Doing things differently since 1984

What happens when we live too far apart?

Oh dear, it has been a long time since I have posted on here!  “So I’m becoming a stay-at-home mom…” and I can see the cobwebs growing and tumbleweed rolling.  If you ever needed proof of how hard a stay-at-home parent works, you have it right here.  Those precious few hours we call “nap time” disappear quickly and mysteriously.

So much has happened in the past couple of months that bear worthiness of thought and reflection… Superstorm Sandy tattered our shores as well as others, a madman brought unthinkable horrors upon an elementary school in Connecticut, our Congress revealed just how fragile our economic prosperity is, and special holiday times have come and gone.  Many others have written very eloquently on these subjects, and I feel there is little I can add.

It was in a conversation recently when I pointed out something I thought was obvious: “I don’t think it’s good for us [Americans], living so far apart.”

OK, never mind your opinions on  the above statement — whether you think it’s good or bad or somewhere in between.  Like anything, it has its pros and cons.  What surprised me the most was how little people know about how oddly spread out we are in the US.   So, allow me to demonstrate:

A typical suburban/town setting in America (aerial view, courtesy of Google Maps)

A typical suburban/town setting in America (aerial view, courtesy of Google Maps)

This is about average for what an American town looks like.  Shops all clumped together, people spread out in various neighborhoods. More urban settings will be more packed in, more rural settings will be spaced farther apart.  So what?


A typical town setting in the UK.

A typical town setting in the UK.

This is how the same amount of space (notice the scale in the bottom-left) is used up in the UK.   Notice a difference?   It looks like it’s zoomed out, but it’s not.   You have people/shops all packed in together, then you’re suddenly not in the town anymore.  But how does this compare to other places?


A suburb/town in Japan.

A suburb/town in Japan.

Well look at that… The same amount of space in Japan looks even more zoomed out because it’s even more densely packed.  I’ll admit, I’ve never been to Japan, so this space was picked very randomly (I tried staying away from the big cities).  Scroll back up to the US image to compare.


A suburban/town setting in mid-Nigeria.

A suburban/town setting in mid-Nigeria.

So, OK, we all know Japan’s pretty packed.  What about somewhere less populated?  I picked somewhere random (again, avoiding the big cities) in the middle of Nigeria.  Still much denser than the US.


A town in south-central Russia.

A town in south-central Russia.

I had to really test the theory… what about the least densely populated country in the world?  How spread out are their people living?  Here is a randomly selected town in Russia, nowhere near any of the big cities.   Notice how it resembles the organization of the UK more than US.


So there you have it.  Hopefully I have clearly demonstrated that the US is the odd one out when it comes to how far apart so many of us live from one another.  I can assure you that if you look throughout history, particularly before cars, you’ll find it even more odd.  So the next question is…. so what?  Why does it matter how far apart we live from each other?

The answer is, I’m not really sure.  It just seems wrong.  If humanity has always tended to clump together in densely packed communities, wouldn’t it be for a reason?  Wouldn’t some part of our psyche kind of depend on it?  Would we even be able  to track what would happen when we stopped building our society like that?

Consider just the theoretical benefits of living in close proximity to each other:

– Safety (always a witness / strength in numbers)
– Community living (opposite of isolated living)
– Sanity (there is a reason hermits were usually the crazy ones)
– Accountability (hard to get away with dark deeds without the space to carry them out)
– Information (the more people you talk/listen to, the less ignorant you’ll be)
– Public services (running water, schools, sanitation, and the like)

This isn’t a complete list, but you get the idea.  So, considering the above, why would people want to give that up to live farther away from one another?  This list might seem a bit harsh, but just think about it for a minute and you’ll get it:

– Don’t really like other people (except in small doses)
– Don’t really trust other people
– Don’t want to be held back by other people
– Don’t want to have to answer to other people

Does that list look familiar at all?  It should, because it’s progressively becoming the ideals of our society.  Dressed up a bit better, of course, to make “ME” the important one, and everyone else the unimportant ones.

Is it progress?  Maybe just a neutral change?  You can decide.  But I bet it would never have happened if we were all still living shoulder-to-shoulder to one another.

14 comments on “What happens when we live too far apart?

  1. Randel
    January 3, 2013

    You have done a very interesting graphical analysis here.

    We in America must really love our lawns and all the time cutting the grass. We thrive on cheap energy like gas, so folks I know live 30 miles from their job and commute by car. The cars do not last that long and all that gas money has put many folks really underwater debt wise. A friend in the car business tells me of so many people trading in cars with so many miles on them they are essentially worthless but they still have outstanding loan balances that just get wrapped into a bigger loan on a different car. A debt merry go round that is all madness. I think living so far apart is craziness. But I am a hypocrite as live in one of those suburban places because when it came time to buying a house, a house 8 miles from work was $30,000 cheaper for the same size and and in newer better condition, so now I drive an economy car. I feel okay. When younger I lived in crowded and crime prone West Philly, and I would never wish that on anyone, but I bet that was because of the American life style too. We need a culprit, and I believe it is Congress for listening to the car, oil, energy, highway, industrial park folks rather than common sense.

    • abtwixt
      January 4, 2013

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this… I like your conclusion: blame the government! I too live in one of those suburban places, and it is with that point of view that I can’t help but feel like I’m missing something that I never actually had.

  2. tekkah
    January 3, 2013

    1. Your link to “others have written more eloquently about it” made me laugh for a good minute.

    2. It’s a side-by-side comparison like this that really drives home how hard it is to just GET AROUND here in the US. We have to get into a car and drive. Very few people outside of our largest metropolises can live without a car, and it’s just sad, really. I remember when we were in Newcastle it was possible to get just about anywhere for anything you wanted without having to get in a car, or even walk for very long. Here, the same small trips to grocery stores or outings to movies or restaurants would require planning and traveling on a scale that would have meant visiting the next town over in England. Alas.

