Engagement, Interaction and Trayvon Martin

Unless you’ve been under a rock for the last couple weeks, the death of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin at the hands of Neighborhood Watch captain George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida last month has definitely been something you’ve heard of.  It is an unbelievable tragedy that has exposed the fault lines of American society.
By now most observers are familiar with the general narrative.  Martin was walking in the rain through his dad’s gated community, returning from a trip to the local convenience store.  He was being watched by Zimmerman, armed with a semiautomatic weapon, who found the teen wearing a hoodie to be suspicious.  Zimmerman called 9-1-1, elected to follow Martin… and from there the details are murky except for one.  Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman.
Much of the news coverage of this case has been on two elements: racial profiling, and the validity of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law.  Racial profiling by law enforcement – and indeed by the general public – is something that has been an issue forever.  Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law is much more recent.  The law allows those who feel their well-being is in jeopardy the opportunity to retaliate with force, even without first making an attempt to flee.  Zimmerman invoked this law after shooting Martin, saying he reacted in self-defense after being attacked.  Protesters have made the case that profiling and ‘Stand Your Ground” are the root reasons for this horrible event.
But could this tragedy have even deeper roots?  I would argue that the way we build communities in America today played a fundamental role in this case.
I do a lot of reading on planning.  I try to see how planning can be applied to our everyday existence, because planning detractors often fail to see its utility as a profession.  Yesterday I found two articles that get right to the heart of this matter.  First, I found this article by Robert Steuteville of Better Cities.net that makes the case that the gated community where this took place, The Retreat at Twin Lakes in Sanford, Florida, is a classic example of an insular community that casts suspicion on people walking in the area.  From the article:
“Those who don’t drive are likely to be on the economic margins or intrepid teenagers—old enough to be on their own but without wheels—who can hurry across huge crossings and ignore conditions that are miserable for anyone on foot.”
But simply having a dislike for walkers might not be the only factor at play in this gated community.  Also from the article:
“The economic downturn is another factor. The Retreat at Twin Lakes is only six years old, but its property values have declined precipitously. Foreclosures forced owners to rent out to “low-lifes and gangsters,” one resident told the newspaper. The development is now “minority-majority”—49 percent non-Hispanic white, 23 percent Hispanic, 20 percent African-American, and 5 percent Asian. This story is partly about what happens to a gated development when residents find themselves on the same side of the gate as people they fear.”
This comment represents a shift from making a design critique about gated communities to making a broader economic and social critique about the development form – “suburbia”. 
That led me to reread another article I read from last week at Rust Wire.com called The Psychology of Suburbia.  In it, author Richey Piiparinen said that the suburban development form was created to provide comfort and security to those who wanted to escape the complexities of urban living.  Want to get away from crime, dirt and smog?  Move to the wide lawns and picket fences of suburbia.  Maintaining a certain level of comfort and security of suburban residents means someone must obtain and exert a certain amount of control over the environment, too.  That can mean your unincorporated subdivision incorporates, or a homeowners association strictly enforces rules, or a neighborhood watch program provides an additional level of security for residents.
Both articles get a little closer to what I think ails our suburbs, but don’t quite dig deep enough.
You see, I believe that the American urge to escape, find comfort, maintain security and exert control over our built environment is as old as America itself.  It explains the development of this country.  But over the last 100 years or so, and even moreso after World War II, America has applied that same mindset to the new development form called the suburbs. 
The new development form has impacted our psyche.  Today, we believe in having an equal opportunity to escape.  We demand total security.  We seek comfort at all costs, sacrificing long-term benefit for short-term gain.
But the suburban development form has impacted our psyche in much more subtle ways as well, and I see evidence of it every day.  You see it in the fearful eyes of driving suburbanites who are unaware of how to drive in city neighborhoods with tons of pedestrians; they are used to having streets solely for cars.  You see it in walking suburbanites who are nearly trampled by pedestrians; they are used to having any pedestrian environment nearly all to themselves.  You see it in the disdain that some suburbanites have for those who like to meet and greet on the street; they are used to the street being a means to an end, for cars, and not a destination unto itself.  You see it in the elaborately decorated backyards that serve as playgrounds for suburban kids, or in the open attached garages where men hang out over beers; they are not used to having a useful public realm.  You see it in the desire of some suburbanites to seek gated communities; they are used to exerting control over their environment.
And you can see it in the contempt a suburbanite might have for someone walking in a community with a hoodie on, presumably identifying him as an outsider; they are used to people following the strict mores of suburbia and its development form.
This is where our preferred development form intersects with this tragedy.
I’m not about to launch into some diatribe that calls for a preference of cities over suburbs – I happen to live in one of the most suburbiest of suburbs in the Chicago area.  If you want to call me out as being suburban, I am guilty as charged.  But I do know how to operate within any environment.  You could drop me off in Englewood or Homer Glen, in Austin or Arlington Heights, or in Little Village or Lake in the Hills, and I’d be alright.  I know how to manage that way. 
However, I believe that is the exception and not the rule.  Many suburbanites have lost the ability to engage and interact with an environment that is unfamiliar and beyond their control, and – more importantly – people who represent an environment that is unfamiliar and beyond their control.  Unfortunately, this inability has grown with each new generation of suburbanites. 
Your granddad may have moved from the West Side of Chicago to River Grove; your dad grew up there and later settled in Addison.  You liked Addison, but you jumped at the opportunity to live in Wrigleyville for a few years after college; once you got married and had kids, you decided to settle down for the comfort and security of… Bartlett.  Even those who might not know a thing about any of these places would be familiar with the cycle, and this is exactly the type of cycle that reinforces our inability to engage and interact with each other.
I have often heard academics, pundits and intellectuals talk about the isolation of African-Americans in our nation’s cities, and its impacts.  But I never hear anyone talk about the insulation of residents of suburbia, and its impacts.  To me, they go hand in hand.  You can’t have one without the other.

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