Sunday, November 30, 2014

Odds are that your mind is out of shape. When is the last time you sat still for twenty minutes – in silence? When is the last time you were truly present, with nothing on your mind but the person you are with? Can you stop your thoughts and anxieties and appreciate the beauty of a tree, the sky, almond butter? A better life starts with a better mind. A better mind takes training and daily practice. In this article I’ll explain a technique of mind training and development called Meditation – Maybe the single greatest technique to improve your quality of life.

What is Meditation?

Meditation is a technique for transformation of the mind. The vehicle for this transformation is daily periods of specific practices and routines that focus and awaken mental attention. Daily meditation practice trains your mind to go beyond habitual thinking and develop concentration, presence, clarity, awareness, and peace. Through meditation you can better understand your mind and its patterns, as well as explore the nature of reality and be truly aware of what is happening in the present moment. With regular effort, meditation can have tremendous positive benefits. These include a deeper understanding of life, which leads to stronger connections to one another and the planet.

 Why practice meditation? 

Meditation physically transforms your brain. Researchers at Harvard and Stanford found physical changes in the brain after an 8-week meditation course. Neurons had moved from areas of the brain that stimulate fear to regions that foster emotional control and wellness.[1] Meditation also has great calming effects, helps your body need less sleep, and releases your brain from over-thinking.[2] As if those weren’t enough, it can also decrease anxiety and stress, improve your relationships, improve your creativity and help you focus.[3]

As I mentioned earlier, think of meditation as exercise and training for the mind. Training and exercise has proven benefits for the physical body and is essential for health, happiness and longevity. It’s pretty easy to see the results when someone loses weight or gets in great shape. Training of the mind is practiced much less – possibly because there are no obvious physical changes. Nevertheless, this mental exercise and training has amazing transformational potential. 

How to Practice Meditation

You’ll need
  • A chair/stool
  • A timer
  • Time
  • A few tips

A Chair/Stool

One of my favorite guided meditations offers this seating advice:

 “Start by finding a comfortable position on a firm, straight backed chair or a meditation stool. If you are sitting in a chair, allow your feet to be flat on the floor with your legs uncrossed and your spine straight, so that your posture supports your intention to be awake and aware.” 

I follow those instructions during my meditations. The two keys are comfort and alertness. It might take some time to find a balance of the two.

The traditional pose also works – Simply sit on the floor or a cushion with crossed legs and a similar alert. This is probably what you think of when you hear “meditation”. I’ve found it’s a little harder on the lower back, but also that your ability to sit comfortably improves over time.

Location Tip - Try to find a quite space to listen to the meditations, or use headphones in a louder space.


A timer is essential for recording your meditations and keeping time during non-guided sessions.  I prefer App’s to do the work for me here, and I use Insight Timer – It’s free, has built-in guided meditations, and keeps tracks of all of my meditation data. Buddhify and Meditate are also great options, available for $2.99 and $3.99 respectively. I’ve found these Apps to be far superior to a pen and paper journal where you have to keep track of my own data.

To record your guided meditations, simply use the “timer” in the App and set it to the length of the guided meditation.


A great starting goal is 10 minutes a day of meditation. Pick a time each day by finding a number where there is no resistance.

As wonderfully stated in A Year of Productivity

“I just shrink the length of the session in my head until I hit a level I don’t feel resistance to. Like, “Could I do 15 minutes? No, I feel resistance, I’m not gonna do it. Okay, what about 10? Still too long, the thought puts me off. Okay, 5? Huh, I don’t feel resistance to that. I feel like I can sit for 5. Boom.”

Since I began meditating about a year ago, there are days where I haven’t meditated or only been able to manage a single minute of silence. That’s ok, it’s part of the process. It’s also possible to practice meditation without taking time to sit still. When Chris Bailey meditated for 35 hours in one week, he spent more than half of his meditation time doing chores, walking, and eating.

A Few Tips

  1. Don’t try too hard- Slowly train your mind and improve. Bring your mind to a natural place of rest.
  2. Don’t try to create happiness and calm – instead create a space in your mind for them to occupy.

 These are the lessons from a series of one minute videos that explain more about how and why to meditate. I would recommend watching them before beginning your practice.