    • abtwixt
      January 4, 2013

      Ha, I was wondering if anyone would actually click that link! I actually wrote the first couple of paragraphs the week after the Newtown shooting, so the feelings were fresher on my mind then. I don’t think I would have ever had these thoughts about how spread apart America is without the time we spent in Newcastle… it’s been bothering me more and more recently how it’s really just plain weird. Not without its advantages, I’m sure, but still weird.

  3. aFrankAngle
    January 4, 2013

    Welcome back … and, even after a 2-month absence, thought provoking. Believe it or not, I’m sure how to answer … but I’ll think about it.

    • abtwixt
      January 4, 2013

      Thanks for the welcome, and now you’ve got me curious! I look forward to you wisdom and insight 🙂

  4. Marissa
    January 4, 2013

    Glad to see you posting again!

    I have to say that I disagree with the general idea that living closer together is automatically more beneficial. I have been to many many moderately sized towns in the UK, and although some aspects of living more densely are very enjoyable (such as being able to walk everywhere) some are not. For example, the lack of wide sidewalks in most places in the UK (which means fewer green strips with trees, but also less visibility for cars, more crowding, etc) became really obnoxious after a while. The UK road network is also very close to full capacity, too, and with such dense town centres, there is little provision for parking, turn lanes, or other features to help traffic flow more smoothly and safely. All of these things mean that although in some senses, town life in the Uk is presented as an idyllic communal setting, in reality, it can be cramped,stressful, and not particularly beautiful in areas where much of that dense space is paved over without much thought for the beauty of the place.

    • Randel
      January 4, 2013

      My experience in West Philadelphia of cramped crowded no green space and lots of crime was horrible.

    • abtwixt
      January 4, 2013

      Hi Marissa, and thank you for your input! It’s true that living in denser communities does not equal a utopia by any means, and I’m very grateful you pointed that out, because looking back I really didn’t to a good job with that. What I meant more was that I feel that by moving further apart, we’ve changed ourselves, probably in more ways than we know.

      As Randel has mentioned with his West Philly example, denser communities in the US have sometimes become the very worst ones. For that, I would have to look into a much more complex causal relationship regarding how the option and ideal of moving farther apart has impacted communities that have not done so.

      Thanks for sharing, and keep up the great writing!

  5. Linda
    January 4, 2013

    People speak of the suburban model as if it is a defining characteristic of the US but it is a relatively new change… post WWIII and those post wars years were an extremely unique period of history since the US was the only country with fully functional manufacturing in a time of increasing global consumption.

    Until then I think living in the US was a lot more like the UK model…. there were a multitude of small towns in rural regions and clusters of individual neighborhoods within the densely packed cities. I wonder if it was the application of industrialization to living conditions… everyone gets a relatively uniform box to live in (with some status differences) with many national chains so stores and inventories are uniform. Schools pretty much look the same and the curriculum is the same so children are raised to think relatively the same. On a positive side it has created a relatively uniform culture where you can pick up and move thousands of miles and not feel like an alien. It has also removed some of the sense of otherness that I believe is the root causes behind the increasing tolerance we have seen over the last few decades. On the negative side it is isolating and lonely and destroyed the community sense of living and looking out for each other (volunteering).

    I also think we are seeing the pendulum swinging back on this. People miss the feeling of tribe so they are recreating tribalism with different type of group identity: “I’m a Packer’s fan”; “I’m artistic”; “I’m a geek” or “I’m a Democrat”. People can get together virtually since they don’t interact with someone a six houses away unless they are brought together by some outside factor like kids the same age or attending the same church. I’m hearing more and more people tossing around the idea of some form of communal living. Add into this the fact that economy is sputtering and the impossibility of supporting “normal” spending (both personal and government) in an age where there is true global competition and I believe we are on the verge of a sea change.

    I think we are living the Chinese curse: may you live in interesting times.

    • Randel
      January 4, 2013

      Could you elaborate more on this statement: “It has also removed some of the sense of otherness that I believe is the root causes behind the increasing tolerance we have seen over the last few decades.” I do not understand this statement. Does living farther apart mean we are more tolerant or intolerant?

    • abtwixt
      January 4, 2013

      Thanks for all of your thoughts! I agree that the “normal” layout that I captured in my first image is relatively recent. To be fair though, the number of those who remember a way of life pre-World War II is now a very small minority.

      That’s a really interesting idea, that people are going back to the “tribal” mindset by capturing various aspects of their identity that can give them an “in” to form a community with others. I think that idea has a lot of merit…. sometimes in bad ways, as the internet gives all kinds of crazy people their own little tribe 😉 From my point of view though, this all would support my idea that there is something missing that we all need when we try to make our homes and lives their own little islands.

  6. hyunhochang
    January 6, 2013

    Interesting thought. I’ve always assumed that it was in part because of the physical reality of living in such a large country–you have enough space that land is not usually restrictively expensive–and the vestigial mentalities of those who came to the New World–many came because they wanted to live on the frontier, and many others wanted to be independent of the ancient and omnipresent social systems of Europe. But really, I don’t know.

    That said, I’m glad you’re posting again. Best wishes to you and the family.

    • abtwixt
      January 7, 2013

      Thanks for your thoughts on this — and really, I agree with you. I think you gave a good overview on the actual, surface-level reasons for America’s spread out cities. My thoughts were more on the effects, and not the cause (though I don’t think cause and effect really have such a simple relationship) of our way of living that our frontier-minded ancestors never thought about.

      Thanks for the welcome — it’s good to be back!

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