I'm paging around maps (like you do) looking at my home town.

I miss it, I miss knowing every curve, every road. Seeing the map and seeing a little misalignment of a road with the image and knowing the details that made someone draw it a little wrong.

And yet, it makes me so sad, living in Boston. The city is great, it's mostly uses of land that make some sense—it's not perfect, the sense of community isn't there in big buildings because of the way it's developed—but it's alright.

What really gets me though is the suburbs. We went peach-picking in the middle of Massachusetts yesterday, and the sheer arrogance and greed of the suburbs makes me boil. It's all owned. It's all divided up into little plots. It's all beautiful forest, destroyed.

Where I'm from the land is fragile.

The white patches on this are not snow. They're alkali deposits, and they come to the surface if there's rain after disturbing it too much. Too much grazing, a little too much digging, a little too much heat and the plants die off? You're left with permanently inhospitable soil. It'll take years to recover, if it ever does.

And where I'm from land is more carefully managed. It's far from perfect—mineral rights are the big problem here, but also ranching. But it's careful, even so.

"What's downstream?" Western water rights are a shitshow but you do have to ask this question. Every. Time. "Who else am I affecting?" (I mean, people don't want to have to ask that and fight legal fights to not do so, but they lose.)

Look at the edge of that map. That south edge is the north edge of my hometown. On one side are city streets, such as they are. On the other are open fields. The growth is clustered, dense, until it's not. The wide open spaces are preserved.

The county is about half public land, if I recall the figures right. National forest. Protected wildnerness. Some BLM managed land. A state park and recreation area.

Walking out the front door of my house, you could walk up into the mountains, never leaving public land or public roads. Access to the wilderness is widely considered a right. Not undisputed—proposed land swaps with Ralph Lauren or hostile action to control access by Charlie Urgin would have cut off access some ways—but widely believed.

The contrast in Massachusetts is palpable. Some due to density, but mostly greed and colonization.

There are public paths and right of ways here. There's a few great meadows and sanctuaries, a recreation area here and there, but by and by large, the land is divided up into parcels held privately. Not fenced, but obvious demarcations between lawns. Large houses sprawled out for miles, farms are some of the largest open spaces, and those are in towns.

Towns are space-filling here, and since they have less structure inside than counties in Colorado, they don't cause clustering.

My hometown has no great record on native rights, but one can at least imagine the world as it is giving the Ute tribes a place to return to in their land without upending it all. It's in the realm of possibility. The world as it was taken from them is still there, if changed.

The Massachuset and Pequot and Cohasset and Nipmuc and Abenaki? Four hundred years of colonizing, privatizing and annexing land has left it utterly changed.


To me, the suburbs aren't just a problem, they're a manifestation of _the_ problem. They are alienating. Low density. Destructive to community, replacing community with a weaker network of family friendships that never coalesce into the durable relations that make true community.

You don't know your neighbors, not all of them. You don't _want_ to in the suburbs. You don't work in the burbs, not usually. You drive to school, you drive to work, or a train you drive to friends, you drive.

You control your patch of land as absolutely as you can, and resent neighbors being busybodies. And so does everyone else.

Or you become a busybody, the impulse to think larger than oneself turned dark and controlling, rather than nurturing community.

And if it's too much, you buy a bigger piece of land if you can, so you don't have to be so neighborly. You withdraw into your family and its petty estate. You fuss about the property values. You choose your town based on its schools, you don't help develop the school because it's your town.

And nature is a thing you do on weekends, when you're not mowing the lawn. You drive to visit it, little contained patches of land we imagine to be pristine. A refuge from this world we've co-created.

The long and short of it is that I miss the West, and the attitudes toward land and development in the West are something I think people in the East and Midwest just don't understand and I wish they would. The attitude to land is so utterly different here on the East coast.

The concept of stewardship of land does not exist—sure, there's nonprofits with specific goals, some of which are aligned, but the idea that one can be a steward outside of that isn't here. There's no collective attitude toward land here outside of the people managing it, sometimes for profit.


This is a really good thread, and yah in my opinion suburbs are a massive longterm act of violence.

I live in Rhode Island and I mostly agree with you, but in the past 100 years or so nature has actually come back in a whole lot of ways even though population has skyrocketed (all of rhode island can be squinted at and pretty much be considered part of a supercity from a global perspective).

@Alonealastalovedalongthe It's interesting to watch what happens after industry tears through land. Colorado, my home, was ravaged by the mining boom. The "old" forests are still super young, the regrowth after stripping for timber for mines.

Now that our industrial use patterns have changed, we have the opportunity to pull the suburbs back, build a new natural environment. Though it will still be built, and it'll be a slow incremental process since just razing the burbs isn't gonna happen.


I think in the northeast the most viable way forward for conservation is local land trusts and land banks (a percent of real estate sale is taxed and put towards buying public use land).

However it seems that if you start keeping land under open space you also can easily exclude affordable housing. This is certainly the case in the more rural coastal areas of RI which are a joke prospect to live in as a young person.

@Alonealastalovedalongthe Yup. We have to change the whole suburban density mindset first. Clustering. Then land trusts.


There are coyotes, bears, hawks, the ocassional mountain lion, and far more trees than there were 60 years ago mainly because the area isn't used agriculturally for the most part anymore. Which isn't going against what you are saying, certainly the ecological damage/habitat loss caused by large scale agricultural use to feed rhode islanders has been outsourced somewhere else but its weird.

@aredridel I wish we had US-style national parks in our country. It's not a realistic goal, because the country is far smaller and more densely-populated, but there's something very attractive about vast swathes of land in public ownership for recreation and breathing space, rather than for commercial exploitation.

In this country, every square centimetre of land is owned by someone and used for something. Even "empty" moorland is owned by someone so they can shoot birds on it.

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