Monday, March 10, 2014

Watching a World Go Away

The nature of this journal may take a different turn as I move away from active participation in the production of theater, teaching, consultant responsibilities and production reviewing. I expect it to enter a more broadly reflective phase.

It's our nature to grow up thinking that the world is all about what we refer to in theater as the pregnant present. Certainly momentous things have brought us to this point, but this moment now is only about now. As we age we become more fascinated with how we got here and the history of it all.

I grew up in western Kansas and watched the parade as my town celebrated it's Centennial. There were people knew the first settlers personally. I had friends whose late grandparents were among the first settlers. Before 1861, most of the territory was grasslands and prairie that had only been surveyed for benchmarks, along with the rest of the West.

1870s Limestone farmhouse in western Kansas
But there were old homesteads. Growing up in the 1950s we could find them. Splintered old farmhouses, some with evidence of yards, old root cellars, yard pumps and windmill parts still standing. Trudging around them one had to watch for rattlesnakes. The most fascinating ones were the prairie homes made out of the old limestone quarried nearby because there were no trees. Many of those were canibalized for foundation stones under newer structures. Most remaining were on old ranch lands miles away from towns on lonely roads. Some that weren't too remote were repurposed, added onto and modernized.

In much of the rest of the country the old structures may be harder to find buried in woods. Reforestation happens when you aren't looking. Heavily forested land once was farmed, as the thrown stone walls here testify to old land clearing. The power of the forests to reclaim ground is immense where it thrives. A trip up Rt 9 to Saratoga Springs, NY, once showed miles of deteriorating resorts being reclaimed by the woods - and may today. The expressway passed them by.

It is no secret that way too much of our land goes into parking lots. Single story shopping structures spread over acres and acres with immense lots and toxic drainage. The roads themselves eat up huge amounts of land, the wider and safer we make them. Failure to concentrate development stretches infrastructure. It also affects groundwater, waste disposal and other ecological conditions. We spend too much fuel and time transporting children to and from school and other activities, and we increase commuting time and impacts. Instead of developing local economies we build bedroom communities. A substantial part of any residential community travels into or half-way around Boston to go to work because that's where the work is. People from north of Boston travel to our area to work, rather than move their families from established surroundings. We can't seem to create an appropriate rail system to solve the transportation issues in a comprehensive way. We've been told repeatedly how bad this is for our ecology and communities, but we seem powerless to change things.

Rural farm, Lyons, Kansas, dates from late 1800s.

It's no revelation that we're caught in an ongoing struggle between legitimate urbanization and perpetual cancerous residential sprawl. In some ways we are luckier than parts of the country where the sprawl becomes a sea of blocks and crossroads. We are less lucky that we have failed to develop an efficient and effective alternative to private individual transport. Part of me feels great concern that we have reached a tipping point and that we are determined to return to the meagerly forested world of Nineteenth Century New England. But instead of replacing the woods with farms, we are eating it away for acre plots and McMansions, or for a half-dozen cheap duplexes put up in a week on an acre of land bulldozed out of the woods. We spread out the population creating school transportation problems. We thin out commercial development into even more dozens of little plazas that eat up land and require way too much driving to reach. We pave over huge acreage for parking lots because we have to drive. And we compound the transportation mess that we can't build our way out of. We have very little vertical development outside of 128.

What's the answer? Lets value living closer together. Instead of building new McMansions, let's reward better land use with higher density goals in rural towns, and improved services for concentrated populations. Let's reduce lot sizes and really tax people for non-agricultural land use above a certain size. And encourage focused and even more high-quality multifamily development - condominiums and quality apartments with garages and amenities, to allow concentration of schools and businesses. Let's up the game for sewer hook-ups and other services in rural areas, and get rid of septic systems and other ground disposal of waste. Then perhaps we can work on public transportation issues. What if it was really cheap and convenient to ride? We ARE going to have to deal with it someday and it will just get messier and more expensive.

It could be a tough pill for some, who value the rural world that has nothing to do with farming or animal husbandry. But it won't be long before those forests will be gone again, and most of the farms. Density is coming there, too. The population of Taunton has indeed grown ten percent in twenty years we've lived here, but the town is geographically very large. Old woods are falling under the bulldozer for new developments, instead of redevelopment of blighted properties. The huge woods behind my house is half the size it was when we bought.

I suppose much of this is inevitable, and alternative perspectives are cogent. But it shouldn't happen without a protest.

Arthur Dirks
March 10, 2014

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