A Spreading Dis-ease Around Us

The New York Times offered up a very interesting article, “Is There an Ecological Unconscious?”, in its 31/01/2010 edition, that I had saved a printout of and read again recently. This led me to an afternoon of reflection on what I have seen on the streets of the cities I have lived in within the last decade (Vancouver and Toronto), and, from it, I’d say that there is certainly a growing dis-ease with “things as they are developing” taking root (although an environmentalist or ecologist might not see it as any sort of “ecological unconscious” coming to the fore).

Our Heredity Does Play a Role

Modern man — homo sapiens sapiens — is a species that came to be in grasslands, with trees “in the picture”, but not a forested land. We retain, to this day, a general species preference for framed, open spaces. Obviously, individuals can and do “buck” this, and populations that grow up in other settings — the treeless tundra, on mountainsides, in bayous, and many other places. Even within these other settings, there are preferences shown for alpine meadows (surrounded by the mountains), small clearings (surrounded by the swamps), and the like, and this is common even when the meadows and clearings would be locales where it would be likely to pasture animals or grow crops for food. Wyoming, for instance, has often seen the animals on a ranch quartered at over 100 miles from the ranch itself, and it takes years to be an outsider and see the subtle differences between “good pastureland” and “a good place to live”.

We do, as Joel Garreau noted in passing in his The Nine Nations of North America, find a part of this vast continent as “home” even decades after moving from it (the sky is the right colour, the air has the right humidity, the horizon is the right distance away, etc.) and so the “desired amount” of open space varies.

A friend of mine, born in North Dakota but assigned to a parish in an Adirondack valley since the early 1970s, still finds his region “confining”, where I, who grew up in ravine-cut Toronto, don’t notice anything “wrong” with the number of trees and the shape of the horizon at all — likewise, I find the generally treeless prairies somewhat disconcerting, whereas a twenty mile horizon with just a tree or grain elevator punctuating the horizon is comforting to him. Both of us, in turn, appreciate the beauty of the mountains reaching the sea, but find it uncomfortable as a place to live, no matter how widely the river’s flood plain stretches between the ranges. Perhaps a native of his current home in upstate New York would find the lower Fraser Valley to their liking, too. And I do know of at least one native Vancouverite who, in downtown Toronto, panicked between the skyscrapers because there was no “frame” on the horizon: the mountains weren’t there to “shelter” him and give the “valley” dimensions.

In any event, as Evan Eisenberg noted in The Ecology of Eden, our yards and gardens in our little private residences are often attempts to recreate our own little bit of the savannah, with lawns of green replacing the tall grasses, and with trees at the property’s edge to frame it. From the tiny gardens of homes in Central London to the two acre zoning of Fairfield County, CT, this motif is replicated. It is even found in desert climes (e.g. Las Vegas, Phoenix, Alice Springs), until, at least, water restrictions start to create some desire for xerography. There are societies where apartment dwelling is “the norm”, in Western Europe, for instance, but these are also societies where the street is cared for as an “outdoor room”, and where pocket parks abound. For all the rest, some patch of green is sought.

So, if we are so able to recreate our own little patches of comforting savannah, why would there be dis-ease?

Climbing a Wall of Worry

Part, too, of modern life is its very urbanism: we are at the cross over where more of humanity lives in large urban areas than in villages and on the land. Then, too, the sprawl of cities has its effect not only on the land around them, but on patterns that emerge within the towns and villages that fall into their orbit.

Consider, for instance, what a small town or village traditionally was. It was a community. Its inhabitants lived there, worked there, bought and sold to each other. It had a variety of community organizations to provide for activities and entertainment. As the railways started to spread outward in the 1830s and after, more of these locations started to “have a way” for people to go elsewhere — but it was not until just short of the twentieth century (as noted by James Howard Kunstler in The Geography of Nowhere) that the notion of the “commuter” community first started to spread.

Not for nothing is Philadelphia’s “Main Line” known by that name: along the four track main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad commuter stations creating “commuting communities” in and amongst the older villages and towns. Half a mile from each station, though, rural and contained village life continued. Similar structures ringed most cities: the great exception being Los Angeles, where the Pacific Electric and its predecessors built a network of lines that promoted what we recognize today as suburban living well in advance of the automobile’s prevalence on the streets.

There is a qualitative difference between a place which is a dormitory community and one which has a beating, local heart — just as there is between a community that manufactures for its local needs vs one that imports its needs from elsewhere (or one that exports to others what it builds vs one that only handles its own requirements: see Jane Jacobs’ The Economy of Cities and Cities and the Wealth of Nations). One sign of a place that has a beating, local heart, is found in the shops on its main (high) street: is it filled with local business with only occasional chains, and is it filled with businesses for the local population (cleaners, barber, vegetables, etc.) or items for travellers (tourist items, soaps, etc.)? Are these shops, if local, well maintained, or do they appear drab and dying? Have the buildings kept their façades, or have they been forced into a curtainwall and plate-glass regularity required by corporate branding?

Whether you live in a small town or village, or whether you live in a great urban area and call a neighbourhood home, it is this sense of locality, of “being somewhere specific and known”, that is a connection through you to the community’s past and future. That sense of being somewhere connected and therefore “permanent” is the other great thing we crave, even when we follow our careers and move repeatedly from place to place. We want to know that there is a “home” to return to, a place that feels rooted. This can be in the heart of a great urban megalopolis quite as much as a small town.

