Thursday, January 29, 2009

On the Virtues of Living in Town


George Wuerthner

I just got back from the store where I picked up a newspaper and some fresh fruit. Along the way I made a quick stop at the bank where I retrieved some money from the ATM. Since I was just across from the post office, I picked up my mail. And on the way home, I stopped at the cafĂ© to get a cup of coffee and visit with a friend. The “trip” to town was a nice break from sitting in front of a computer and gave me a chance to even socialize a bit. It was possible for me to do all these things without once getting in my vehicle because I live in town. In fact, all the places I visited are within a few blocks of my home.

Though I sometimes use my vehicle when the weather is particularly nasty or time is limited, I can usually do many of my activities by walking or riding a bike if I choose. And living in the shadow of Peak Oil, I’ve come to appreciate the benefits of being in a village, town or city where I can reduce my reliance upon the automobile.

Because I live in town, both of my kids have a freedom that most children lack these days—they can walk to school, to friends, to soccer games, and other events. My daughter tells me that out of 90 kids in her 7th grade, only 4 of them regularly walk to school. The rest ride a bus or are driven by parents. Their lives are highly regulated by the availability of their parents as chaffers or school bus transport. Given how few kids walk to school or any place else any more, it’s no wonder that childhood obesity is such a problem.

The majority of people in my community live out on their one to five acre tracts scattered along the rural roads away from the central village. They believe they are living the American dream or from my perspective the American nightmare. Their homes fragment wildlife habitat and chew up open space. Their septic tanks leach pollution into the local waterways. Worse of all they spend a lot of their free time driving. Driving the kids to school. Driving to the grocery store. Driving to work. Driving to play. Driving just to be driving.

Where I live today is such a contrast from where I thought I would wind up when I was in my twenties. Then it was my dream to live in a remote cabin somewhere in Alaska, and I did so for short periods of time as well as other remote locations around the Rockies. But I always came back to town—either because I needed to work or go to school. After a while I realized that I was tied to town whether I liked it or not.

Over time I actually came to understand that I liked living in town but the real epiphany for me occurred because of an old girlfriend. I was back in Montana going to the University of Montana (I was a perennial student on and off for years). My girlfriend at the time rented a cabin down on the flanks of the Bitterroot Range south of Stevensville. It was a romantic location—you could sit on the front porch of the cabin and take in a good sweep of the valley all the way to the Sapphire Range. It was quiet. There were elk and deer nearby. And, of course, you could ski or hike out the door—as my girlfriend always liked to tell people when she would brag about where she was living.

But she rarely had time to go hiking or skiing. She, like me, was a student which meant that she had to come into town every day to attend class. It would take an hour to get from the cabin to the classroom—assuming the car would start when it was 20 below and the snow wasn’t too deep, and the roads weren’t too slick with ice or snow. She spent about two hours a day commuting from her lovely cabin in the woods to the university and back again. By the time the weekend would roll around and I would ask her to go hiking or skiing, she would often decline. She had to do the laundry, clean the cabin, chop wood, buy the groceries, and sometimes just catch up on the sleep she didn’t get during the week. She didn’t have time to enjoy the woods in her backyard because she spent too much time sitting in a car driving into town and back.

I, on the other hand, lived about four blocks from the campus and could roll out of bed fifteen or twenty minutes before a class, and ride my bike to the campus with time to spare. Since I lived so close to the school, it was easy to use the library, go home for lunch or whatever, and I almost always got most of my studying done during the week so my weekends were often free to explore the Montana countryside.

Since that time, I have always chosen to live in town. And now that I have kids, I’m even more convinced that living in town is the right place to be—because it gives them as well as me, more freedom. In town I can take advantage of all the things that towns can provide kids from the public library to the public swimming pool. There are many other reasons to encourage people to live in town. Studies have shown that it’s far more costly to provide services to people who live outside of communities than those in town. There’s also a loss of community civil life. Plus people who are constantly driving here and there have less time to devote to community endeavors and less time to know their neighbors. And in many parts of the West if you live out of town, you are almost surely on some former big game winter range or in the potential path of a wildfire. If you have to live someplace—think about living in town and/or at least on its edge—both the wildlife and other taxpayers will thank you.

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