Life in the Generic Lane

Urban planner Timothy Beatley spends part of his time at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville as the Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities. The rest is spent globe-trotting, uncovering examples of working communities that advance sustainability. His new book, Native to Nowhere: Sustaining Home and Community in a Global Age, is full of practical on-the-ground inquiries into how we can live more lightly—and more positively. Writes Beatley, “The birth of our daughter, Carolena&has changed my perspective on the world, and on cities in particular, in profound and unimaginable ways.” Beatley, whose other books include The Ecology of Place and Green Urbanism: Learning from European Cities, visited Mendocino County in January to investigate the steps towns are taking toward local sustainability.

Suburban sprawl seems both a symptom and a disease.

We’re in a crisis of place. We reward mindless development that doesn’t come from a love or a nurturing of place. We’re not building things we’ll cherish in 20 years—we’re building for cars, not for people. The way we live has health issues. We don’t walk, and 65 percent of Americans are overweight.

It’s a disconnect at so many levels. Every place is beginning to look like every other place, particularly on the commercial level. And it’s really hard to combat this sameness, even in the most progressive places. Bennington, Vermont, had a cap on big box stores—50,000 square feet, which sounds huge but isn’t large enough for a super Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart outspent its opponents 10-1 and finally won, so a beautiful and charming downtown will decline. If you can’t stop them in Vermont, where can you stop them?

How does “place” fit in?

We have become profoundly disconnected from the place we physically occupy, from the history of that place, from each other, and from nature. That trend is growing—there is increasing self-isolation and separation with gated neighborhoods and over-55 communities. We are ignoring the special things that make a place singular. How can kids connect with elders when they don’t live with them? There are very real health benefits to community—the recovery of persons who have cancer or surgery is much increased for those with friends or community. Even when we’re together, we’re apart. Three or four students walk abreast, all talking on cell phones. I recently saw a development with the logo, “Here life revolves around you.”

How does lack of place affect children?

Our food comes 1,500 miles from field to plate, and it’s heavily processed and highly packaged. Besides the obvious health detriments, children never see the connection between nourishment and natural systems. It’s absolutely obscene that kids can recognize the Burger King logo as they speed past at 70 miles per hour but don’t know what a dragonfly is.

I recently showed my college classes a series of slides. Not a single student out of 63 could identify a common local butterfly, and only four recognized the mockingbird.

All this is even more profound than I can convey. I’ve just spent six months in Australia. When you talk about “the Bush” to people, they have an image of what that means. Here we use words like open space that don’t convey an image. Nature has become generic.

What can we do?

Everything we design should incorporate nature and place. In Hanover, Germany, the city has constructed an 80-mile greenway around the city. At an eco-housing project in northern Illinois, residents burn the prairie around their houses to restore that ecosystem. This is an instance of people learning about the demands of their particular environment and responding to it.

When people arrive in communities, realtors could gift them with an ecological owner’s manual. It would contain the usual phone numbers and recycling information but also would have a watershed map, wild food sources, a history of place, what species of birds and animals live nearby. What species might I see in February or July?

A good understanding of place can be gained by gardening with native plants. Why plant non-native species?

We should have place docents who help us interpret and remember the particulars of a place, the history and the natural species. In some cities, communities are organizing block parties and events to get neighbors together.

I lived for some months in Fremantle, in western Australia. It felt very different from other cities, with a distinct sense of whimsy. Whenever a new sidewalk is installed, the neighbors are invited to personalize it. They add pebbles or broken tiles to form images or celebrate the birth of a child. Each is different and special. Other cities sponsor residents painting the traffic signal boxes or city vehicles.

Urban gardens establish place and bring food home. The Chicago City Farm near Cabrini Green sells 40 different varieties of heirloom tomatoes and other vegetables to high-end restaurants and offers low-cost produce to residents. There are lots of ways to support economies that strengthen a sense of place—northwest wild huckleberry sundaes, harvesting wood sustainably and drying it in solar kilns, then selling it as “character” wood, which uses far more of the tree than is normally sold.

A movement has arisen out of Italy called Slow City. Part is creating cafes and areas where we can get together and slow down. I don’t believe we can develop a strong sense of place without returning to the pedestrian way. We need to walk to experience what’s around us, to notice what’s unique about where we live.

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