In our local community, as in many others, there is active and often acrimonious debate about zoning. While everyone agrees that there is a severe shortage of available and affordable housing and that increasing the housing stock is essential, not everyone agrees that new housing should be created in the neighborhood where they live. Instead of planning the type and location of new housing construction based on who needs housing, what they can afford, and proximity to school, jobs, shopping, and transportation there is a disturbing (to me) pattern of focus on where new housing should NOT be built. Sometimes this is based on protection of a natural resource: not building housing developments or placing box stores with large parking lots in the watershed, for example. Or using a comprehensive and prospective land use plan to ensure adequate habitat for wildlife and spaces for varied forms of recreation. Too often, however, the objection to new housing is based on what I consider an unacceptable premise: people want to preserve the ‘character’ of ‘their’ neighborhood.
The most obvious problem with this is that none of us ‘own’ our neighborhoods. None of us have purchased a house where the sales contract includes ownership or control of the neighborhood. We live in and work in neighborhoods, but we neither own them nor have the legal right to ‘protect’ them from the natural and inevitable process of change.
When I ask people in the community where I live to describe the ‘character’ they wish to preserve, they nearly always describe what their (fallible) memory tells them it was like when they moved in. When I suggest that perhaps the ideal character of the neighborhood was actually what existed 2 or 4 generations before they moved in, the conversation always falls apart. My take on this is that by ‘preserving the character of their neighborhood’ they really mean they want to live in what they think the past was like.
Like everything else, neighborhoods change. All of us can see the changes even over short time periods: when a new shopping center is built or a new school or a new exit on a nearby highway. Or when an important business opens or shuts down. Or in a college town, when summer comes and students leave. Or in semi-rural New England for tourist season or leaf peeping season. Over the longer term it happens more gradually and we either don’t notice, or we forget. Not many of us live near street cars or trolleys any more. Very few of us have to share the public roads with horse drawn vehicles, though our ancestors saw that in reverse, their horse drawn vehicles having to put up with occasional motorized vehicles. Roads were not always plowed, sanded and salted - let alone paved. Do the neighborhood preservationists want to return to dirt roads travelled by horses and horse-drawn vehicles? What would our lives be like if those who lived in our communities generations ago had refused to let our communities evolve?
And, if one takes the much longer geologic time perspective, none of us would recognize (or could survive in) the neighborhood where we live during most of the last 12,000 - 13,000 or so years of human habitation in New England. This article describes the evolutionary changes in Vermont from the arrival of humans ~ 12,000 - 13,000 years ago when it was post-ice-age tundra. A survey of the changes spans multiple eras: Paleo-Indian, Early Archaic, Middle Archaic, Late Archaic, Early Woodland, Middle Woodland, Late Woodland, and the Contact Period which began with the arrival of Europeans about 400 years ago. The period when New England neighborhoods were dominated by Europeans represents a mere 3% of New England human habitation. Our current perception of local neighborhoods, perhaps 2-3 generations or roughly 50 years, represents a minuscule 0.3% of New England’s human habitation. It strikes me as bizarre and arrogant to assert a right to freeze 13,000 years of evolutionary change based on what one thinks a neighborhood was like such a short time ago.
The article about Vermont concludes with two paragraphs that, I think, make the concept of protecting a neighborhood from change untenable:
“By about 1,000 years ago, at the start of the Late Woodland period, people here were growing squash, corn and beans, the classic combination of crops raised by indigenous people across North America. The corn would be planted first, then the beans, which would use the corn stalks as poles up which to grow. And the squash would grow along the ground, protecting the corn’s shallow roots and providing shade that kept out weeds. Eaten together, the foods provided a balanced diet. The abundance of food, both harvested and hunted, helped swell the population.
But this latest time of prosperity would be short-lived. A devastating era for the region’s original inhabitants arrived little more than 400 years ago, when a new group of people, the Europeans, came to North America. They brought with them their own beliefs, technologies and diseases. Their arrival initiated a disastrous era for the indigenous population, which archaeologists dubbed the Contact Period.”