The joke around my office is that when I come back from a few days off, there always seems to be a renewed focus on my part. The question is always… what will that focus be on? It could be an idea I’ve been kicking around for a year that needs to get new life. It could be a new detail I want to incorporate into a project or a new personal strategy I’m wanting everyone to try out. After spending a few days on the famous Florida 30A, taking in the coastal architecture, seeing families enjoy livable walkable communities, and even thinking it would be perfect if it wasn’t for all the vehicles… I was already inspired to bring this “tourist destination” lifestyle to everyday life for a South Arkansas community. I already had the property in mind. I’ve even already been laying much of the groundwork over the last year to make it possible. The design isn’t the hard part in these kind of things. It’s the sales pitch and getting someone (anyone) to buy in.
So it was to my surprise that I found the words in a very odd place. We were taking some time to listen to Andrew Peterson’s book The God of the Garden: Thoughts on Creation, Culture, and the Kingdom on the trip this week. Somewhere in the interstate travels, I heard this excerpt...
“It’s true that people need places to live, and I don’t begrudge anyone the dream of owning a pretty house for their kids to grow up in – but I believe we need more than just houses. We need homes, and a home is more than just the four walls where we eat and sleep and watch Netflix. It’s a place that shapes and gives meaning to our lives. We need Places with a capital P, places that honor the community’s history, the sacredness of creation, and our basic human need for beauty and nature. But we have become, according to James Howard Kunstler, a country of ‘no-places’. I don’t agree with everything he says in his book The Geography of Nowhere, but I agree with enough to commend it to you. There are essentially three kinds of places in America: the city, the country, and that weird in-between thing we call the suburbs. Ah, the suburbs; that slice of America where we name subdivisions after the trees we’ve cut down to build them, where we’ve zoned out any hope of a bookstore or a restaurant within walking distance, where we slave over lawns that we seldom use, where our front porches are too shallow for a porch swing, where we walk the dogs but can’t walk to lunch, where we don’t really get to know the neighbors because nobody’s planning to stick around for more than a few years, where the dominant feature of every house is the two-car garage door, where getting to know people is tougher than it needs to be because there’s no village pub, no local bakery, no farmer’s market – in other works, no casual gathering point where it’s possible to bump into neighbors in an organic way.”
In our South Arkansas communities, we don’t really have “suburbs”. But we do. They’re simply inside the city limits. They’re everywhere. Streets and streets of houses, no sidewalks, no community. We even boast about the new four acre development where eighteen houses will be crammed together because we think housing is the problem. Housing isn’t the problem. At least it’s not the direct problem. We need community. We need neighborhoods where you can walk to the grocery store, to the restaurant, to school, to the park, to… anything… something. We need yards that are livable, not ornamentation. We need porches for gathering, not just cover where it’s raining. We need parking that is secondary, not the primary feature of every single lot.
If you know me well enough to get this far into this post, you know I don’t mind stepping out front if I think it’s something that I think is right and good. Consider this the start. Over the next week I’ll be making this sales pitch to a community in South Arkansas. Over the next year, I hope to be making several pleas to our communities for them to become what they should be… communities.