Where Have All the Small Towns Gone?

© Douglas E. Morris

Magic City Morning Star, Magic City ME, October 16 2005

The Louisville Cardinal, Louisville KY, October 18 2005

Asbury Park Press, Asbury Park NJ, October 2005

Missouri Valley Times News, Missouri Valley IA, October 2005

The Lynden Tribune, Lynden WA, October 19 2005


Talk to anyone about what is quintessentially American, and more often than not, small towns feature prominently in peoplesÕ hearts and minds. Considering this appreciation for community life, isnÕt it odd that it is illegal to build small towns in America?


Yes, you heard correctly, zoning laws make it illegal to build community-oriented small towns complete with main streets of shops and homes, schools and offices within walking distance. Instead, suburban sprawl, which segregates, isolates and fragments our lives, has been the only legal form of development in America for sixty years.


Before the Second World War, mixed-use small town development was not only allowed, it was encouraged. Instead of the wasteland of sprawl, American suburbs were once designed to be community-oriented villages. Though the trolley systems that helped create them are gone, these streetcar suburbs are still some of the best places to live in America. They are made up of stores where residents shop, restaurants and cafˇs where neighbors and friends meet, parks where people gather, as well as offices, schools, and a wide variety of housing options within walking distance. All of which creates lively public spaces that allow for a healthy sense of community to develop.


Despite the obvious livability of suburban small towns, for sixty years zoning laws have dictated that we construct all the functions of life far away from one another, effectively negating the possibility of community life. As a result, most Americans have always gone shopping at gigantic malls or huge supermarkets, entering these places anonymously and usually leaving without recognizing a soul. We may have developed an economy that fulfills most of our material needs, but we live in a society that offers us a lonely diet of one anonymous experience after another.


Certainly, suburban sprawl seemed like a good idea at the time—spacious homes, tidy lawns, and broad streets. But if you peel back the facade, sprawl is not so pristine and paradisiacal. On the outside, sprawl may look wonderful, but at its core, it is almost completely devoid of the replenishing energy of community life.


This alienation has had a dramatically negative impact on many peopleÕs lives. Psychologists have found that individuals who are integrated into a community network report fewer symptoms of psychological disorders than those who are socially isolated. Regrettably, in America today, because of sprawl, loneliness is rampant. In one major survey, a quarter of U.S. adults reported that they had felt extremely lonely at least once in the previous two weeks.


Another study, this one by the American Medical Association, determined that the number of people being treated for depression has increased dramatically in the United States. And according to the National Institute of Mental Health, 10% of Americans suffer from depression in any given year. ThatÕs almost 30 million people!


The reason this is of concern is that loneliness and depression are responsible for the intense emotional pain that can lead to suicide. Today, suicide is the third leading cause of death among teenagers aged fifteen to nineteen—after motor vehicle accidents and unintentional injury. In fact, Americans aged fifteen to nineteen years old were four times as likely to kill themselves in 1988 as in 1950. Overall, suicides now take in excess of 30,000 American lives each year, more than homicides.


If we had the opportunity to live in small town communities instead of sprawl we would never have to be alone unless we wanted to. Just by walking outside, we would be instantly transported into a world filled with companionship and human interaction. Small towns are designed to integrate people into a community, conferring a sense of belonging rooted in a sense of place. Sprawl offers none of that.


ItÕs time we admit that suburban sprawl does very little to create a safe, civil and community-oriented society. It is time for us to return to the way we used to build our suburbs by making it legal again to build small towns.


Our quality of life depends on it.


Douglas E. Morris is the author of ItÕs a Sprawl World After All (www.ItsaSprawlWorld.com).