Bringing this back again to the physical exercise metaphor, if you haven’t been physically active the best way to start isn’t to run 10 miles. Start slow, meditate with a group or a friend, be consistent, work through challenges and obstacles, and slowly improve the quality and length of your training.

Other Tools to Begin Your Practice

7 Guided Meditations to Jump Start Your Meditation Practice – See our pick of the best Guided meditations to help you continue your practice.

Tara Brach’s “How to Meditate” - I’ve tried to make these instructions as succinct as possible. For a longer explanation, read Tara’s guide. It includes some especially useful information on “Sustaining a Practice” and “Common Issues for Meditators”.

A Year of Productivity’s Guide to Start Meditation. Provides a good description of breathing meditation, and has a broader wealth of information on meditation.

Good luck starting your meditation practice. In the words of one of my favorite guided meditations:

“May you be well, may you be happy, and may you have ease of being.”

Kurt Berning
Seize the Day,
Hug the Rhino


Listening to guided meditations is one of the best ways to reinvigorate your practice or start daily meditation. With guided meditations, you can let someone else be the expert. Listen to their voice as their guidance and insight lead you to greater understanding of different aspects of presence and mindfulness. 

Before starting the guided meditations, it might be helpful to understand basics of meditation. See our Meditation Guide for more information.

Armed with that basic guide, here are some of the best Guided Meditations that I’ve heard. Start with the simple, shorter and more basic meditations and move your way toward longer meditations.

Basic Guided Meditations

1.      Meditation of the Body and Breath (8 min)

This was the first guided meditation that I ever completed, and it’s a fantastic place to start. It’s simple and straightforward, and the speaker is often silent in order to let you practice being present and alert.

2.     Sounds and Thoughts (8 min)

A great meditation for gaining a new perspective on your environment, be it your apartment, home or a nearby park. Learn a new appreciation for sounds and see how listening can teach us to let our thoughts pass and achieve a calmer mind. 

3.     A Quick Breathing Space (3 min)

Don’t have time for a long meditation? Just take a three minute breathing space, and become present. Or even 1 minute!

Advanced Guided Meditations

4.     Nature of Awareness – Eckhart Tolle (13 min)

A fascinating meditation, one of my favorite voices as well. Eckhart explains how to find presence and clarity and how to “Step out of Thought.”

5.     Stepping Inwards  (15 min)

The sounds and journey of this meditation are superb. It is a very peaceful and fulfilling meditation that encourages you to explore the core of your being.

6.     Loving Kindness – Tara Branch. Starts at 41:15 (18 min.)

A classic loving kindness meditation, this helps you extend love and peace to yourself, close family, stranger and even enemies. I especially enjoy the physical placing of the hand over the heart while wishing yourself wellness during this meditation.  

7.     The Secret Garden – Meditainment (20 min)

A unique meditation experience – The secret garden combines meditation and imagination to create a beautiful sanctuary for the mind. In this space you have a chance to gain a new perspective on a troubling issue in your life or simply deepen your meditation practice.

I hope these meditations bring you acceptance, presence, and peace.


Kurt Berning
Seize the Day,

Hug the Rhino

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Est. Reading time: 7 minutes 40 seconds

If cities are molecules, streets are atoms. They are the most fundamental element in city-building. And I bet you thought they were merely conduits for cars. Everything stems from the guiding principle that cities exist to bring people together. Cities are places of exchange - economic, social, cultural - and opportunity, where residents share in a common good. Streets have two parts, the public realm and the private realm. Part 1 of this series details important design elements of the public realm. Part 2 will do the same for the private realm.

The first article I wrote was meant to be a primer on cities - what they are, what they're for, how they were mutated by the automobile, and why they are on their way back. If you haven't read it, now would be a good time to do so in order for us to be on the same page. It was meant to be a very high-level introduction, painted with a very broad brush. This two-part series will be the opposite. Instead of looking at cities from 30,000 ft in the air, we are going to go to street-level in order to better understand what makes cities either great people places or hostile people places. We are doing this because streets are the building blocks of cities.

The Public Realm

There are many examples of public space in cities. None is more important or more influential on livability than its streets. Streets represent the single largest public asset in a city. Urbanists often think of streets as the "public living room". They are places for people to come together and commune outside the privacy of their homes. Do you remember the scene in the movie "It Takes Two"? Remember the scene when the kids are playing pick-up baseball in the streets? That's what "living room" means. The importance of streets derives from the simple fact that they take up a lot of space - New York's streets are roughly 30% of land area, for example. With so much space devoted to streets, it becomes critical for a city to get street design right. 

