Talk about life-changing. This is a class that challenges students where they live.
Dr. Sheila Brownlow's First-year Seminar, "Home from Nowhere," is one Catawba College course that is causing scales to fall from students' eyes. It is also encouraging – some would say "forcing" – the 16 first-year students in the class to take a hard look at what they value and how their choices impact them as individuals and as community members.
Named after one of the course's primary texts, "Home from Nowhere" by James Howard Kunstler, the class is examining the effects of sprawl and Americans' dependence on automobiles on our physical and mental health, our level of civic engagement, our local economies and even our charitable giving habits. What the students are discovering is troubling them.
A paradox seems to exist between what they value and how they live. "We believe that families and communities make us happy," says Brownlow, "but we seem to have traded them away for sprawling [subdivisions] and a car culture."
She points out that one's physical environment affects "where you live and how much you drive and how you shop and what you eat and vote or don't vote and how you participate in civic matters."
Kunstler's argument is that suburban sprawl and dependence on automobiles have had a detrimental effect on Americans' quality of life. The United States is laced with a tangle of highways, overrun with subdivisions without sidewalks and dotted with malls that require everyone to drive everywhere. "When you look at the cities," says Brownlow, "you see one square-box chain fast-food restaurant or big-box store after another."
Many of the students took pictures of their home towns when they went home for fall break. "They said, 'I never noticed how ugly this is,'" Brownlow says.
Rachel Roberts, an environmental science major from Knoxville, Tenn., became keenly aware of how auto-dependent she was when she returned to her home in the suburbs. "It really drove the point home that I was never out of my car," she says. "I drove four hours to get there. I drove to meet my friends. When I wasn't in my car, I always had the car keys in my hand because we were always going somewhere else."
The students are learning that the way Americans have designed their neighborhoods and cities in the past 50 years – creating sprawl that disconnects homes from work and school and shops – has not promoted health. "If you can only get what you need by driving great distances on a highway that is choked with people, that raises your blood pressure," Brownlow says. "It's stressful, it costs money and time and it causes irritation, not to mention back problems."
This doesn't even touch the impact sprawl and auto dependency has on the environment, Brownlow says, "the fact that we have fewer local farms because we have more subdivisions, that agribusiness takes irrigation which may not last forever, that trucking lettuce 1500 miles is not a good way to use our resources."
People don't realize the social and political and economic and cultural consequences of sprawl, Brownlow says.
"As we move away from each other and spend more and more time in our homes, we don't spend time in what are called 'third places,' places that you can walk to – neighborhood places where everybody knows your name and people take care of you.
"The paradox of this, from my point of view as a psychologist, is that meaningful interactions with other human beings are what really make people happy, but we're pursuing everything but that," Brownlow says.
Developing neighborhoods in more traditional ways, where sidewalks connect shops and homes and churches and schools, allows for more personal interaction. Designing communities with people – not cars – in mind "makes you slow down," she says. "You interact meaningfully with people more often. That means you cultivate people who know you and whom you know, who care about the same things you care about."
Interestingly, Brownlow asked the students to write an essay early in the course about what they thought their ideal community would look like. They described beautiful physical environments. "Everybody mentioned parks and green space and trees and lakes," she says. "They talked about living in a community where the community ethos involved a caring, community spirit, a passion for the arts or education or spirituality and lack of pollution."
Claire Alston, a theater arts major from Kernersville, says when she described her ideal community, Brownlow pointed out that the art galleries, theaters, religious institutions and cafes that she described as being so important to her life could be found on Main Street.
"Immediately something clicked inside me," Alston says. "'Yes,' I thought. 'Main Street is where I want to be.' I was able to define a desire I've always had: to live deep within a city and be very involved in the artistic life there."
Alston is convinced that she will make more informed choices now that she is aware of the problems associated with sprawling suburbia. "I know I will consider living in a mixed-use apartment on or near Main Street where I can be closely connected to the places that I value," she says. "And a car will prove to be much less of a necessity."
The course has helped Roberts refine her career path. "This has really opened my eyes to alternate ways to plan a community," she says. "I'm studying environmental science, but now I'm thinking of steering more towards city planning. I really would like to be a part of this [new urbanist] movement."
Before the course, Roberts assumed she would live in the suburbs because that's where she grew up. No more. She wants the personal interaction and civic involvement that flows more naturally from a more traditional neighborhood. "I want to live where I can walk places, where I can be around people I can see on the sidewalk," she says.
Making those choices is possible, Roberts says. "We're just going to have to change the way we think."