Sentenced to . . . Sprawl

From today’s Philadelphia Inquirer:

Graterford Prison, home to some of Pennsylvania’s most dangerous criminals, could be on its way out of Skippack Township, ending a stay that has spanned eight decades.

Yet as word spread yesterday, officials and residents of the Montgomery County community voiced their fear that something worse could move in: condos.

Imagine that – Not In My Back Yard suburbanites are now preferring a prison to, uh, neighbors.  Of course, they know that more neighbors means more sprawl, more cars, more congestion, more (ugly) shopping centers, more seas of parking lots . . .

We’ve sentenced ourselves to communities where cars are needed for everything – to buy a gallon of milk, to get the kids to school, to visit friends.  I grew up in a suburban neighborhood that was built in the 1920s, a neighborhood where I could walk to two Italian delicatessens, two parks, a barber, a bank, the library, school (elementary, middle and high school), a bakery, and more.  We didn’t have a 1.5 acre yard, culs-de-sac, or streets named after displaced wildlife.  We had (by today’s standards) small houses on small lots, built so close together that you could hear your neighbors argue or be intimate.  We knew our neighbors, had keys to their houses in case of emergency, shoveled each other sidewalks.  It wasn’t perfect – far from it.  Alcoholism gripped a few of the families on the block, as did domestic violence, and the police were often on our street investigating the smell of a certain potent weed.  But it was a community, a neighborhood where people were in relationship with – rather than isolation from – each other.

But times are different now – we are different now.  We don’t want to hear what’s going on in our neighbor’s house.  We want to get our lunch meats from a mega grocery store instead of a corner deli.  We bank on-line rather than down the street.  We don’t visit parks because we’re glad to plant our kids in front of televisions and video games.  The values of our society are changing.  The market is demanding bigger houses on bigger lots.  Neighborhoods such as that of my childhood are relics of the past.

(Please, don’t cop-out and blame the developers – they’re only giving the consumer what they want.  If the consumer wanted row-homes, or duplexes, or smaller houses on smaller lots, developers would build them.  It would be fair, however, to blame government.  Municipalities and states could establish zoning and tax structures to greatly limit or end sprawl, if they wanted to.)

What does this mean for my girls?  They are being raised spending much more time sitting in car seats than walking or playing on sidewalks.  The closest playground to my house is at . . . McDonald’s! – and we can’t even walk there safely.  Will my girls explore childhood independence, as I did, by making solo treks to the corner store to get milk and meats?  Will they have have neighbors who allow them to run through their yards to play summer games of kick the can?  What will their childhood look like? 

A prison may soon be razed in suburban Philadelphia.  But a new one is already being planned – with units starting in the low $300,000s!  The sentence is just.  We’re all guilty as charged.

About Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.
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2 Responses to Sentenced to . . . Sprawl

  1. Pink Shoes says:

    This is a topic near and dear to my heart. I took an urban sociology class my last year of college and nearly changed my major. When we looked to buy a house this past fall tops of things that we were looking for: sidewalks, close to a library, walkable to an elementary school, grocery, etc. We found a house in a planned suburb from the 1950s that has what we were looking for, but we’ll struggle to develop the sense of community that came with the original house.

  2. liz says:

    A very thought-provoking post, especially appropriate for us as we contemplate building a house in a new part of town. If I can get over my guilt, I’ll probably appreciate that this particular development is a part of well-planned growth for the city (not just random sprawl) and that the neighbors seem to be intentional about creating community (safe neighborhoods, good schools, etc.). There just seems something wasteful about building a new house and not buying an already-existing one… but alas, would you believe we can afford a new house much more easily than an old one? I guess I’ll take your suggestion and choose to blame the government about that…

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