Suburban Sprawl, Conspiracy Theories, and Jesus

I became aware of a vast, powerful conspiracy all around me, but what is there to do about it?

Grant Wishard / 1.18.23

You can take the blue pill, read no further, turn back to the Mbird homepage and read something far more uplifting. Or you can take the red pill, read to the end, and I’ll show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.

I wish Morpheus had been there to offer me this choice when I accidentally took the red pill several months ago. But my red pill didn’t look like a pill. It looked at a coffee table book about urban design called Suburban Nation. I read it and now I know the truth. Everywhere I go, all I can see is The Matrix and, wow, I wish I had that other pill.

This is your last chance.

The truth is this: we are slaves to our cars. To participate in everyday life, Americans must own a vehicle. This is because everything we have built since WWII assumes that driving is the ideal mode of transportation, when, in fact, it is the worst. By building everything for the car, it becomes impossible to walk or bike, and our public transit goes underfunded. As a consequence, the places that we live are more dangerous, expensive, and ugly.

There are many ways to become aware of your own slavery. If you are a more emotional sort of person, watching the opening scene of Belfast might do the trick.

Ask yourself, why does Belfast in 1969, even with all the terrorism, look like a wonderful place to live? Before the mob shows up with rocks and firebombs, there are bus-loads of children safely playing outside, literally in the street. Buddy is called home for tea by a relay of friends and neighbors, all of whom know him by name. The movie is about Catholic and Protestant hatred, but part of the terribleness of the conflict is that it ruins a perfect home. Buddy walks to school and is free to explore the community. He lives next door to his grandparents, who are independent and warmly connected. Everyone is poor, but their neighborhood is convenient, functional and dignified. In a world built for cars, all of these groups — the young, the old, the poor — would be trapped, dependent on everyone else for a ride.

If statistics are your thing, there are plenty. Car crashes are the leading cause of death for all Americans between the ages of one and thirty-four. In 2021, 42,915 of us were killed in crashes. Other leading causes of death, including heart disease (#1), respiratory diseases (#6), and diabetes (#8), sweep a wider sickle through America because we sit everywhere we go, instead of using our legs. Other studies show that happiness negatively correlates to how long it takes you to drive, bus or subway to work (walkers and bikers are happier regardless of commute length). Incredibly, those who save 20 minutes on their commute receive the same boost in happiness as those who receive a 20% pay raise. Still not horrified by the Toyota Matrix? How about these two facts: the inside of your car has more germs than the average toilet, and marriages in which one spouse commutes more than 45 minutes are 40% more likely to end in divorce. Put simply, driving is the worst way to get to most places. It is inefficient, bad for your soul, and for many of us it is the only option.

If you’ve made it this far, welcome, Neo. You are now part of my waking nightmare. I drive around everywhere now, white-knuckling the steering wheel, thinking “ALL OF THIS COULD BE SO MUCH BETTER!” Terms like “mixed-use zoning” and “mandatory parking minimums” rattle around in my head. People I meet say something innocent about their trip to Disney World and I think, “you love Disney World because it’s walkable, just like how you loved your college campus life. Wake up, people.” I’ve read more books on urbanism. Unfortunately, the list is endless. My Twitter page has become an echoing chant: “Europeans are better than you. Better than you. You.” My wife is completely done with my (righteous, completely justified) tirades, and my friends are learning how to carefully avoid the topic. Many days, I wish I hadn’t picked up that book.

But now I’m aware of a vast, powerful conspiracy all around me and the question is what to do about it? I’ve tried reasoning my way out. Logically, I can see that in the grand scheme of things, this is a minor complaint. I, of all people, should be able to reconcile myself to where I live because of the opportunities I’ve had to meet the world’s poor. In Ethiopia, I worked with people living on the city dump who paid rent for the privilege of doing so. I’m rich and educated and, yes, the poor quality of modern urban design is, admittedly, the definition of a first-world problem. But so is a pebble in your sustainably made Allbirds and a short in your iPhone charging cable. Five minutes into my day I’m back to thinking about how all of Paris, Barcelona, and Manhattan can all fit inside the land dedicated to surface parking in Los Angeles County.

Unable to think my way out, I’ve tried turning to the wise and the academic. I turned to Wendell Berry (a useful tool for the anti-urban car lobby if ever there was one). He has some great slams against cities. In On Work, he writes “The typical modern city is surrounded by a circle of affluent suburbs, eating its way outward, like ringworm, leaving the so-called inner city desolate, filthy, ugly, and dangerous.” In other places, he characterizes the city as a trap, an entombed place, surrounded by “valves that let merchandise in but no consciousness out.”

Briefly, I thought I had found an answer: the countryside. Why hadn’t I thought of it before? Out there I’d be free to drive around in the world of Ford commercials: panning shots of empty rural highway, parking my two-ton pickup truck for no reason, staring out over an open field, thinking about “the doers” and “the builders” of this great automobile-loving country. I used to love driving my family’s 92’ Ford pickup and floating around in my grandparent’s Lincoln Towncar. Maybe a few miles on the tires would make everything okay.

