We've Never Been Here Before, or

My Cat Prefers to be Outdoors

A Review of Reclaiming Our Cities and Towns, by David Engwicht

Mike Vandeman, April 10, 1994

None of us has been here before. We have never lived before (that we can recall). We are meeting life for the first time. As a society, as a species, we have never met today's technology before. Thus, it is understandable that it has taken us so long to open our eyes to the damage caused by roads, the automobile, and their relatives and accoutrements. Just as the cane toad, imported from Hawaii into Queensland, Australia to combat the grey-backed beetle and protect the sugar cane crop, became itself a pest, we didn't foresee what pests the road and the automobile would become. Because it only took a small bite at a time, we couldn't predict that the family-outing-mobile would turn into "The Road That Ate New Jersey".

The highway system has become self-perpetuating, just like a living organism. "We have a self-perpetuating cycle, the key element of which is new paved roads. The 45,000 new miles added to the road network each year accommodate automotive travel, generate fuel consumption, produce road building revenue. Scratch the new roads and the cycle ceases to function." (p.44, from the 1967 Asphalt Institute Quarterly) It is an organism that eats pedestrians (a "pedestrian", don't forget, is simply a person or other living thing when it is not in its car). "Studies by Professor Stina Sandels show that as the speed of traffic increases, the attitude of motorists to pedestrians becomes increasingly ruthless." (p.50) "The pedestrian remains the largest single obstacle to free traffic movement." (p.41, from a Los Angeles planning report)

Residents of the Berkeley hills complain when their neighbors' trees grow too much, and block their view. Similarly, we destroy exquisite local forests and wetlands with roads so that we can get to other scenic areas quicker. (Familiarity breeds contempt?) We destroy our destinations in getting to them! "It is a bit like breaking up your house and burning it in the fireplace to stay warm. Eventually you are left out in the cold with no house and no fire." (p.60) This relates to the "private property" fantasy. Because we like something, we want to "own" it -- to dominate it. But this very domination inevitably destroys its value.

Ignoring the fact that we are destroying our home "places", we think we are gaining by accessing more places. We gain access to distant mega-stores, but in the process destroy our local shops (and a lot of shops along the route, displaced by the highways). We forgot that roads and cars run both ways. While we are gaining access to distant resources, others are gaining access to, and consuming, our local jobs and other resources. The same roads that let us "escape" to the suburbs can just as easily carry criminals to our door. The very act of increasing our "privacy", by hiding within big metal boxes, guarantees that potential criminals (because they don't "know" us) will have less sympathy and will feel freer (in a "cloak of anonymity") to take advantage of us. (Have you ever noticed how nasty otherwise nice people become when driving?) Wildlife are no longer the only victims of drive-by shootings. "Curious eyes" are probably the greatest deterrent to crime. Cars and high-speed roads remove those eyes.

The segregation ("alienation") that cars naturally provide destroys democracy. Cars increase the "power differential" between the rich and the poor, the old and the young, the weak and the strong. "The greatness of any city can be judged by the way it treats its weakest member." (p.106) The cleaner modes of transport, on the other hand, increase social contact, increasing "biodiversity", our greatest asset.

The other day, it was cold and cloudy outside. I let in my cat, Joe. (His brother, Bob, you know, was squashed by a car 3 months ago.) He wandered around the house for half an hour, and then finally asked to go back out. Joe was right. Human-built environments are boring -- static, predictable, monocultural -- when compared to the natural world. Roads are routinizing. Engineers try to make them as straight and uniform as possible. They carry you too fast to really experience anything you are passing, and the noise and cocoonness of the vehicle ensure that an absolute minimum of interesting sensations will reach you. "The tragedy of our modern cities is that we have destroyed placeness." (p.39) Nature obviously values diversity; perhaps we should take the hint.

For four years I walked and bicycled to classes at the University of California at Berkeley. I noticed that whenever I got into a "rut", following the same path onto campus every day, my mind was also in a rut. And whenever I took a different route, I would have new experiences, meet different people, and even have completely new thoughts! Roads and cars are, thus, not only destructive to our physical environment, but they also seriously compromise our mental life. How else can we explain why, considering the thousands of hours people spend in their cars, they don't have a proportionately fecund mental output? Why are we "throwing our gifts back in the face of the Creator"? (per Charles Dederich) "Sell your car and get a bike; kill your TV and go for a hike." In agriculture, diversity is essential. It must be the same for us. In the end, the greatest damage by the automobile may be the loss of biodiversity.

Is mobility really so important? A tree is happy spending its entire life in one spot. Are we really so different? We obviously don't have the time or wherewithal to explore the entire universe in our lifetime.

Perhaps Engwicht's greatest contribution is in the degree to which he opens our eyes to the ways that roads and motor vehicles have destroyed the city as effective human habitat. He gives us powerful new tools for thinking about our predicament. He maps clear routes out of the morass. And perhaps best of all, he demonstrates the enthusiasm, optimism, and wisdom that are essential to the task we face. He may be the greatest freeway fighter we have. I am adding this book to my List of Required Reading for the Entire Planet, after "The Ecological Effects of Roads" and Confessions of an Eco-Warrior.

As deep as it is, there are still some gaps in the book. There is no mention of ozone depletion -- one of the major effects of the automobile (because of their air conditioners). There could be more explanation of the forces that maintain our auto dependency, such as given in Spivak and Hart's The Elephant in the Bedroom. There is no mention of email and the Internet as aids to fast, worldwide community building. Although the emphasis on protecting the "weak" (I would prefer to say "those who can't protect themselves") is given its proper preeminent emphasis, Engwicht falls down in not giving more attention to children, native peoples, and especially wildlife.

On p.73, he actually says "cities are people.... ultimate reality is not the material universe but our experience of it". I am sure that many animals and plants would disagree with human perception as the ultimate reality! We shouldn't forget that we stole the land for our cities from wildlife and native peoples (precisely because it was attractive habitat -- the same reason that the wildlife and native peoples were there). Maybe Engwicht would like to reword his statement on p.90, "the resources of the earth [Earth] ... rightfully belong equally to all people". Who are we to say that wildlife and native peoples should not be an integral part of "our" cities? At least he admits that "By omission I have reduced the non-human elements of the eco-system to tools or things for the betterment of homo-sapiens." (p.93) I would hope that "all people are born equal" (p.89) will be supplemented in the future with "all species are born equal".

P.S. The book is published by New Society Publishers, 4527 Springfield Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19143, 800-333-9093.

Don't miss Engwicht's appearances in Berkeley, 7:30 pm, Sat., April 16, Martin Luther King, Jr. Way & Hearst St., and San Francisco, 6 pm, Tues., April 19, 851 Howard St., as well as elsewhere around the U.S. and Canada. He is from Brisbane, Australia.