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Better Communities for Our Children
Michael Esser, May 2005

The most fundamental human instinct is survival.  Not only survival of the individual, but survival of the species.  It's no wonder that most people's ultimate goal in life (whether they realize it or not) is to provide as many opportunities as possible for their children to survive and succeed.

"It takes a village to raise a child."  One of our oldest truisms, it is also one that we, with our independent American spirit, often seem to forget.  Certainly, it seems that creating nurturing community environments for our children is not given much consideration in the design of most of today's communities.  Most of today's communities--suburban developments--are designed around the automobile - providing convenient access and storage for them.  In fact, the most prominent entrance to our homes--the living spaces that provide us physical and psychological shelter--is for our automobiles.  Yet nothing that we so ubiquitously cherish is as much at odds with the safety and well-being of our children.  Automobile-related injuries are the leading cause of death for our children.  The front of homes--the only side that is usually publicly accessible...and therefore the only area that people will typically socialize on an impromptu basis with their neighbors--is usually dominated by the street, driveways, and of course cars themselves.  So the impromptu daily social interaction that is so critically important to provide a real sense of community simply doesn't happen in most of suburbia, because the only place it could be accomplished is psychologically uncomfortable.

Children are even more social than adults, and interaction is necessary for proper social development.  But most adults are rightfully afraid of letting their children meet and play with others in the front yard.  "Children aren't paying attention to the road!"  "What about strangers pulling up in cars, enticing the children in, and making a quick getaway?"  No matter how much we may push aside these fears as unlikely, they are always there to nag us in the back of our head.  And so our children rarely play in the front yard, where they are free to meet new people and socialize.

The end result of all this is isolation.  Most homes in today's communities are islands unto themselves.  Very little social interaction occurs between neighbors.  People watch television to hear their fill of talk.  They get engrossed in the lives of fictional characters on TV dramas rather than their friends and neighbors.  Kids turn their energies to video games rather than healthy play with their peers.  People use the internet for socializing.  (Why?  In large part because they can socialize in a more comfortable physical environment.)  On the rare occasions when guests do visit, it is usually by formal invitation, and they are usually old friends, colleagues from work, or in the case of children, classmates.  Very rarely is there a strong neighborhood social structure in suburban America today.

People simply do not stop to consider the widespread effects of poor community design.  We mentioned the leading cause of death for children. The leading cause of death for adults is heart disease.  And, of course, obesity is the leading cause of heart disease.  Obesity has reached truly epidemic proportions not only in adults but in children as well.  All this sitting at home watching TV, playing video games, or using the internet not only provides ample opportunity for snacking, but actually lowers the body's metabolism, essentially 'breeding laziness' - making it seem like even more of an effort to get up and go do something physical.  Not to mention the fact that since suburbia is typically isolated itself, people are sick enough of sitting in their cars during their daily commute, and don't really relish the idea of getting back into their cars to drive somewhere else to do something active and healthy.  Obesity has reached epidemic proportions because people are sitting at work, sitting in the car, and sitting at home rather than having the alternative of safely walking or biking a short distance to work, and a convenient, well-designed place to be active and social in the evenings right outside their door.

And that's not the only unhealthy (indeed unnatural) side effect of sitting at home rather than socializing and becoming an integral part of the community.  While people are sitting around, they are constantly barraged by advertising on the TV, the internet, and even in magazines and newspapers that aims to make them feel incomplete, ugly, less desirable, and generally substandard without the advertised product.  (Ironically, many ads attempt to convey this message by showing product users as being popular in various social settings...not happily sitting at home.  Marketers have it figured out.)  Of course, not only do people not become more sociably popular by going out and buying a product, they become more debt-ridden as well.  Many find they need to work longer hours or get a second job to support their buying habits, further tiring them out and decreasing the time they have available for the socialization and sense of importance in the community they desired (consciously or subconsciously) in the first place.  Indeed, most of our so-called "free" society is actually forced to work to maintain the things they are indebted to the bank for: mortgage, car payments, etc.  What's more, the whole "keeping up with the Joneses" aspect of community living actually serves to alienate people from their neighbors, not make them more popular.  Most people's salaries are enough to put a simple roof over their head and wholesome food on the table, so why do people choose to go into debt and lose their true freedom?  Because they have succumbed to the constant barrage of marketing forced upon them.  People who are active in their communities are much more difficult targets for marketers than those sitting at home.

While all these negative side effects of poor community design impact everyone, they particularly affect children who are raised in this environment.

In traditional urban and rural communities, those who you lived near--and necessarily interacted with on a daily basis--were a sort of extended family.  If for some reason you were not getting along with members of your immediate family, there were always alternative people in the community to whom you could go for support.  This idea seems very foreign to many of us, but that is because we are really the progeny of the first generation to live in relative isolation from our neighbors.  It was not so very long ago that neighborhoods were much more vibrant, social places...places that were much more nurturing for our children.

Children need a variety of different ideas and influences to stimulate intellectual growth.  Teens in particular need a strong support structure that goes beyond immediate family as they strive to establish their own identity.  Suicide rates are at an all time high (the second and third leading causes of death of various age groups between 10 and 35).  When these tragic events occur (and even worse atrocities that claim innocent lives), it is often, sadly too easy to trace the young people's problems back to a lack of a strong support structure outside of their immediate family.  It may be natural to assume that poor parenting or lack of parental involvement (too busy focusing on work to support their spending?) is to blame, but that is not always the case.  We all know that teens tend to rebel against their immediate families while in search of their own identity.  During this critical rite of passage into adulthood, today's youth often have only schoolmates to fall back on for support during very emotionally stressful times.  If those too-often fickle schoolmates should turn their backs, today's teens may feel there is nowhere else to go.  Perhaps back to the lonely fantasyland of often-violent video games?  Worse yet, they may go to the only people who will support them... no matter what kind of influence those people may be.  (It only takes one embittered, angry soul to lead the lost.)  It is those in desperate situations who do desperate things.

Peers and adults operate much differently in a neighborhood setting than they do in schools.  Teens, in particular, can only benefit from having a trusted network of friends and adult role models in the community.  This neighborhood network is something that has been slowly disappearing in America since the advent of the modern, automobile-enabled-and-focused suburb in the 1950's.  It is something for which society continues to pay a dear price, and unless we do something to change the tide of current development, it will only get worse.



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Last modified: June 15, 2005