Cars vs. Pedestrians

Incidentally, streets are the first place to look in discerning whether a city prioritizes pedestrians or cars. One quick glance is all it takes. If your city prioritizes pedestrians, its streets have the following characteristics:

  • They exist within a traditional gridded network, forming a logical pattern of streets and blocks.
  • Block lengths are 300 ft long or less.
  • Narrow streets, with lanes 10 ft wide or less, and no more than three lanes total (one travel lane in each direction plus a middle turn lane).
  • No crosswalk buttons

If a city follows these steps, they'll get streets that look like this:

You'll note Figure 1 also shows bike lanes and parking lanes in addition to the two travel lanes and middle turn lane. In general, biking lanes and on-street parking are good things. Bike lanes add another mode of travel and parked cars provide a buffer for walkers. But it is important to always orient one's thinking around the importance of street narrowness above all else. This is the single best tool a city has to make its streets people friendly. Because you make streets like this possible:

Why is narrowness so important? Because it is the best way to calm auto traffic and create a truly comfortable, safe experience for pedestrians. Narrow road with narrow lanes create "friction" for drivers - things that demand more attention from the driver, which makes them drive slower and thus help the street become more livable. This gets at a guiding principle that is crucial to the design of streets, but has sadly been a blind spot for departments of transportation across the country for decades: the principle of risk homeostasis. Risk homeostasis is the idea that humans adjust their behavior to maintain a moderate and acceptable level of risk. This is powerful for city streets because streets that feel the most risky to drivers (i.e. narrow, drivers passing closely in the other direction, people crossing, bicyclists nearby) turn out to be the safest streets for everybody. 

Unwalkable Cities

DOT's have historically gotten this exactly wrong. They have flooded cities with multi-lane, single-directional, overly wide streets not only to prioritize auto travel, but because they think this is the safest option. It simply isn't true. Why not? Because overly wide lanes and excessive number of lanes with few obstacles lead drivers to drive faster and be less attentive. Risk homeostasis allows you to predict this behavior; these wide, single-directional lanes feel less risky to drivers, therefore they adjust their behavior by driving faster. These types of streets lead to terribly unsafe and unwalkable cities. Take a look at a typical downtown block of one of the country's worst offenders, Salt Lake City:

That looks like at least six lanes, all very wide. Again, this is a typical downtown block, and the street has been designed to act as a highway. It is pictures like this that should cause traffic engineers to lose sleep at night as they lament their sins. 

Key Ingredients of Great Cities 

Now that we've seen the good and the bad, let's return to the key characteristics from above and quickly discuss why they are key. 

1. Streets exist within a traditional gridded network, forming a pattern of streets and blocks.

Having seen what good and bad streets look like from above, most of these steps should now be self-explanatory. Streets should exist within a grid because this creates the highest level of connectedness. There should not be any two points in a city that a pedestrian can't access easily in a straight (albeit zigzagging) line. A grid accomplishes this. 

The antithesis of a grid is the cul-de-sac that most Americans know all too well. It is our proudest invention of disconnectedness, and it looks like this:

This road layout is one of the main culprits in forcing us into cars. Pick two points that are geographically close but not directly connected. Now determine a route to get from Point A to Point B. That route is circuitous, long and thus only feasible in a car. And even if it were technically walkable, it wouldn't be a safe or pleasant walk because at some point, based on the hierarchy of suburban road capacity, you will be turning off of a quiet, residential street onto a bigger, collector road, then possibly onto an even bigger arterial with cars going 40 m.p.h. or more. The lesson here for designers of cities is: stick with the traditional grid. 

2. Block lengths are 300 ft. or less

Shorter blocks creates a finer-grained network, and not only gives pedestrians better A-to-B access, but creates walking options, and exposes the walker to more shops, restaurants and cafes, which leads to more interesting walks. Instead of having no choice but to walk down one of Salt Lake City's 600 ft blocks, what if you had Portland, Oregon's 200 ft blocks and could choose to turn right at a new block or continue straight? Your walking experience would be more interesting, safer and more useful.

3. Narrow streets, with lanes 10 ft wide or less, and no more than three lanes total (one travel lane in each direction plus a middle turn lane).

