“Sprawl – or, more accurately, the free market framed by policies that deliver sprawl – favors social isolation and heightens out sense of difference between groups of people. And because we interact less as we move along our publicly funded infrastructure networks and do not experience each other’s lives, much less look each other in the eye, I believe that sprawl also contributes significantly to political polarization – to a lack of acknowledgement of and empathy for people who are different. This is true looking across any of our divisions and it reinforces stereotypes about income, race, ethnicity, educational attainment, and even political party affiliation. It is also true across the geography of a region, heightening the perception of difference between urban, suburban, exurban, and rural populations.” – Ryan Gravel, Where We Want to Live: Reclaiming Infrastructure for a New Generation of Cities

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I could not agree more and I feel this is particularly evident in Metro Detroit. Metro Detroit is very suburbanized after decades of unsustainable development patterns as the region expanded geographically without growing in population. Growth was fueled by the movement of existing residents, a majority of them white, highly educated, and of certain financial means from the center to the periphery (Schmitt, A.)

The result – the development of suburban communities at very low densities with limited diversity 30 miles from downtown. Today suburbanites from the periphery that commute to jobs in Detroit, still the center of much business in a region that lacks a transit system, are less tolerant of differences. I see it every day. Many wake up, get in their car by themselves, park in a parking garage or lot, walk to their desk, work all day, return to their car, sit in traffic, get home, go to bed, and do it all over again the next day. They go about their day with very little interaction with strangers. They have very few opportunities to connect with someone of a different income, education, and background. Since they have very few real personal positive experiences in the city of Detroit or with residents of the city, their only sources of information about the city and it’s people are news stories, memories from the past, and personal anecdotes – many of which are negative.

I used to commute from a western suburb to a job downtown for three months, and let me tell you, I was not a happy person. It was isolating and miserable. I absolutely despised crawling down the highway in my car or sitting in traffic for nearly an hour, twice as long as the commute was without traffic. I would make a few phone calls or listen to a podcast and arrive at home in the dark, with barely enough time for evening meetings, dinner, or activities. My daily interactions were limited to my husband, my coworkers, friends and family I called, and my steering wheel. I was place-less and community-less.

I still work downtown, but now I live in the city. My commute is 8 minutes by car, 30 minutes by bike, and 32 minutes by bus. Although I have not yet biked or taken the bus, I look forward to doing so this summer. My life is changed. By significantly shortening my commute by car and living and working in the same community, I interact with people, lots of people, on a daily basis and I am a happier person. I wave to my neighbor looking out the window when I leave for work in the morning, greet people I pass on the street from the parking garage to the office, say good morning to the security guards, acknowledge other lunchtime walkers, socialize with diners in local restaurants for happy hour or dinner, listen to my neighbors concerns, and connect with community leaders in evening meetings.

I would argue that density, the opposite of sprawl, fosters interactions among people, promotes connection and a sense of place, supports a strong community, and contributes significantly to political unification.

Planners today have acknowledged the need to stop sprawl and redirect growth regionally and nationally, but there has been much debate on solutions (Dunn, P.). Regardless of the specific solution, to change our infrastructure and create a place in which we ALL actually want to live, I encourage us to heed Ryan Gravel’s advice.

“We have to trust ourselves that we can do this. We have to look each other in the eye. And while our journey will be difficult, our only chance for making change is if we work together. This will not require an act of Congress. In fact, for now, Congress should largely stay out of it. All it requires is for you and me to decide, perhaps naively, that we can actually make a difference […]. This will require us to dream, think, and plan, but we will also need to take action-voting with our feet and at the polls, building coalitions, changing rules, modifying budgets, and investing in new infrastructures that support health, economic prosperity, equity, and a more sustainable civic identity.”