What Led Me to Become an Urbanist Despite a Suburban Upbringing?


By Dom Nozzi

October 1, 2002

Many rightly are concerned that our sprawling, suburban cultural values are leading to a loss of cultural memory of how to create wonderful towns and live pleasant, sociable lives. However, the one glimmer of hope that I know of is this: In my case, and in the case of one or two other urbanist friends I know, I grew up in the misery of auto-oriented suburban huge turn radius for roadhell. And my parents were very suburban in their values. As are my siblings, to this day.

My upbringing, for whatever reason, led me to study environmental science in school. Several years ago, I heard about a study that sought to discover which life experiences correlated to a person growing up to be exceptionally concerned about environmental conservation as an adult. Of the enormous number of variables evaluated, one variable stood out head and shoulders above all others. Much more so than other variables, one variable was very positively correlated with a person having a deep concern for environmental conservation as an adult: that as a child, the person had access to unstructured play in natural areas, and engaged in such recreation frequently. That was certainly true with me.

In any event, I obtained a degree in environmental science and then a degree in city planning. For several years as a city planner, I believed that quality of life could best be achieved through the strengthening of environmental regulations and the public acquisition of land (The “Greening of America” influence).

But something was missing.

Four years after starting my job as a city planner, a friend in town loaned me a copy of a videotape. The tape was the famous presentation given about that time (about 1990) by Andres Duany, delivered at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, regarding the merits of traditionalism.

His speech changed my life.

At about the same time, I also read “Death and Life of Great American Cities.”

How could it be that someone with my suburban upbringing was able to come to this epiphany? The only explanations I can come up with are these:

  1. For some unknown reason, I’ve always enjoined being a contrarian. Perhaps this explains why I found it easy to reject suburban values.
  1. For whatever reason, even though I admire many of his views, I’ve always had a great dislike for many of the values and viewpoints of my father. In rejecting those, I was perhaps able to reject his suburban values as well.
  1. Growing up in suburbia gave me a first-hand view of the sterile misery of that lifestyle.
  1. For whatever reason, I’ve always had a sociable personality, despite my shy nature. I’ve always enjoyed parties and attending vibrant events where a large number of people were enjoying themselves. This drive in me perhaps explains why I now am driven to see that cities are designed to encourage sociability and a sense of community.
  1. I’ve always been athletic, a conservationist, and a bicycle commuter. This could, in part, account for a disdain I have for the obsessive American love affair with cars.

I think another study is needed: What are the childhood influences or experiences that correlate with a person being an urbanist as an adult?



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Filed under Sprawl, Suburbia

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