Maybe it’s the cul-de-sac (a suburban invention designed to fend off strangers) thinking of a conspiracy theorist, but I actually agree with everything Wendell says about the city. The spreading, sprawling, ring-worm nature of our cities is a mainstay complaint made by those who are woke to bad urban design. Yes, cities are dependent on inputs from the countryside, as Wendell suggests, but dense, walkable cities are the most energy efficient places in the world. Dense, well-designed cities preserve more of, and place more people in reasonable proximity to, the untamed natural world. Wendall, in other words, is down in the rabbit hole with me.

Since the brain can’t seem to free itself, I’ve concluded that this is a heart problem (the spiritual kind. I’m a walker, remember?). Having experienced my first Christmas as an obsessed urbanist, it occurred to me that Jesus must have walked around with an awareness of countless conspiracies. It also occurred to me that if Jesus had come to suburban America, he would have had to wait until his 16th birthday and a driver’s license to go teach at the Temple, but that’s getting off track. Jesus must have often wanted to shut his eyes to the self-sabotage and backward thinking that he witnessed. But, of course, he didn’t.

Jesus was fully aware of the world’s most subtle uglinesses and loved it anyway. He also made space in his life for people who were raving mad and almost couldn’t take it anymore. I’m grateful that Simon the Zealot, for one, was welcomed in. The name itself sounds wild-eyed. Also, the zealot? I’m jealous, but trying hard not to be. Suburban Nation opened my eyes to something I hate, but instead of trying to close them again, I should leverage this hatred into an amazement for Christ’s love. Every time I wearily get in my slave-mobile, I should train my heart to open wider.

(In closing, last night, a friend happened to show me a whole sub-genre of urban design books that are written by Christians. I haven’t read any of them, but suspect that they would be healthier red pills than the one I took. More than one of them have forwards by Tim Keller, who has been explaining God’s love for the city for decades.)

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COMMENTS


8 responses to “Suburban Sprawl, Conspiracy Theories, and Jesus”

  1. Bryan J. says:

    Grant – I’m so sympathetic to this post! I, too, have gone down the Urban Planning rabbit hole. Don’t people realize that suburban strip malls are a tremendously inefficient use of space and potential property tax revenue? How will they ever fund their stormwater drainage and treatment systems when they expire in the next few decades?

    I experience this as an exercise in powerlessness. Even if I campaign for major development and zoning changes and preach “the gospel” of sustainable planning to change the hearts of my neighbors, it’s not going to happen.

    FWIW, I live in small town rural Pennsylvania in a wonderful walkable community. Tons of neighbors, kids skateboarding down the street, restaurants, coffee shops, immaculate town square – even a theater and a playhouse! How could I ever live in cold and isolated suburbia?

  2. Sean says:

    💥😊❤️

  3. Chuck Bridges says:

    I am way out. No cable, I still have a land line. no city water I have a well, power goes out often , I have lots of candles and flashlights, I take my own trash to the dump. I have a po box for mail. I am 10 miles from my food lion. BUT, I can sit on my dock and watch eagles fish in the east river. good stuff.

  4. Pierre says:

    I appreciate a good humorous dive down the rabbit hole. You’ve clearly hit on something true, and I notice shades of it in my own suburban community. But I wonder about the implication of pointing these things out so acerbically to people who can’t do much about where they live. Truthfully, I hear condemnation in these words and in the comments they attract (of the “thank God *I* live in such a wonderful place” variety, whose barely-unspoken subtext is “I could never live like those benighted philistines in the suburbs, what fools”). You’ve suggested my suburban community is ugly but that, fortunately, Jesus “love[s] it anyway.” It’s hard not to take that as a little bit insulting.

    The reality is, not all of us can afford to live in wonderfully walkable small towns or on rural estates with waterfront access. Cities are where the jobs are, and some of us (most of us?) need to earn a living, despite urban cores becoming increasingly expensive and pushing low- and middle-income earners to the suburban fringes. I would never suggest the place (or way) I live is perfect, but critiquing it to the point of oblivion without proffering any solutions feels like a gratuitous exercise in shaming. And I need the Gospel to rescue me from my shame, not heap more upon me.

  5. Matt says:

    If you want to add to your pain, take a look at “Suburban Evangelical Individualism: Syncretism, (Harvie) Conn-textualization, or Something Else?” by J. Nelson Jennings.
    Jennings does in the end get to a similar position of acknowledging that Christ’s love enter all places…

  6. Joel says:

    In some circles the pill is called the “orange pill” – if it happens to be Dutch/European style urbanism that changes your mind!

    I got into this rabbit hole almost 2 years ago. I drive (of course) the one mile to the church where I work because otherwise I’d have to cross 2 US highways to get my kids to daycare. Some days I hate it. City council members (one of whom is part of my church) would rather spend millions on pedestrian overpasses than slow traffic down and make intersections and sidewalks usable for pedestrians.

    But Jesus is here. Working to redeem this city. And he’s forgiving me every time I overlook the needs of another when I’m on a hate spiral in my head.

  7. Zed F says:

    “…not all of us can afford to live in wonderfully walkable small towns.”

    It’s really a matter of Econ 101. Zoning codes make it illegal to build more walkable communities, so supply cannot hope to keep up with demand. The results are rents outside the means of most families.

  8. Preston says:

    Great article! Thank you for writing this Grant!
    I often wonder how different our socioeconomic and cultural divisions would be today if our cities had prioritized walkability over the automobile.

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