Calvin College

CALVIN - Minds in the Making

Strengthening Liberal Arts Education by Embracing Place and Particularity

Case Study

Using walking and biking tours to connect students to place


John Muir, the great American naturalist, once stated, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe” (Sierra Club Staff, 1992, p. 73) and so it is with current development patterns. As the 21st century unfolds, our sprawling development pattern in the United States has emerged as a major issue for our collective society.  The challenge of urban sprawl is multi-dimensional and encompasses a wide range of issues including: 

Loss of the Public Realm.  The decay or lack of attention to the public realm can be seen in a variety of ways from the loss of the front porch in neighborhoods to a lack of permanence in municipal buildings and public space.  Prior to the 1940s most houses had a front porch where people gathered and socialized with their neighbors.  However as air conditioning was created, television evolved, and backyards became more attractive, we have seen a movement from the front porch to the backyard and from public to private space (Dolan, 2002). 

Declining Tax Base (Deteriorating Cities).  Many central cities have experienced decline as the suburbs have grown rapidly.  As people and wealth leave the city, its property values decline, tax rates increase, services decline, and social problems and crime often increase.  This creates a downward spiral for urban areas and provides the model of throwaway communities.  As central cities decline can first ring suburbs be far behind? A study of the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, Orfield (1997) creates a time lapsed montage of communities bobbing up and down in successive waves of prosperity, decline and decay.  These waves, moving out from the city are now lapping into the suburbs.  Orfield is quick to point out that “if it can happen here, no American region is immune” and prompts the question where will it end.  As tax bases erode in inner cities, fast growing suburbs struggle to keep pace with development.  Consider that the infrastructure (sewer, water, streets, parks, fire, police, etc) to support this development becomes more and more expensive the further out it stretches.  For example, “in South Carolina, if sprawl continues unchecked, statewide infrastructure costs for the period 1995 to 2015 are projected to be more than $56 billion, or $750 per citizen every year for the next 20 years” (Edelman, Roe, & Patton, 1999, p. 6). 

Automobile Dependency.   As development sprawls the amount of time people spend getting from one place to another increases.  In the United States, where mass transit is underdeveloped, a large portion of the day is spent in transit.  The amount of time Americans spend driving automobiles has increased 60 percent since 1980 (Hinds, 1999).  In addition, new developments are planned with automobiles in mind, meaning bigger parking lots, larger roads, more air pollution and the erosion of pedestrian environments.  Putnam (2000) notes that each additional 10 minutes spent in daily commuting time cuts involvement in community involvement by 10 percent.  A report from the Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP) (20003) shows that America’s families spend more than 19 cents out of every dollar earned on transportation - an expense second only to housing and greater than food and health care combined.  The nation’s poorest families are particularly burdened, spending more than 40 percent of their take home pay just to get around (STPP, 2003).

Health Related Risks.  Sedentary living habits have increased in the last 20 years with the increase in desk jobs and the lack of exercise in peoples’ day-to-day lives.  The increasing use of automobiles has decreased physical activity.  Sedentary living contributes to poor health and the rising level of obesity in the United States.  It is estimated that physical inactivity and obesity are contributing factors in 300,000 to 500,000 deaths each year in the United States.  There has been an increase in the prevalence of obesity among adults in the United States over the last 20 years, adding over $100 billion/year to our national health care costs.  Nationwide, the proportion of children ages 6 to 18 that were overweight increased from 6 percent in 1976-1980 to 15 percent in 1999-2000.  Alarmingly, one in every seven kids is overweight in the United States (Jackson & Kochtitzky, 2001).  Design of cities and neighborhoods can encourage people to walk often and for relatively longer periods.  For example, residents of urban areas living in houses that were built prior to 1974 are more likely to get exercise walking than peers living in newer homes.  A recent study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that the link between walking and house age was present in urban and suburban areas but not in rural areas.  The study found that what makes older neighborhoods special is that homes are built close together making walking easy and time efficient.  Older neighborhoods mix homes with businesses and parks, which encourages walking over driving.  Sidewalks and the safety of streets are greater so we can walk more.  Newer neighborhoods usually have wider streets than do older neighborhoods and wider streets encourage higher speeds for auto traffic (Parks & Recreation, 2002).  According to public health professionals one of the most effective interventions is regular, physical activity such as bicycling and walking as well as leading an active life.  This realization provides parks and recreation professionals an opportunity to provide an active vision for the future as well as provide cost benefit analyses supporting our programs. 

Environmental Problems.  As sprawl increases our reliance on the automobile and often works to undermine general health, it also contributes to poor water and air quality.  A sprawling development pattern often undermines the benefits provided by a healthy ecosystem.  Ecosystem benefits include water and air purification, mitigation of floods & droughts, detoxification and decomposition of waste, soil generation and fertility, climate stabilization among others, and these benefits are typically undervalued in the marketplace.  Urban development typically negates these services with the loss of wetlands and the creation of impervious surfaces.  Watershed planning that is coordinated with recreation planning can reduce non-point source pollution, contribute to aquifer recharge, mitigate floods and droughts and provide for habitat diversity.  The park system within a community should be considered a part of the community infrastructure and an investment in the community’s natural capital.  A well-planned park system is coordinated with municipal water management, transportation planning and energy conservation.  A well-planned park and recreation system provides diverse benefits and can reduce infrastructure costs. 

Loss of Social Capital.  The idea of “social capital” has received a great deal of attention since the release of Robert Putnam’s book Bowling alone:  The collapse and revival of American community.  In this book, Putnam reviews the "state of community" and concludes that America is suffering from a decline in social capital.  Putnam defines social capital as “features of social life—networks, norms, and trust—that enable participants to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives”. This is a critical element to the success of democracy.   Putnam (2000) attributes our loss of social capital to a variety of factors such as changing work patterns, urban sprawl, generational change, television and other changes in technology.  Regardless of the cause, the issue of social capital is an important issue for leisure service professionals as one of the benefits of our programs and services is building social capital within communities.  Consider, in a study of conflict and violence in and around public housing in Chicago, researchers found that the residents of buildings with surrounding green space had a stronger sense of community, had better relationships with their neighbors, and reported using less violent ways of dealing with domestic conflicts, particularly with their parents (Sullivan & Kuo, 1996).

In dealing with these and other issues associated with sprawl, Kuntsler (1996) has called for developing a more widespread consensus of hope – a cultural agreement as to the kind of world we want to live in as well as the will to make this vision a reality.   Developing a consensus of hope requires the ability to see the big picture, to move beyond specific disciplines to seeing the issue as a whole.  In this regard a liberal arts education provides a solid framework to understanding that development should encompass a wide range of economic, social, environmental, and spiritual components, which demand an interdisciplinary approach to urban issues.   As Florida (2002) asks,  “What do we really want?  What kind of life and what kind of society do we want to bequeath to coming generations.  This is not something we can leave to the vagaries of chance, to the decisions of political leaders or even to the most forward looking public policy…To purposely address it we must harness all of our intelligence, our energy, and most important our awareness.  The task of building a truly creative society is not a game of solitaire.  This game, we play as a team” (p. 326). 


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