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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

A new vision for neighborhoods: more nature, more community

In my last column, I briefly described a system of rotating cooking duties so that people can continue cooking (which is part of our human heritage) while still being efficient. This sort of thinking could be extended to other areas like dog walking—dogs should be walked about two hours a day, which is too much for most people. However, I think that the way that our communities are set up are not only antithetical to the development of strong communities but also damage the environment. Things do not have to be this way. I believe that we can develop neighborhoods that both promote healthy and friendly communities and actually improve the environment rather than damaging it.
I believe that we can make our communities stronger by walking and biking more and driving less. When you walk more, you see people around and talk to them. Rather than driving straight from your work parking lot to your garage at home, you pass by people and places and experience them on a different level than from a car. You notice the changes in the seasons more. Just walking or biking a little bit every day also is good for your health—a very important benefit in a country where according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases 31 percent of adults are obese and 66 percent overweight.

Of course this all sounds well and good but when you want to get somewhere, odds are you will reach for the car keys out of convenience. What is the solution to this? Reduce the convenience of driving. Some may cry foul with claims of socialist control of personal life, but as we have all—hopefully—learned from our mothers—doing what is convenient is not always what is best for us. Certainly adults are better at realizing this than children, but evidently not enough (see obesity figures above.)

Therefore, I propose vastly reducing the number of roads in our neighborhoods and having people walk or bike to parking lots next to main roads instead. Inconvenient? Yes. Better for society? Maybe. People could still drive cars up to their houses for large deliveries and such but for that you would only need one lane. Alleys would disappear. The elderly could cluster in houses closer to the parking lots since it is less convenient for them to walk (although continuing to exercise into your later years can help prevent the deterioration of the body). Everyone would be within five minutes walking distance of a parking lot and most would be within two minutes. You would be surprised at how many roads this eliminates, saving lots of money for maintenance and snow removal. We would still need to remove snow from these one-lane roads but it would be a smaller total area and there would be no cars in the way. See how few roads Grinnell would have under this plan (roads adjacent to the still commonly used roads would be converted to parking lots.) Is walking 10 minutes every day really that difficult? This is just an idea and it would work better in a community that was designed for it, but I wanted to throw it out there. Reducing the prevalence of roads in our communities would have other benefits—it would be safer for children and would reduce rapid runoff into local waterways—a major ecological problem.
Also, although they look green, most American neighborhoods are deserts for most life forms. The native environments of Iowa (prairie, savanna and woodland) contained a couple hundred species of plants and thousands of species of insects in every acre. That acre would have been visited by dozens of species of larger animals every year, from birds to the magnificent bison and elk. An acre of lawn has maybe a dozen species of plants (unless you spray it a lot, in which case it only has one,) a few species of insects and rabbits. Water runs off of lawn much faster than off of native ecosystems, stressing our waterways. Most Americans only know about a dozen native species of plants—if that—meaning that we are largely ignorant of a huge part of our natural heritage.

For these reasons, I suggest that we stop using non-native plants in our landscaping. People might say, “but that’s what we have nature reserves for!” It is true that there are nature reserves and they are very important. However, as suburbs gobble up more and more land—and especially in Iowa where most of the land’s already been gobbled up by row crops)—small islands of nature just don’t cut it. Would you rather see your yard as strangling out nature or as a natural paradise? Also, the nature reserves are not doing their jobs as far as educating the public goes. People get to know things that they see every day, not things that they visit once a month. Why not just use non-native plants that aren’t lawns? 400 species are dependent on a specific kind of tree in Australia—here it is used by less than 10. Native plants are designed for this place and have many complex interactions with many different species.

What about lawns for kids to play on? We could retain lawns in parks for children to play ball type games at. This is better than playing in the yard anyway, since kids would play with other kids at the park, which is good for their social development. Also, children can play in a non-lawn yard as well. In fact, it is much more stimulating to play in a varied environment that is constantly changing than playing on a blank slate on which you project your games. As a child, I grew up in a second growth forest east of Seattle and was fascinated by the insects, flowers and ferns I saw. I like to think that this is part of why I love nature so much today. My neighbors had lawns but I never played in them, preferring to pick blackberries and thimbleberries instead. Only when we moved into a more typically suburban environment did I start to play games on lawns. Believe me, children do not need lawns to survive—they had gotten by just fine for millennia before the lawn was even invented.

I don’t want to portray this as the only way to organize a community—in Europe they have a very different way of organizing their communities, which seems to do a pretty good job of preserving the environment, tradition, health and community. This is just one idea of how to make an American way of organizing our communities that avoids some of the problems of our current system. I welcome people’s alternative ideas and criticisms.
You may ask what you can do about this. On a grand scale, you can push local governments to move away from a road centric system. On a more personal level you can start trying to walk and bike more than driving. Try making a rule where you don’t drive anywhere that’s less than a 20 minute walk/five minute bike ride. For example, bike to Fareway and just balance the bags on the handlebars or get saddlebags rather than driving. As for native landscaping, many of you are students who do not own property. However, you can ask your parents to try it or can try it when you get a house of your own. Start with just 500 square feet. Native landscaping is still a fairly new field so the process is something of an adventure at this point, but it’s worth it to change a piece of lawn into a wildflower oasis.

After doing a small piece you can decide if you like it and expand it or you could convert it back to lawn easily if you didn’t like it. But I’m pretty sure you’ll come to love native landscaping once you get to know it. Every year you will notice new species appear and every week during the season is an unfolding of a dynamic tapestry. We can make big changes in our society—all it takes is the will.

-Jacob Gjesdahl ’10

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