Corporate mergers wiping out the local bank or shop, a lease being acquired by a chain “with outlets from coast to coast”, buildings being torn down (the sort that were 2-3 storeys high, with offices or apartments (flats) above a small retailer or light manufacturer) and being replaced by a parking lot with a “corporate box” in its centre (e.g. a McDonald’s) are signs that the community is losing its heart and soul.

Lose enough — enough of the local sports fields and teams, of the community theatre, of the neighbours who are also merchants, the local banker and the like — and the heart of the community slows and stops. Repairs aren’t made as frequently and a run-down demeanour presents itself to the street. Who in a corporate headquarters many kilometres away even knows they have an outlet in your neighbourhood? Or is it just a numbers game: it makes its numbers, it stays for another year; it doesn’t, it closes?

Residents start to look for work elsewhere (there is less of it in their own neighbourhood now), and their primary loyalty shifts from where they live to where they work. Often, in an effort to “spruce things up”, zoning is made more rigorous, which simply makes the possibility of neighbourhood enterprise that much more difficult. Soon what shops are left are either transient (the tattoo parlour, the fruit & vegetable shop that dies and is reborn again and again, the restaurant that comes and goes) or corporate outposts and franchises.

The loss of “permanence” weighs on the soul. Consider the Danforth between Donlands Ave. and Victoria Park Ave., once a vibrant sea of independent businesses with a few scattered bank branches and a couple of chain stores intermixed, now filled with the transient, the empty shop, and the “torn down and replaced by a parking lot” car dealers, doughnut shops and fast food outlets. Others — say Vancouver’s West Fourth Avenue through Kitsilano or Toronto’s Yonge St. north from Eglinton Avenue — see an increasing number of international chains displace local merchants, until the street could be anywhere, and the true community assets aren’t worth maintaining (as, for instance, Duthie Books is closed in Kitsilano, as the family simply “gave up” operating a very good independent bookstore in the face of a neighbourhood changed too far and [I suspect] whose chains alone could deal with growing business taxes and rents).

It is these changes, and the suburban ones: the endless widening of the arterial roads that never relieves the traffic, the ripping out of what undeveloped land exists to put up yet another condo complex, townhouse development or community of homes named for the trees, creeks or vistas no longer there (and that were the attraction to earlier newcomers to the community), and the inability to find anything for daily needs on the village high street (such as in Windsor, Berkshire, in the UK) thanks to tourism taking over, that sparks a subtle and pervasive dread.

This is a psychological disorder, whether DSM-IV (the index of “approved” mental illnesses) yet recognizes it or not. We do feel it.

Add to it the doubling of time it takes to reach open country now that perhaps it did thirty years ago — the Boston commuter-shed now reaches halfway across Massachusetts, and into New Hampshire, southwestern Maine and into Rhode Island, or Toronto sees regular commuters now from the 519, 705 and (just beginning) 613 area codes, well outside the 905/289 considered to be the “Greater Toronto Area”, or the 416/647 that is “the city” (2/3 of which was considered “suburban” only twelve years ago). Growing up in Toronto, there were still a fair number of operating farms within the metro limits. Today, if not for green belt restrictions, there would be none within two hours’ freeway driving from downtown.

Now Add General Uneasiness

All of this is bad enough, but there is also a present sense that things are going wrong generally. That we see what seems pretty obvious fraud not prosecuted, and our politics constantly treated as theatre without substance, does not help.

More people than ever have résumés filled with company names that no longer exist, whether through merger or bankruptcy. The notion of “finding a good company and working there to get your pension” is lost to almost everyone except the broader public sector workers, and soon not them as well (for it is true that there is imbalance there to correct).

More people than ever cannot and do not live close to their children: their children cannot afford their neighbourhood. Increasingly — for the Millennial Generation knows there is no security, anywhere — the children are renting in the city, while their parents remain trapped on sterile suburban streets.

Meanwhile, the passion for scale in our economy has concentrated opportunity in fewer locales: there are very few companies, for instance, that see the point of the German Mittelständ these days, where global markets do not mean outsourcing or concentrating plants and the primary moral duty is to the health of the community that hosts the firm in its midst.

So, yes, the people you meet feel this. Some of that shows up as a passion for ecological redemption. Some of that also shows up as a sense that “society must be changed”. Others take it as a need for resistance, both as “build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone” or “not in my backyard” and as a “turn the clock back” type of pseudo-conservativism that is fundamentally radical at its core. Green, Left or Neocon Right, it matters not: the sense that we are losing what little is left causes the volume, and the intensity of positions, to ratchet up again and again. Of course, with them ratcheted so high, there is no possibility of a consensus forming (another sign that something is wrong to add to our dis-ease with our times).

Until we again return our lives and places in which we live them to a scale that we as humans can take comfort in, this dis-ease will continue to spread and likely turn sociopathic toward the end. There is, in other words, a reason to build communities that work. For many of us these days, if we do, it will be the first one we have ever lived in.



Add yours →

  1. Peterborough has a reasonable scale, and there is no freeway through it. The malls have dessicated the downtown core. Rather, peoples preference to car culture has favoured the malls. The unemployment seems to have set up a class system. There are the government, (federal, provincial, and municipal) jobs. They have nice cars. I sense that there is the car culture, and the ambulatory culture. You can walk, and or cycle most of Peterborough. The place seems gutted though, by the unspeakable general collapse. Kingston is another city that seems to be fairing better. It seems to have a broader and diverse economic base. I just don’t think there are jobs to sustain the benefits of Peterborough.

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