**Companion Resources Newsletter**
edited by Paul D. Leichty
Volume 6, No. 3 March 2004
Did you ever stop and think about how much the car has eroded community? I have some thoughts on that subject that I’d like to share with you this month. But first, a word from our sponsor.
I admit that I depend on my car as much as anyone. Our family has a car for every driver like most American families. And, the car has been very handy in helping me keep in touch with family and friends–certainly a community-enhancing activity.
Yet lately, I have been more aware of the ways in which our North American dependence on the car has eroded community. In fact, it has defined our assumptions about how we live, where we live and work, and how we use the earth that God has given us.
There was a time when space was used to the maximum. That is still the case in some of our older cities in the East where three-story row homes are the norm. I’ll never forget spending one overnight in a small guest room in New York City’s Manhattan borough. My wife and I slept on a pull-out mattress while our son was on a futon on the floor. On one side of the room was a small sink; the bathroom was down the hall. The room also served as an office for a church and its pastor as well as a parachurch ministry. There were bookshelves stacked from floor to ceiling. Being an office, it was also a meeting room. It was also the room where guests were welcomed. There was barely enough room to walk around all of the things that were needed for all of those functions. Yet it was the space in which people in Manhattan commonly lived.
Starting in earnest with the baby-boomer generation, most people who could afford to do so moved out of the crowded cities and into the suburbs. Being in the suburbs, they also started to use their cars more as they moved out of reach of the urban mass transit systems. Planners of newer housing developments and suburban communities started planning those communities around the car itself. The idea was to make it as easy as possible for a car to get out of a secluded suburban neighborhood, onto the ramp of the nearest expressway, and on to work in any other part of the metropolitan area.
At the same time, houses were increasingly free-standing in ever larger lawns with fences and bushes and shrubs strategically placed for privacy. Those houses had wider driveways leading up to double and triple-car garages attached to the house. With remote garage door openers, it was now possible to avoid all contact with your neighbors as you drove your car right into the garage, closed the garage door behind you and went directly into your house.
Of course, human beings cannot live without some form of community, so what do we do? We hop in our cars, of course, and meet friends in a restaurant or in the mall, or go to that sprawling metropolitan megachurch visible from the interstate. And what do all of these institutions need to accommodate all of us in our cars? Huge parking lots, of course, where we have paved over thousands of acres of farmland so that we can park our cars.
For those of us who have grown up in some form of suburbia, it is hard to imagine living any other way. We are perfectly content to leave the teeming cities to ever new waves of immigrants as well as those poor people who could never afford the suburbs. Oh yes, there are many young adults who enjoy the freedom and cultural stimulation of the city, but few of them would think of raising a family there. They just want to be close enough so they can drive in when they want.
Eventually, this pattern will need to change. Fortunately, there is a small but growing movement of folks who realize that this trend is not healthy for individuals, families, and the environment. They are challenging the status quo that says you have to build a community around cars. They don’t buy into the notion that affordable housing means that you have to use cheaper materials and cut corners on production. They don’t need to have a single-story free-standing house on their own lawn. They can park on the edge of the community and walk up to their doorway, stopping along the way to chat with their neighbors.
But it doesn’t stop there. Many of these folks also don’t buy into the notion that every member of the family eats by themselves when they come home from work. Indeed, many of them gather for a common evening meal with their neighbors and friends in the community room designed for that very purpose. That room is also available for hosting larger groups of guests or holding family reunions which means that their individual homes don’t need a large living room, dining room, family room, and kitchen. Space and equipment can also be made available in a common area for computers, large screen TV’s, lawn mowers, and other large items which neighbors can share, thereby reducing costs for those items for the individual family. Each family can have a garden in a community plot and the community can even plant extra to stock the local food pantry.
The ideas are limitless if we start thinking about ways in which we can plan our housing for community-building instead of planning for cars. Yet, this countercultural mode of thinking is by no means easy to implement.
One promising movement which started in Denmark in the late 1960’s and which spread to North America in the 1980’s is beginning to attract more attention among persons who long for more of a sense of community without giving up the privacy of their own home. Called “cohousing,” it is becoming an increasingly organized phenomenon with books and web sites dedicated to sharing models, insights, and best practices developed among those who first experimented with the choice of housing options.
The Cohousing Association of the United States (http://www.cohousing.org/) says that cohousing is “the name of a type of collaborative housing that attempts to overcome the alienation of modern subdivisions in which no-one knows their neighbors, and there is no sense of community. It is characterized by private dwellings with their own kitchen, living-dining room etc, but also extensive common facilities. The common house may include a large dining room, kitchen, lounges, meeting rooms, recreation facilities, library, workshops, and children’s space.”
Among Christians, Tom Sine has long advocated a future where Christians take the lead in developing alternative models that bring justice and hope and a renewed sense of community in our country. Tom and his wife Christine have their own consulting group, called Mustard Seed Associates, through which they encourage Christians to examine the world-changing potential of even small changes in our assumptions. Their website at http://www.msainfo.org/ is teeming with dozens of ideas.
I hope to explore these and other related sites in the weeks and months to come. As we think about our own housing needs in the years ahead, I wonder what the possibilities are to be a part of something that is both new and innovative as well as returning us to the roots of our faith heritage. I’m also struck with the potential for such a community to better include persons with significant differences such as disabilities and mental illness.
What are your ideas? Where are you finding resources for building community? Let me know what you think!
Until next time, may peace and joy be yours as you build community!
Paul D. Leichty
Phone/Fax: 1-877-214-9838 (toll free)
“People using Technology building Community”