Want to Promote Family Values? Build Sidewalks.
A Town of Mini-Rockefellers

Why Sidewalks?

In the comments section of yesterday's post, Patrick Nielsen Hayden says "I actually wish you'd spell out your argument about family values and sidewalks." A few years ago, I was all upset about this and capable of long rants, but I feel a bit beaten down on this subject, since not many people in this area seem to see the lack of sidewalks as the serious problem I perceive it to be. I married into this place. Most of the rest of the people moved out here because they actually thought it was a good idea to live this way.

When people complain about the unwalkablility of suburbs, they usually point to unnecessary gasoline consumption or specific details, such as Americans becoming fatter because they don't walk anymore.

I approach this topic from a pragmatic and functional standpoint. I live in Pleasantville, NY, one of the places the suburbs were invented. Readers Digest's historic move to our town was one of the things that set the new idea of the suburbs in motion. Also, we are about a mile from Frank Lloyd Wright & co.'s development, Usonia. We live in the kind of suburb people move to "for the kids." We have an excellent school system, fine libraries, and beautiful, well-equipped parks.

Yes, I will drive an enormous car over 60 miles today to get Peter where he needs to go. Summer camp has begun. If you see children in their own yard during summer camp hours, it's like seeing a racoon out in daylight -- it means they're sick; don't go close. Children are trucked away every weekday morning in the summer and don't return until late afternoon.

Two summers ago, I did a lot of work in the yard. I watched all summer and never saw an unaccompanied child walk down our street. Many adults walk for exercise. But those gentle suburban curves in the street hamper visibility. Many yards have shrubbery that grows into the street. And, of course, there are no sidewalks. Why don't kids walk down the street? Although there is very little traffic, to walk safely, you have to zigzag across the street.

We have an interesting swamp behind our house. The only child other than my own that I have ever observed exploring it isn't from around here. He lives in Scottland and his grandfather lives up the street. Poison ivy and Lyme disease reinforce the general suburban tendencies, so kids stay in their own yards until mommy can drive them somewhere. They do this until they are old enough to drive.

When Peter was born, there were several families with children close by, but they never crossed property lines. Playdates came in cars by appointment. Kids played in their own yards in the center of the grass on wooden playstructures. All of those families have moved away and have been replaced by other families. As each new family has moved in, I have encouraged the idea of spontaneity, of children crossing property lines, and with good results. Slowly, things are changing.

What is the impact of the lack of sidewalks on a neighborhood? It removes most of the social supports for both mothers and children. Know any teenaged baby sitters? I don't. Want someone to play with? Mom will make a few phone calls and see what she can set up for Tuesday of next week. And it gets scary when there's an actual emergency if you don't know anyone nearby. I've shovelled snow with pneumonia because I didn't know what else to do. I've taken an infant along when I went to the emergency room, since there was nothing else I could do. Neighborhoods without sidewalks are stripped of a lot of basic supports for family life because people do not know one another and do not regularly interact.

So, other than the very cumbersome institution of "playdates," how do children have friends? Parents sign the kids up for activities. The lack of sidewalks strips the neighborhood of one of its basic functions, which is then sold back to us at a premium price. How do people find baby sitting? Many have live-in baby sitters or regular sitters charging $12/hour or more. I can't hire random teenagers I don't know, and since I have no network for knowing them, I pay experienced adults with many references. This means that at home, I don't get out much in the evening. Similarly, all other functions that might emerge from cooperative effort within a neighborhood are subcontracted. Running a household around here up to local standards amounts to managing a complex network of subcontractors. (Some even contract out the putting up of Christmas decorations.)

Parents can drive and can subcontract, but children can't. They live strangely isolated and over-supervised lives with little autonomy or opportunity for exploration. (I have thought of nominating poison ivy as the official plant of Westchester County, since it seems to me an icon of isolating greenery.) I can't quite imagne growing up this way, and yet my children are.

What has all this to do with family values? A functioning family is not a discrete nuclear entity. Rather, it functions within a community, and stripped of it neighborhood supports it is much less functional. Supporting the family means supporting the neighborhood, and neighborhoods are much more likely to function properly if they have sidewalks.

Does the lack of sidewalks contribute to divorce and the breakdown of families? I think it does, though I know of no statistical evidence one way or another.

Why are neighborhoods built without sidewalks? Because sidewalks are expensive and contractors are allowed by municipalities to get away with building developments without. We shouln't allow them to do that, but increasingly the suburban neighborhood without sidewalks is the shape of American life.

PETER'S THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: Why don't apes have playdates?

That simple question is in its way quite profound and resonates nicely with my post of this morning. (I did explain to him that we are apes. But he meant all the rest of the apes.)