February has not quite come to a close and yet 2017 has already been interesting and exciting for the Golbabai family. Over the past few months, Paula and I have spent considerable time working on out next project – finding a house here in College Station. Not just any house, mind you, but the right place for us to raise our kids and put down roots. This search was especially difficult for the two of us because of our seemingly divergent tastes. As a new urbanist and city planner, I advocate for density, connectivity and walkability. Paula, on the other hand, regularly re-reads the Little House on the Prairie series, loves wide open spaces and has been researching the maintenance of backyard chickens. After living my ideal for several years in Central Austin, we’ve been experimenting these past few months living Paula’s ideal by renting in the country. Luckily, after nearly losing hope that the two visions of life could be reconciled in any degree, we did end up finding that right fit for us both. But this article isn’t so much about where we ended up, but about surprising lessons and insights we gained on the journey to get there.
The Problem of Other People’s Cars
The first thing that Paula and I were able to reach a consensus about was regardless of where we ended up – urban, suburban or rural – we wanted a living space relatively free from other people’s cars. With that said, we’re not willing to give up our own cars, especially with two small kids and few practical alternatives. This admittedly hypocritical dilemma really highlights our predicament as placebuilders in an auto-centric, market-driven economy. As illustrated in Strong Town’s article the Neighbor’s Dilemma, the car is the ultimate tragedy of the commons problem: individually we enjoy the convenience of going directly from Point A to Point B as quickly as we can, whenever we want. For that our cars are fantastic and are made better with open roads. However, when everyone else makes the same rational decision that I do, it’s not too long before the increased traffic and safety issues deteriorate the quality of life for everyone.
This is particularly true for children. As parents of two small kids, the street represents a real threat to our children’s ability to wander, roam and play freely. Yet from the start of the automobile era a century ago, the role of street as a safe destination to play and as a clear thoughput for vehicles to move quickly have been diametrically opposed. Per Peter D. Norton’s Fighting Traffic,
“Streets were the playgrounds for most city children, but in the 1920s street games were becoming a high-stakes gamble. Nearly half of the children struck down in city streets were on their home block, a fact indicating that unsupervised street play was probably a much bigger risk factor than journeys to school or stores. …
Despite the dreadful toll of death and injury, some safety reformers defended children’s right to play there. They objected to efforts to bar children from using the streets to cross them at designated points. Since most people held motorists responsible for accidents involving pedestrians, and since pedestrians had extensive rights to the streets, forcing children off the streets could seem like making the innocent pay for the crimes of the guilt. A Milwaukee educator defended street play, even at the expense of inconveniencing motorists, as consistent with the “widest enjoyment of our streets for the greatest number.” “Are streets for commercial and pleasure [automobile] traffic alone?” she asked. Street play was an exercise of the child’s “inherent rights.” She recommended barring automobiles from some streets and turning them over to children, so as to allow “precious childhood to enjoy its legitimate and God-given desire to play.”
Nearly a century later, it’s interesting to find that we’re still trying to figure out the answer to this question; how do we build places for our children to play safely while still retaining the automobile as the dominant mode of transportation? What we found in our housing search is that this is a persistent problem no matter what type of living environment we were to choose. What differs is the proposed solution:
- In Urban Environments: Create viable alternatives through safe and efficient transit wide sidewalks, for walking and bike routes and trails between common destinations. Build parks and playgrounds to serve a large public backyard for safe play.
- In Suburban Environments: Create a system of local, collector, and arterial streets to shift traffic away from where people live and play. Local streets and cul-de-sacs provide children the opportunity to bike and play safely in the street.
- In Rural Environments: Create significant separation buffers with the automobile through the use of large setbacks and large lots. This provides for an extensive amount of private outdoor space for work, roaming and play without access for cars.
While there are pros and cons associated with each of these approaches, the varied responses indicate the extent of both the disturbance caused by the automobile and our dependence upon it.
Our second take-away was the importance of something that Paula and I have talked about for some time now in connection with a place to live: default activities. While we couldn’t quite agree on a cabin in the woods or a walk-up apartment, we could certainly agree that the presence and variety of default activities was good criteria upon which to conduct the housing search. Let me explain.
Paula and I first started talking about what we referred to as “default activities” back in our dating days. Like anyone else, we would sometimes find ourselves with odd chunks of time on our hands – not enough to plan something big and exciting but too much for just doing nothing at all. Over time, we noticed that we had developed a short list of entertaining and readily available activities we would turn to to fill this time. While dating and as a young married couple living in Central Austin it was kayaking on Lady Bird Lake, biking downtown in search of some live music, or just browsing around a bookstore. As our lives evolved, so too did our set of go-to activities (I assure you that with two little ones there was far less paddling or biking around in the dead of summer!). As a family with young children, our rural College Station default activities of late have consisted of hiking and trying to teach my son how to skip a rock on the lake.
At my best, default activities have ranged from exercise, to reading, to working on a dream side project (like this blog). These activities engage me on different levels, sharpen my abilities, and make me a better person in the process. But if default activities are using disposable time at its best, then “default passivity” is when I lazily waste my time in activities I know aren’t as productive. I know that for myself default passivity consists of surfing the Internet on my Ipad, particularly ESPN.com or various social media sites. For others it’s the television (did you know the average American watches five hours of television a day?) or playing video games or being on our smart phones. The ironic part of these activities is that not only do we know in our hearts they’re not particularly good for us, but if we are perfectly honest we know it’s not particularly fun either.
Now having lived in urban, suburban, and rural built environments, I believe that the temptation of default passivity is the same in each because the same things are just plain easy to do when we’re not doing anything no matter where we are – the Internet, our smart phones, and our televisions. But this is why it is important for each place to offer its own brand of equally easily accessible activities to draw us out of our houses and into the wider world. In the city that might mean to restaurants and concert halls. In the country that’s rope swings and camp fires. Different sets of default activities will appeal to different kinds of people, which is why I think one might happily live in any of the three settings – as long as default activities are present and varied. So when we went looking for our next home, we were sure to assess what kind of activities we would probably default into and whether by doing so, we were becoming the type of people and the family we wanted to be.
In the end, I don’t think there’s any one answer to where to live, but the process of determining that for ourselves and our families should be deliberate. I think it is important to ask questions about what kind of activities we will default into by living here and where and how will children have the freedom to roam and still be safe from the automobile. These needs may be met in our own private space, whether that’s inside for a workshop or a craft room or outside for chickens, gardens, and places to play ball. It could also be found in public spaces, especially those places we can walk or bike to (libraries, nature, friends, etc). In the end, the places we put ourselves in should be used to develop ourselves as whole and active persons engaged in the world and passionate about living in it. And perhaps, if enough of us demand this with our housing market choices, we could start building places like this as well!