People expressed quite a bit of surprise at the recent poll ranking Pittsburgh as the country's most liveable city. If Pittsburgh is all you've known, it certainly would seem surprising that other people would move here voluntarily. I myself moved from Colorado Springs, an old west town on the line between the mountains and the desert, full of natural wonders and beauty. People often ask me, "And why did you move here?"
I wondered myself what instinct led me here, until a recent trip to the exurban "asteroid belt" of Atlanta, an old city choked and shriveling inside an ever-growing knot of super-highways and new housing developments. I now know what makes a place liveable. I know why the religious right has grown in numbers and power over the past few decades, why marketing and law are more popular professions than science and engineering. I know why we are spilling our blood in Iraq. I know why we, as a people, feel lost as though our destiny were being taken from us one day at a time.
The answer lies in the way we have built our environment. The answer, in one word, is suburbia. Human beings, like all other animals, seek an environment that is conducive to their way of life. Where we cannot find one that exists, we build it. This is natural. What is unnatural is the way our creation has taken over our lives to the point that there seems to be no other way of life possible. The monster of suburbia has grown from an innocent idea into a juggernaut, riding it's own momentum into a future of endless expansion. But no machine can be run forever. Every system, small or large, simple or complex, breaks down eventually. There is no such thing as endless growth.
As you drive down the roads you see no houses, only the entraces to communities with names like Willow Run and Shady Brook Estates. But these are not real communities. There is nowhere to walk when you're behind these gates and signs, except in an endless loop between houses built exactly like your own. To enter or to leave you must be in a car, which means that these environments were not built for humans, but for cars. The shops and businesses that would normally be a gathering place for humans are only accessable by car, being too far removed from the housing lots and, in general, not even connected by sidewalks. Here and there you see an aborted attempt to place a walkway, only to have it end or run itself literally into nowhere. The concrete is there for decoration, a vestigial remnant of places where walking used to matter. Places like the old neighborhoods of Pittsburgh.
There is nothing worth caring about in suburban settlements like this. Alpharetta, the region just outside Atlanta where I am staying, isn't really a city or even a borough the way that Swissvale or Oakland or Shadyside are. There is no civic center because there is no civic society here, there are only boxes, identical to the boxes in every other suburban area and built only for cars. In fact, the closest thing to a civic center these places have is churches, and given the lack of other real options it is not surprising that people would feel a strong desire to go there. A sense of belonging comes from having a sense of place, and that comes from living in a place worth caring about. And if you can't care about the place you live, then you need something else to believe in. Megachurches fill that gap nicely.
More thoughts later. I need to let this digest.