The Separation State

Separating literally every facet of our lives is not a natural thing and, more so than anywhere else, is a uniquely American ethos. We work in one place, live in another, play elsewhere and so on. People drive in one place, walk in another, bicycle somewhere else and exercise in yet another locale. But what’s the harm in all this, if there is any?

The most obvious and troubling issue this separation causes is the “spatial mismatch” which I have written about in the past. By distributing our daily activities across our cities into separate quarters we have successfully placed an unnecessary burden on our transport networks, negatively impacted our environment and personal health, and squander limited resources (oil, personal time, and cash to name a few) on these unnecessary behaviors.

This mindset of separating virtually every facet of our lives, I would contend, goes even further as it damages our social capital and interpersonal skills. Instead of walking down the street for work, coffee, or just to enjoy the evening, we are instead stuck in our personal vehicles of transportation. Instead of mixing in physical activity throughout our normal routines, we separate our physical activities from the rest of our daily activities and then we turn on the world of the iPod where we can choose exactly our form of distraction, and at the same time, turn off the rest of the world.

On one hand you have the issue of an urban land use and planning problem that may be too much to solve, and on the other, you have a social capital problem that may be signify the end to a great society based around people and relationships that is being replaced by instant gratification and personal joy.

In Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital, Charles Putnam wrote that the decline in social capital in the United States started back in the 1950s, and that this loss of in-person social intercourse poses major threats to Democracy which relies heavily on active civil engagement for a strong society.

Looking back on things you might understand why America is where it is in terms of this situation. The rest of Europe had largely been developed and was already structurally and socially built in a way that encouraged a type of society built around social capital. American, on the other hand, suffered from modern fears of nuclear attack, smog and over-pollution from the industrial revolution, crime and social unrest, and the many other ills that go along with a growing society.

But with any society, we are learning from our past. The New Urbanism movement is working against the notion that Euclidean Zoning is still needed in a post-industrial society with its Form Based Zoning alternative. The younger generations out there seem to also be moving in a direction that is placing social capital and experiences before most other items. This can all be seen in the rapid movement of people from their previously separated suburban housing typologies back into the urban fold where they are once again falling back into the comfort of human scale at the neighborhood level.

Neighborhoods and cities where people can be people are more valuable than any quantifiable measure can judge. Social experiences are what sets the human race apart from any other animal and it should be celebrated by building communities that foster this kind of behavior, and in turn, celebrate the beauty of the human race.