Thursday, April 04, 2002

Mobility Erodes Community

As I continue to read Swenson's book "Margin", I agree with most of what he's said about progress bringing more stress into our lives, and would say that I've heard that said in various ways before. One specific point that he mentions, though, really caught my attention. He discusses various unforeseen negative byproducts of progress, one in particular being how the increase in transportation ease and options has weakened the sense of community in our society. The more I thought about this, the more that it rang true.

In the old "village" model, people walked most places, and close knit communities were a natural consequence of that. People knew most everyone that they came in contact with in their daily routines. Now, when we can choose any of dozens of dry cleaners, markets, churches, bookstores, and so on, we are likely to scatter and mix in ever-changing ways. Sure, you end up being less provincial, but you are likely to end up with only superficial connections from those scattered experiences. Today's society has a lot of levels of this, but transportation is a factor most of the time. People are built for community, so you'll find a lot of the same people driving from miles around to see each other at the same nightspot every week, but where are they all the next day?

The greatest sense of community in our country is found in some extant old villages, rural towns, beach communities, and "urban villages" - these all share the now-obsolete urban plan to work without the need for cars. Some of the most highly planned communities out there are laid out so that you have no choice but to drive everywhere that you go. I'd first been introduced to this years ago in an class that featured a segment on Urban Design. It struck me at the time to the extent that I became convinced that "walkable" communities are best, and that mixed-use development was ready for a comeback because so much of industry is now clean and quiet.

But the further dimension, that the mere ability to travel quickly and easily erodes our connection to, and participation in, community, was something I hadn't fully considered. I personally love the options that mobility gives me, as I agree that contact with the larger world helps us all gain understanding and insight. I'm not making plans just yet to go live in Amish country, either, but it is sobering to realize some of the costs of that ready mobility.


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