Suburban Flight

Last night I was in a funk-attending 2 funerals in a week will do that. Doubtless it says volumes about me, but I went to the coffee shop to steep my solemnity in Arabica instead of whiskey at the local watering hole. Sitting down, I picked up Friday’s issue of USA Today and was pleased to see several articles with a ‘progressive’ bent (why are clean air, water and food progressive ideas?). The first was by Haya El Nasser concerning population growth, the second was Mimi Hall featuring my living folk hero Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm fame. Nasser’s article did about as much as one can on the immense topic of unchecked growth as you can expect in 500 words or less, but spent more energy on transit times and greenspace than on the pending pressures on water, food, and oil. Hall’s article had lots of energy on electronic chips in cattle, but less focus than I would prefer. This is probably why I don’t get newspapers.

Growth is inevitable-at least for now (optimism-remember?). With us cresting the 300 million mark here in America we are currently riding a wave (well maybe a ripple) of rare introspection as a nation. We are getting bigger, more populous, and more diverse than ever before…and the rates of all three are accelerating. It took us 40 years to add the last hundred million, and it will take us less than 30 years to add the next. Due to the fact that the established upper-middle class is reproducing less (affluence has at least some environmental up sides), most of this growth will be driven by immigration: walls or no walls. Europe is experiencing this now, so if we can step out of our Might Makes Right worldview we can learn from their recent history.

One of the interesting trends Nasser drilled in on was that the current data point towards a re-urbanisation of American, or more precisely a de-suburbanisation. Young people are fleeing the suburbs with their impractical commutes, cultural wastelands, and cookie cutter houses. The coolest part of it all is that the cities, in many cases, are ready for them. The infrastructure that was built decades ago to house the workers of America are still there-and with some updating we have cities like St Louis, Cleveland, and Detroit that are currently at 50% of their peak population levels of the 1930’s to 1960’s before Suburbia afflicted us.

I have written about this before, but urban life has taken a bad wrap from the environmentalist ethic. We think of sustainable living as safely ensconced on our 5-10 acres raising some chickens, tending a large garden-living closer to the land. This is still a great option for those like me who are currently employed 50 miles from a major metropolitan center. But for what I can’t grow I have to drive 20 miles to get good organic food and 50 miles to see any even remotely cultural event. But if you work near a city already, the easiest way for you to reduce your ecological footprint is to move in and live in a multifamily building on a mass transit line. Ever live in a apartment building? When I have I never had to run my heater due to 5 of the six ‘walls’ surrounded by climate controlled air. Even in Midwestern Milwaukee within 6 blocks of my apartment I had 2 grocery stores, and Art museum, open air Jazz every Thursday, several dozen good restaurants, parks, and of course Lake Michigan. If I had landed a job there, I would have had no need for a car. Fresh local produce? The Milwaukee Public Market has it in spades, or I could join a CSA. City neighborhoods are alive with community, provide easy access to amenities, and can seriously reduce your impact on the Earth.

I have been nominated to be one of our Village’s 3 representatives in a well funded Smart Growth initiative, and the best bet that we have here in rural America to combat sprawl is to incorporate as many of the needs of our citizens into our villages as possible. To contain our growth seems impossible, like stopping the ocean’s tides. But inherent in that unstoppable force is immense energy-we need not contain the growth (yet) just control it and use it to help the community grow as we intend it to. If Manhattan can put turbines in the East River to generate electricity, then maybe I can change zoning to foster Eco-Villages that are net energy producers, have water runoff that is cleaner than the rain it came from, and share community hybrid cars.

Be the Change!

3 Responses

  1. I think you’re right about urban areas. I mean, I have to drive a good 30 minutes to get to a good farmer’s market or buy decent organic milk, and I have to drive about 45 minutes to get to a good co-op, and walking or biking to anything at all is pretty far from practial. But I did finally have somebody turn up on localharvest that’s close, so hopefully that’ll work out.

  2. I have had pretty good luck with localharvest farmers-fingers crossed.

    On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, I just found a 44 acre farm in NW Wisconsin about 45 minutes from the twin Cities for $108k. That includes an Amish made, insulated workshop, barn and 3 bedroom home with 3 fenced pastures. $108k!? Remember the Amish part? …no electricity.

    This price is so low that we could literally cash out and go homesteading.

  3. Wow. That would be quite a leap. But a tempting one…

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