Durable Growth

What do we know and when did we learn it?

130714001 Television from navfundAs I’ve written before, much of our attachment to a drivable suburban lifestyle is the result of growing up amidst a drivable suburban lifestyle.  If a particular environment is all one knows, that environment seems natural and unavoidable, no matter how much of a historical anomaly it might be.

In Walkable City, Jeff Speck makes that point that even our youthful television viewing implanted suburban lessons.

Speck describes himself as a late baby-boomer.  As a result, much of his early television watching was The Partridge Family and The Brady Bunch, both presenting attractive, functional families living in leafy, low-density suburbs, which created positive impressions about suburbs.

His youthful television watching also included shows with urban settings.  But Dragnet, Mannix, The Streets of San Francisco, and Hawaii 5-0 were mostly about urban crime, so didn’t offer positive images to the young potential urbanist.

He reports that his awakening to urbanism didn’t come until Mary Tyler Moore, thrilled by her upcoming adventures in downtown Minneapolis, tossed her woolen hat into the Minnesota air.

Speck concludes that the generation after his had a better grounding in urbanism because they had better urbanist role models.  The characters in Friends reveled in the perks of a living is a city.  And Sex in the City offered its own lessons.

I’m a half-generation older than Speck.  The lessons I learned from television were different, but still meaningful to how I came to think about urbanism.  I even learned a few lessons that I had to unlearn.

Over summer breaks, especially when arising late and dawdling over a bowl of cereal, I remember watching reruns of I Love Lucy, The Andy Griffith Show, and The Dick Van Dyke Show.

Although Lucy was set in New York City, the city was never a character in the show.  Instead, the city seemed a place to endure before returning to the home nest.  Nor was the thought of having Ricky and Lucy as neighbors an inducement to urban living.  I’ve previous suggested that better soundproofing is an essential element of successful urbanism.  That insight may have had its genesis in a long-ago shouting match between the battling Ricardos.

It’s also instructive to remember that, when Ball tried to recapture the success of I Love Lucy with later shows, she moved first to Danbury, Connecticut and then to suburban Los Angeles.  It wasn’t the geographical path of someone who loved living in the city.  As an urbanist role model, Lucy was a failure.

Andy Griffith was closer to the urbanist mark, with Mayberry’s friendly, walkable downtown.  In retrospect, it’s instructive that there wasn’t even a gas station in downtown.  The nearest station was Gomer’s, outside of town on the road to Mount Pilot.  No wonder Gomer left to join the Marines.  He couldn’t make a living with his tiny cashflow.

But the shortcoming of Andy Griffith was its setting in the hills of North Carolina.  It was so remote from the suburban lifestyles that most of my cohorts were living that it didn’t feel like a real possibility.  Instead, it was a fable, instructive but not a reasonable aspiration.  Although many of us now find ourselves wishing that we could walk a few steps to get a haircut from Floyd.

Which leads us to Dick Van Dyke.  At first, it seems that Rob and Laura Petrie were living a suburban lifestyle like the The Partridge Family and The Brady Bunch would live in another few years.  But there was at least one key difference.   At the end of his workday, Rob Petrie entered by the front door.  Yes, he usually tripped over the ottoman, but the key point was that he arrived on foot.  There was a garage off the kitchen, but Rob didn’t use the car for his daily commute.

Living in New Rochelle (like many of my generation, I can’t hear of New Rochelle without thinking of Rob and Laura) and working in New York City, it seems likely that Rob took the train to the city.

Given the size of the home, it was unlikely that the Petries lived within walking distance of a train station.  The more likely scenario is that Rob walked to a bus stop from where he rode to a train station.  It was a multi-modal commute.  The only missing piece was Rob arriving at the front door with a bag of fresh produce purchased from a stand near the train station.

Although not an urbanist lifestyle, it seems that the Petries lived with some environmental awareness, although it would have been nice if Rob had occasionally complained about Robert Moses’ failure to adequately plan for transit.

Thinking back over my life thus far, I find that I’ve often measured my living situations against Lucy Ricardo, Opie Taylor, and Rob Petrie.  As Speck wrote, those youthful lessons embed deeply.

What about the readers out there?  Anyone who can dredge up and share the urbanist messages, good or ill, that came from youthful television viewing?

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

(Note: Image of television is from navfund.com.)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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