We discussed the importance of narrow streets and narrow lanes, and how they lead to safer, calmer and more walkable environments. We touched on the importance of multi-directional travel in the context of safety, but it turns out there's another reason smart cities are converting one-way streets into two-way streets: two-way streets are better for businesses. Imagine driving downtown in a network of one-way streets. Let's say you approach an intersection and to your left you spot a restaurant you'd like to patronize. The problem is the cross-street is a one-way, and that one direction is right. You quite literally can't get to that restaurant unless you are willing to make a complicated series of turns that ends up with you in front of the restaurant by way of an incredibly circuitous route. That's a major hassle full of lots of pointless driving, which probably led to you saying "screw it". Studies bear this out. When streets are converted from one-way to two-way, business revenue goes up. Cars drive slower. Urban congestion decreases. More two-way streets means easier access to businesses, and more cars stopped at intersections, which gives drivers more scanning time. And again, above all else, two-way streets are safer for drivers and pedestrians than one-ways.

4. No crosswalk buttons
The last key ingredient might seem a bit odd: great cities don't have crosswalk buttons? Why not? The answer is subliminal messaging. A crosswalk with push buttons for pedestrians sends the following message: "This street is for cars until you ask them permission to cross." Remember how we discussed that one glance can quickly tell you whether a city prioritizes cars or people? Cross walk buttons mean cars get priority. Since peds always have to push a button to cross a street, they are always guaranteed of waiting to cross the street. For cars, it's the other way around: they drive unimpeded through green-lit intersections until told otherwise. A city that puts people first has no crosswalk buttons; when someone gets to an intersection, sensors tell the stop lights to turn red and the walk sign lights up. No waiting. And brace yourself for this next part: the safest, most walkable cities have a culture of jaywalking. Jaywalking, widely adopted, as it is in NYC and elsewhere, sends the message that streets are primarily for people and cars better be on the lookout. This is a positive psychology for a city to have. Risk homeostasis once again helps explain this paradox. If a driver knows that pedestrians might cross in front of them at any point, they are going to drive slower and be much more attentive in order to maintain a comfortable level of risk. This is in fact what happens in cities all over the world, and helps explain why New York is a walker's paradise. The psychology of pedestrian priority is why car companies invented the term jaywalking and helped criminalize it. They knew it would send the message that streets are for cars first and everyone else second. Cities are beginning to understand the importance reversing that psychology.

The Next Chapter

Phew, that was tiring. If you made it this far, hopefully you have a better understanding of the importance of good design of the public realm in cities. This is possibly the most important element that city planners can get right, because it is the element they have the most control over. There is, of course, the other side of the coin: the private realm. This is where the city is actually built and where it ultimately takes shape. The private realm is the meat and potatoes of city-building, and as you can imagine, it has the power to change the form, function and feel of a city for better or worse. In Part 2 of this two-part series, we will discuss how the private realm is utilized to create great cities full of great streets. 

----Nick Etheredge

Nick Etheredge  is a new contributor to Hug The Rhino who writes about better living in cities, urban living, and how all of that relates to sustainability and social justice. Nick is a Mechanical Engineer who has a strong passion for cities and urban design . Live in or near a big city? You’ll love his articles.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Est. Reading time: 5 minutes 8 seconds

Understanding the problem 

Let’s start with the fact that we don’t even have a good name for our crap. Shit is considered vulgar, no one except medical professionals utilize the word feces, doo-doo, poo, poop and No.2 were created to cute-ify the experience, excrement feels slightly awkward when used in every day conversation, manure is reserved for animal waste, and human waste implies that there is nothing good about the excess matter that we excrete on a daily basis.

This is a problem. But, that’s not the only problem that we have when it comes to this powerful and valuable matter. In fact, we have so many problems when it comes to poop that it’s more of a crisis! And it’s a crisis that affects all of us. Yes - all 7.125 billion people that are currently breathing, eating and pooping.

The first step to solving any crisis is to increase awareness and start a conversation, so what are the facts? 

Fact #1: All animals poop (this includes all human beings). 

While the magnificent experience of defecating is not reserved specifically for human kind, the average human being excretes about 1 ounce per 12 pounds of weight at least once a day (depending on your metabolism, it can range from once every three days to three times a day)[1].

