I have to always admit, that not all urban sprawl is the fault of the homeowner or apartment renter. Thanks to how our economy and our government is structured, there are a lot of people who would prefer a downtown condo or townhome, but are priced out of the privilege of walking to all the restaurants and theaters. This is even more pronounced in cities like mine where there’s only one or two walkable dense areas. So what is one to do when they are priced out into sprawl? Get to know how to do-it-yourself or have things delivered to make up for lack of restaurants, inability to walk or bike to work, and entertaining yourself and your neighbors.
Conquering the Lack of Restaurants and Nearby Markets
First, there’s meal planning. Most days, one does not need to eat out or go to a restaurant to make sure they eat well. If you write a schedule of what you want to eat, how and when to cook it and make sure you purchase or have delivered storage containers, then you could eat fancy directly from your kitchen, at home or at work. I recommend the Feast Bootcamp, to help you get started learning how to cook on a budget and in a way that makes sense for you. Once you know what you eat all the time, you can keep your list on your phone and do a monthly trip to the grocery store or find out what stores will deliver the groceries you use the most to your home.
Most moderate sized metro areas have a brick and mortar grocery that will deliver directly to your home for a fee. Here in North Carolina, Harris Teeter and Lowes Foods do. Chicago, New England, NYC DC and Philly have Peapod. Amazon delivers to everyone. Case in point, I used to order three weeks worth of oatmeal from them and I utilized their Subscribe and Save to make sure I kept the box coming . No matter what service you use, you may balk at delivery fees and some of the items may be more than you are used to paying. However, imagine not having to battle lines and the sheer overwhelm of shopping at the big box close to home. Or, you can always take your reusable bag and walk on the safe paths to get to that store. Walking doesn’t end just because you are in sprawl.
In addition, if where you live has granted you a lot of land space, get to farming! Even if it’s just one squash plant or one tomato stalk, this will go a long way to reducing your household expenses and also allowing extra money for a once or twice a week jaunt into downtown to enjoy the amenities there. In addition, all you have to do is walk out to your backyard for several of your fruits and veggies. No time to farm? Get to a neighbor farmer with livestock who will sell you an animal and process all the meat for you or will deliver you a bag of produce. CSA’s are also helpful in this, but you may luck out and find that your nearest neighbor may be willing to barter with you, if you have some other service to provide.
Dealing with the Inability to Walk or Bike to Work, Amenities or for Exercise
When I talked about food above, I said that walking doesn’t end. What walking does do, is get harder. You may have to walk on curb cuts or in mud or grass that may or may not be publicly owned. I hope you have good health and can walk fast or run, because you may need to to cross very busy suburban parkways to get to the stores and businesses. Biking is only a little bit better, because you might be able to pedal as fast as car going less than or at 35 miles an hour. Good luck though with higher speeds. Oh, and some communities may have bike lanes/trails, because they are proven to boost fitness.
As far as commuting, there are some suburban areas served by their greater metro area’s transit system. Your government leaders at least recognize that people who live there have to go to work and they can’t all drive there. Find out when the bus or train comes, how long it will take to get to your job and bring a book or get some good music or podcasts to listen to on the way there and back.
If you don’t have transit options, you may have the option of carpooling with a few of your colleagues. Yes, this all depends on you liking the people you work with and the fact that you work for a big enough company to justifiably have enough people nearby going to the same workplace. This also works if you work in the same building or same office complex. Take turns driving. If you don’t have the car, get a driver’s licence and consider being the driver and paying for all the gas.
There’s always telecommuting, developing a home-based business, buying in the subdivision closest to the office park or just driving and dealing with the repercussions of gas and maintenance. When I was reading about Celebration, FL over the past few weeks, many of the residents I read about had a home-based business or worked for Disney. Yet one guy, an urban planner for Tampa, sacrificed a cheap and short commute to continue his regular office job, but allow his family and himself on his downtime to experience the benefits that come from a compact community.
Lastly, don’t count out the hills and trails in your community. Thanks to our climate and terrain in Greensboro, many of our low-density neighborhoods actually still have hilly terrain built-in. There’s two very large hills near my mom’s house that were no joke on my bike when I was younger, so much so I gave up on biking. Yet, as an adult, I appreciate what it means to use nature to exercise and will be using those hills for such in the coming months. If you find yourself in unique terrain, then use it to your advantage. In addition, even if where you live is flat asphalt, people tend to not speed in parking lots and on residential streets. Start walking for fitness at least a few times a week and you may have company in your walk, or at the very least cars will slow down for you.
If you are comfortable with hosting people in your home or organizing parties, open up your home or help your street close down and have gatherings there. One major defense I hear from suburban dwellers is that where they live allows them to do this often, and sometimes without having to consult governing bodies or other neighbors (since they will be at the party too). Those of you who happen to be on a quiet street, consider having one house party or cookout and see if it works for your street. If your street is a party pooper, don’t be afraid to walk over to the next cul-de-sac or reach out to other neighborhood residents at a community meeting and check out what’s going on.
If it’s not the people you miss, but the content of the entertainment, don’t count out Netflix and Amazon and Hulu, as well as set-top boxes like Roku and Apple TV. That hot Broadway show or documentary may have been recorded and may be streaming on these services. It may take a few months or a year to reach you, but there are tons of other programs, documentaries and plays on these channels to entertain you. If you have friends that rave about these movies and plays and you fear missing out, then work with them to be in town (and stay with them) or schedule a weekend vacation while that particular cultural event is showing or first open. Plus, more smaller cities and towns are developing arts and cultural communities of their own. Don’t snub those communities, as they may also provide what you are missing.
Not Off The Hook
None of this gets developers, builders and resistant governments off the hook for not creating affordable, walkable areas that allow for community-level placemaking, as well as wealth generation and relationship building. However, the circumstances of not having an urban block or a nearby movie theater don’t have to keep you locked up inside or wasting money or gas in transit or in eating.