Updated September 19, 2020
Everyone loves convenience. So why are our neighborhoods so inconvenient? Part of it has to do with our love of cars. If it’s so convenient to drive everywhere, why design neighborhoods where you don’t have to?
In the olden days (before the invention of shopping centers), people bought most of what they needed in neighborhood shopping districts. If they needed something the local shops didn’t carry—and lived in a city—they could always go downtown. Shopping malls seemed much more convenient. Then came big box stores, which seemed more convenient still.
And don’t we love of our lawns? The newer the neighborhood, the bigger the lawns. The tools that work nicely in old inner-city neighborhoods are too inconvenient for these huge yards.
The costly convenience of driving everywhere
When I was in third grade or so, I saw the man who lived across the street coming home from wherever he had been. He surprised me by pulling into our driveway. He came in to talk with my parents.
No surprise there; he was among their best friends for another 60 years. But then he got in his car and drove across the street to his driveway.
That seemed very odd. Why didn’t he pull into his own driveway and walk across the (dead end) street to our house? That was in the middle of the 1950s. Today, maybe it doesn’t seem odd at all.
I didn’t realize it, but our small-town neighborhood was a new type of neighborhood springing up all over the country at that time. Hardly anything but other people’s houses were within walking distance. Such neighborhoods were designed on the assumption that everyone had a car and would drive everywhere. Very convenient.
I think gas cost something like $0.289 a gallon back then, and was pretty stable. Now, of course, it is much more expensive, and prices seldom stay the same for more than a week or two at a time.
Even though the fracking boom has greatly increased American oil production, US oil imports haven’t declined. We still import a lot of oil. And with the rest of the world aspiring to our standard of living, it isn’t cheap anymore. No one wants to live anywhere near a refinery, so there aren’t enough of them to meet the demand at certain key times of the year. At least we can build cars that don’t foul the air as much as they did in the ’50s.
But high gas prices are not the only cost of the convenience of driving everywhere. Consider:
- Many neighborhoods have no sidewalks, even on busy streets. That discourages walking even for recreation.
- Making walking in the neighborhood inconvenient or even dangerous encourages people to drive even short distances. In other words, instead of moving their bodies they sit. They let the car expend all the energy.
- After a while, getting out of the car and walking can seem like an unreasonable imposition. So fast-food stores and others provided the drive-thru.
- Therefore, besides making us dependent on foreign oil, our cars are making us fat.
The modern lawn
In my paternal grandparents’ neighborhood, houses were very close together and close to the street. Everyone got to their garages by an alley behind the houses. If they had a garden or children’s play area in the back, owners could mow whatever grass they had with a reel mower in about 15 minutes.
My maternal grandparents lived on a larger lot, but most of their back yard was a vegetable garden. They, too, used a reel mower. When my parents moved to the neighborhood I described earlier, they needed a gas mower, which yours truly had to use.
After I got married,I remember the day I was pushing my noisy gas lawnmower and it dawned on me that modern technology had provided me with a machine so that I could do what used to be the job of the family goat.
I don’t think anyone has ever managed to teach the goat a difference between grass or weeds (eat these) and shrubbery, flowers, or vegetables (don’t eat these).
Zoning regulations would not let me buy a goat even if I especially wanted to. Over the last sixty years or so, houses are built farther apart on larger tracts of land. We have come to love our big lawns. Those old-fashioned mowers just won’t cut it anymore (no apology for the pun).
Gas mowers contribute more to pollution than cars do. At least I still have to push mine. I think I’ll probably get a battery-operated mower when I have to replace it. The earliest electric mowers had a cord. I saw someone run over their cord, so I was afraid even to consider getting one.
So many people nowadays have houses on such huge lots that they need riding mowers. They have some other machine besides their car to expend all the energy and make them fat!
Of course, the ideal lawn not only has to be mowed. It also has to be kept free of weeds and protected from bugs and grubs and other interested parties. We have quite an arsenal of chemicals to ensure that only one species of plant grows in our lawns.
Turns out that a lot of those chemicals aren’t any healthier for us or our pets than they are for the pests. I said earlier that rain falling on soil soaks in until the ground gets saturated. In big storms, after a while it does.
Then water will run off your lawn the way it runs off your street. And takes all those lawn chemicals with it.
Modern shopping patterns
I think I hadn’t yet graduated from high school when Kresge, a failing dime store, reinvented itself as K-Mart.
I don’t remember which came first, big box stores or enclosed shopping malls, but both offered the convenience of finding all kinds of products in one place.
And what’s it like to have the big box stores and various kinds of malls gathered in one place in town? Frequent stoplights, confusing traffic patterns, and huge traffic jams. That means not only more gas and time wasted but also more opportunities for fender-benders.
Unlike older neighborhood stores, both big box stores and shopping malls (even little strip malls) require large parking lots. At least those lots make us walk at least a little, but they’re impervious to rain.
When rain lands on soil, it soaks in, at least until it becomes saturated. When it lands on roofs, streets, or parking lots the size of lots of our ancestors’ farms, it runs off. It contributes greatly to urban flooding.
In recent years, developers are beginning to design more pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods. Residents will be able to walk safely and even find shops within walking distance where they can pick up necessities.
Now that should be a convenience without a lot of hidden costs!
In my current neighborhood, I have some stores within walking distance. Some of them even have what I want to buy. Mostly, though, I have to drive. I usually shop at the nearby stores on the way to or from more distant ones.
The kind of neighborhood shopping districts my grandparents had or that I encountered in some neighborhoods when I lived in the Chicago area had a lot more variety.
Check out the rest of the posts in my occasional series The Cost of Convenience.