Even though this is a daily, natural and essential part of what it means to be alive – as a society, we really don’t like talking about it. It’s actually mostly looked down upon – unless, of course, you are at the doctor or talking about your baby’s or puppy’s poop around other parents or puppy owners. 

Fact #2: Poop is rich! (and a great source of information and energy). 

Human waste is made up of about 75% water, while the remaining 25% is a mixture of dead bacteria, living bacteria, proteins, fats, insoluble-fiber (e.g., corn, carrots) and extra nutrients that your body didn’t absorb. Feces are a great source of information about our bodies and health[2], because it is the left-over substance that our body doesn’t need. This means that when something isn’t working the way it should be, our poop can tell us why (or at least point us in the right direction).

If harnessed properly, feces can also be a great resource for methane gas production - which can be utilized as a sustainable energy source (e.g., Rwandan prison uses prisoner’s feces to produce its cooking gas). Human waste is also rich in diseases, viruses, good and bad bacteria, parasites and even worm eggs[3] – which is not necessarily a problem, unless you don’t have access to proper sanitation facilities (i.e., a toilet).

Fact #3: The current toilet is bad news! 

There are two main problems with the current ‘western’ toilet design that are having significant consequences on the environment.

The first problem is the reliance on water as a flushing mechanism. In the USA, federal plumbing standards specify that new toilets can only use up to 1.6 gallons of water per flush (GPF). However, older toilets sometimes use up to 7 gallons with every flush.[4] (If you go to the bathroom three times a day, that means you are using somewhere between 4.8 gallons up to 21 gallons of water just by flushing the toilet). While there are new designs that aim at decreasing the water usage (e.g., high efficiency toilets that use up to 1.28 GPF), the water flushing mechanism is inherently wasteful.

The second problem is that the design doesn’t allow for the separation of liquids (i.e., urine) and solids (i.e., feces). Even though urine and feces can be processed to be recycled or repurposed, the current method of mixing them in the sewage system makes the separation and recycling process of these materials much more energy-intensive.[5] The only way to be able to efficiently take advantage of these resources is to re-invent the toilet.

But, wait! It’s not all bad news! The good news are that we can each individually address the first problem by updating our toilets to a high efficiency design, retrofitting our old toilets or simply reducing the times you flush on a daily basis. The other good news is that the Gates Foundation has created the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge, which has brought significant attention and funding to the toilet problem. 

Fact #4: 2.5 billion people lack proper sanitation facilities[6] and 1 billion practice open defecation[7]

If you are reading this, the probability that you have access to a proper sanitation facility (i.e., a bathroom with a toilet) is pretty high. It’s a privilege that most of us take for granted, because we’ve never experienced otherwise. We are part of the lucky 65% of the world that doesn’t have to worry about finding a safe place to poop every day. The remaining 35% of the world (2.5 billion people) don’t have that commodity. And it gets worse – currently 1 billion people in the world (approximately three times the population of the USA) have no option at all, but to practice open defecation.

Open defecation is when people have no choice but to poop in public.[8] Lack of proper sanitation facilities lead to an exponential increase in the exposure that people have to diseases such as: cholera, typhoid, hepatitis, polio, diarrhea, worm infestation, among others.[9] Open defecation also leads to contaminated sources of water, which in turn leads to a water crisis.

It is estimated that a child dies every 2.5 minutes from preventable diarrhea[10], largely caused by diseases related to open defecation or lack of sanitary facilities. This means that in the time it has taken you to read this article, two or more children have died victims to the poop crisis.

Yet, we don’t talk about it.

In an effort to end this silence, the United Nations has launched an initiative to end the practice of open defecation by 2025. The campaign aims at raising awareness on the reality of open defecation in parts of the world where it is not an issue. I encourage you to check out the campaign at 

I get it. Now what?

When I was twenty-two, I had the opportunity of truly understanding how spoiled and privileged I had been my whole life when it came to going to the bathroom. I was living in rural Kenya and for the first time in my life I lived in place without plumbing or a western toilet, so I got to re-define the bathroom experience around a pit latrine. Although this was not the first time I had used a latrine, (in fact, most of us have had to figure out alternative bathroom experiences when camping or traveling) it was a transformative experience because it became part of my everyday life. Not only did I learn to appreciate the comfort of a toilet, but it opened my eyes to how interconnected it all is.

