At first glance the most obvious disastrous consequences of the horizontal development pattern of the last 60 years are the waste of land and the waste of energy that it demands. More insidious and less obvious is the waste of human resources it has required. Every human being on the planet must go through childhood in order to become an adult, and our brains in adulthood have acquired their depth and breadth from the demands made upon them while in the developmental stage. If they are not given time to explore, grow, and learn at an adequate level during these developmental years then it is likely that they will never reach their potential.
I have read conflicting reports about the relative cognitive benefits of both city living and life in the wilderness. In spite of the fact that I prefer a more urban environment, I can see why being surrounded by nature’s fractal variety, and being confronted by a landscape which has been in no way altered, simplified, or regularized by human hands could stimulate the brain spectacularly. The city, on the other hand, presents a different set of challenges to the mind. There may be greater regularity in some ways than in the forest or the mountains, but the attitudes and behaviors of the other primates with whom you must interact, and of whom you must always be aware, demand constant awareness in spite of the fact that the terrain has been modified to some extent in order to be legible to people.
Our most extreme suburban model of development, the one with no sidewalks and no provision for any mode of transport other than the car, has created a worst of both worlds scenario for the developing brains of the young. The pattern is regularized and standardized to such an incredible degree that, at least among people I know, hearing of the experience of going into the driveway of “wrong house”, or turning down the “wrong street” (because it was indistinguishable from the right house and the right street) is not at all uncommon. The standardization reduces the demand that the brain be actively engaged, and of course, anyone under the age of 17, more or less, will not even be given the charge of navigating this banal landscape, and so their synapses are not even being required to fire on that ridiculously low level.
Along with all of this our media culture has created a climate of fear such that even parents who live in walkable neighborhoods are too fearful to give their children autonomy, those of us who live in cities, even more so. Just this week I heard a handful of teenage American suburbanites marvel at the level of freedom their counterparts had in such places as Costa Rica, Germany, France, Spain, and Italy. The most shocking thing to them was how comfortable the parents were as the young people left the confines of their homes, and wandered out in the broader community. They describe their experience as being akin to going off to college, and to a tremendous degree I think that they are right in spite of the fact that we are talking about experiences that, in those places just listed, these are experiences which are had for the first time at the age of ten or twelve years of age, if not younger. I remember a child of no more than seven who I saw walking down the street in Oaxaca, money in hand, off to the corner store to purchase something all by himself.
We have stunted their growth and deprived them of developmental opportunities. We isolate them and, for the most part, obligate them to engage either exclusively with children their own age, or within the hierarchy of the home where their role is narrow and understood. Think how much better it would be for them to be constantly confronted by changing circumstances, one moment being a leader, the next adapting to being instructed by someone else, having to negotiate the purchase of some item on their own perhaps, and then having to deal with what to do with said item, where to store it or how to carry it, while they went about the rest of their errands.
This brings us back to the paradox which is the America in which we live. The places we move to in order to keep our kids safe are unsafe for kids to move around because ether are designed for cars. Most pedestrian friendly areas are located in urban centers where the demographics of poverty, and media paranoia, have parents too scared to let kids wander and explore. And even in the few pockets of relative affluence which overlap traditional development patterns such that the environment IS safe structurally, and appears safe demographically, parents are afraid to let their children loose. For some it must be just the expectation. They know, at least at a conscious level, that their child would be safe walking next door, going to the park, or making a trip to the store, but the stigma of being the type of parent who would allow their children to go off on their own is to heavy a burden, and the one in a million chance that their child could become a victim of a stranger abduction, or other form of brutal attack, as statistically unlikely as it is, won’t allow them to let go.
The harm we do to our children, the actual, physical, biological harm, is incalculable. These children will never have this chance again. As adults they will learn things, certainly, but there is a plateau, a level beyond which they are extremely unlikely to go after having such limits set on the demands placed upon their young minds. Test them, give them challenges, not just as part of special events, but as part of their every day lives. Live in a place where this not only can be done, but becomes part and parcel of the activities of every day life.