.
    Thank you for everything so much KMO.