The poop crisis is a leading cause of the water crisis, which in turn is a cause of the education crisis, which affects social and economic development all over the world. (Yes, we live in a world ridden with crises and yes, this is an overwhelming thought). So what can we do? We can start by talking about it!

It is a lot easier and more comfortable to focus on the need for clean water or the need for education or the necessity for income generating activities in developing countries. It is not as easy to bring up the poop crisis in every day conversation with our friends and family. But the only way we will instigate change, is by instigating conversations first.

Starting this conversation will not only enable us to end the extreme results of this crisis (i.e., open defecation) and hopefully start to better harness the potential of human waste as an energy source, but it will also enable us as a society to openly start conversing about something that is important and essential to a happy life.

Plus, this is probably the only time that talking shit could actually help make the world a better place.

Happy poop-talking!


Kathya Acuña

Kathya Acuña (@acunamontana) is a new contributor to Hug the Rhino. Her topics of choice are as diverse and eclectic as her interests, but all aim at being a thought catalyst. Kathya studied economics and entrepreneurship, but categorizes herself as a lifelong student of the world and is constantly seeking progress toward a more significant life and a more sustainable world.

Want to learn more? Check out these resources:

[2] To learn more about what your poop is telling you:
[6] WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) Report 2014 update)

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

I spend a lot of time thinking about cities. I think about the way they look and feel, the ways in which we move through them, how they add or subtract from the common good. I don't know why cities fascinate me so much. But I do know why they are important to us as humans, and to the planet we inhabit. There is much at stake in the way that we inhabit the landscape, including economic prosperity, social and economic equality, physical health and environmental sustainability. For a long time, we got this right - we inhabited the landscape in a more natural pattern conducive to dealing with the issues above. Then, for a short period we went the wrong way (and we did so in our cars). Now, we are experiencing a national and international self-correction back toward better habitation.

A brief history of the evolution of cities

The modern city as we know it is a relatively recent phenomenon, dating back to the Industrial Revolution. However, the essence of what a city is has been around for thousands of years (here is a 4-minute synopsis of the evolution of cities). In the most basic sense, a city is a place where economic, social and cultural exchange takes place. It is the place where humans interact and connect on a daily basis to perform tasks. We grab a coffee and a bagel at the cafe before work. We meet a client for lunch. We get groceries on the way home, or grab drinks with a friend before catching a show. And ideally, we don't get in a car for any of it. This is why the city is often referred to as the organic response to the daily needs of humans. The most powerful feature of cities is that they mix uses - that is, they mix together activities in a central, compact and dense manner. Today, we think of mixing uses as clustering where we live, work, eat and recreate in close proximity to each other.

There is a singular tenet that is at the heart of the mixed-use, compact living pattern described above: walkability. Because more advanced transportation options did not exist hundreds and thousands of years ago, every task that needed to be accomplished had to be within walking distance of one's home. This led to a natural densification of communities; it wasn't practical for a city to take up a lot of space because it simply would have made it more difficult to walk between destinations.

Everything changed with the advent of the automobile and its partner-in-crime, suburbia. In 1908 Henry Ford's mass-produced Model T became the first affordable car accessible to the masses. The American love affair with the car began. With the advent of auto travel came the desire to spread out. And continue spreading. All of a sudden, we had a new living pattern, which peak-oiler and urban theorist James Howard Kunstler terms "entropy made visible." As more and more Americans were driving further and further, the need for a more robust road system arose. The federal government under President Dwight D. Eisenhower was more than happy to oblige, creating the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 and with it the dendritic, omnipresent freeway system we know today. This had terrible consequences. Especially one we know too well: sprawl.

The birth of suburbia and the American Dream

Though the federal government subsidized and incentivized driving and suburban home ownership (and still does), Americans didn't need much of a push. Industrial cities were not pleasant places; they were dirty, crime- and poverty-ridden, and certainly not suitable for human life. As such, with our cheap cars, cheap roads and cheap gas, coupled with the National Housing Act providing affordable mortgages to a ballooning middle class, Americans escaped the city and the country witnessed the birth of suburbia and the death of cities.

The American Dream soon became intertwined with suburban living; the detached home you owned in the country with the white picket fence enclosing a little front yard (read: nature), the car in the driveway that you drove to work and back, to the store and back...It was and is a very quaint notion, evoking a sort of 1950's Americana purity. The reality, however, is that this new living pattern has had very ugly environmental, economic, social and physical health consequences. In a later post I will delve into each of these factors and how they have been compromised by our unsustainable habitation.

For now, I will simply convey what the central tenets of suburbia are and how each tenet is at odds with urban living.

First Tenet of Suburbia: Separation of uses

This is perhaps the defining characteristic of suburban living. Separating one activity from another started with an innocent Supreme Court decision in 1926 to allow the town of Euclid, Ohio to zone its land according to activity so that its residents didn't have to live amongst the carbon-spewing factories. This decision had good intentions - people ought to have clean air where they live - but the precedent was set. Soon cities and municipalities all across the U.S. were adopting similar zoning codes, splitting their towns and cities into component parts. It was officially illegal to build mixed-use development; homes would be separate from work places, which would be separate from retail establishments and restaurants. These places would no longer be within walking distance so you would drive between destinations. Unless your destination was downtown, public transit would doubtful be an option as the country was getting too spread out to make transit feasible (and the majority of tax money went to new highways, not transit). As such, over time the country's landscape became auto-centric, which is the antithesis of walkable, mixed-use urban living.

Second Tenet of Suburbia:  Low densities

Cities emerged from the outset as very dense places; they had to be in order to be walkable. With the advent of the car, that relationship between human and city disintegrated. If you have a vehicle that can move much quicker than you can walk for much longer distances than you can walk, you will naturally travel further distances. This is exactly what happened. The population had a desire to escape urban life, stretch its legs in the vast expanses of the countryside and "commune with nature." And, being Americans, we prized our independence dearly, which we expressed through our privatized homes and neighborhoods. These two factors led to the sprawling across the landscape at very low densities. With so much land, it only made sense to give each person a lot of it and keep his lot far away from his neighbor's. This afforded us privacy, but like the first tenet had damning, unforeseen consequences.

Third Tenet of Suburbia: Car-dependence

It is the vehicle (no pun intended) that makes suburban sprawl possible. With walkable communities all but outlawed and low-density lifestyles putting each destination far away from every other destination, the only way the system can operate is to be reliant on the automobile. Until we remade out our cities with freeways, there simply wasn't room for cars. The streets were too narrow, land was used for buildings and not parking lots and movement throughout a city was done on foot or by streetcar. But car-reliance is at the very core of suburban existence. The government gave us the roads and freeways and every possible incentive to fill them up. This represents perhaps the most insidious consequence of sprawl. It destroyed our ability to inhabit the landscape in a healthy, sustainable way by forcing us into cars for every conceivable task in our day-to-day lives. And as soon as we fill up the roads and highways that take us to our big homes far away, we are forced to build even more roads and highways to take us to big homes even further away. Unlike the towns, cities and regions of previous times which developed organically at the human-scale, modern day suburbia was an artificial creation that encouraged (and mandated) car-use.

The rebirth of cities

There is a silver lining in this discussion, and that is that we are in the midst of a system-wide self-correction. As you are likely aware, the population is showing renewed interest in urban living. Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) is actually declining, as is car ownership, and suburban and exurban home prices are recovering slower than urban home prices.  These changes can be viewed through a number of different lenses: demographic shifts that have produced large Millenial and Baby Boomer generations, rising gas prices, societal changes in how we prefer to live and engage with the world. Ultimately, though, I think we are simply witnessing a system that is self-correcting. For hundreds of years we inhabited the landscape in a way that was a natural response to our needs. This created an equilibrium with the environment. That equilibrium was destroyed with the advent of the automobile and its sprawl-inducing effects. However, I believe we are beginning to understand that the artificial system (sprawl) was and is unsustainable. That is why we are seeing a shift back toward city-living. It represents a sustainable, equitable way of life in which we are better stewards of the land on which we live, as well as healthier human beings. In other words, it's better living.

Nick Etheredge
Twitter: @Nick_Etheredge

Nick Etheredge (@Nick_Etheredgeis a new contributor to Hug The Rhino who writes about better living in cities, urban living, and how all of that relates to sustainability and social justice. Nick is an ex-Mechanical Engineer who realized he had a passion for cities and urban design . Live in or near a big city? You’ll love his articles.

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