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Jewish World Review Oct. 4, 2004 / 19 Tishrei, 5765

Tom Purcell

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Consumer Reports

Killer Burbs | The suburbs are killing us.

According to a report by RAND Corp. folks living in suburban sprawl suffer more arthritis, headaches and high blood pressure than folks who live in the city do. The sprawl folks will live, on average, four years less.

You see, people who live in sprawl spend more time sitting in their cars, negotiating traffic jams and chomping down fast food. They spend their work hours sitting in cubicles staring at computer screens. And at night they lock themselves into their bland homes, watching bad TV.

Though the RAND study is the latest in a long line of anti-sprawl pieces, its points are well taken. I recently lived in North VA, one of the biggest areas of sprawl in the country. I came to hate the traffic, the parking lots and the generic nature of the place.

If you blindfolded a fellow and flew him to Fairfax County, VA, he'd have no idea what part of the country he was in. Fairfax is Anywhere, USA, and looks just like every other sprawl area in every state.

I don't know exactly how we got to this point. I grew up in the suburbs in Pittsburgh, and it was a wonderful place. Our neighborhood was linked to the Catholic Church and school that were only blocks away. Few people there ever locked their doors, or needed to, and the neighbors were helpful, supportive and CONNECTED.

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Just a mile away was the Del Farm grocery store and, more importantly, the beer distributor. Not far from there was the butcher, the drug store, the dry cleaners and the hardware store. Everything you needed to sustain your family was within ready distance. And shopping at these places every Thursday night is one of my great memories of growing up.

But that was back in the 1960's and 70's in Pittsburgh. The suburbs today are out of control. In Fairfax, population growth is fueled by a ready supply of good-paying jobs. That's the trend in America — most job growth is in the major metros.

And as people flock in for the jobs, a frenzy is taking place. Housing developments are slapped as fast as possible and, still, housing costs are soaring. A three-bedroom townhouse sells for $400,000 or more in Fairfax — for the privilege of spending their days pounding the pavement.

I had enough of that. I'm fortunate to make my income sitting in coffeehouses all day. I do a lot of corporate work and my clients are spread out all over the country. All I need is a portable computer, a wireless hookup and a cell phone. I can work from anywhere.

And so I bought a place in Pittsburgh in a small town just outside of the city — a place so affordable, I'm able to keep a modest place in Fairfax, too. The town has lots of pubs and shops. It has a diner and two or three coffeehouse. Everything I need is within walking distance.

And it is wonderful. I went for a run last night and marveled at the 1920's architecture. The roads are lined with sidewalks and giant Oaks. Unlike Fairfax, the garages are hidden in the back and the porch is prominent in the front. The houses shout out to folks, "Come on up for a glass of lemonade and relax for a little while."

On one hand, one must take the latest anti-sprawl study with a grain of salt. Growth is good and necessary. People who flock to major metro areas are exercising free choice. And if they're eating badly or not exercising, that is their fault, not the fault of sprawl.

On the other hand, we could make better choices on where and how we live. I've rediscovered a piece of heaven in Pittsburgh, and I've arranged my own affairs to live in a place in which I can walk where I need to go.

In this dynamic, progressive economy, there's no reason why a lot more folks can't make the same choice.

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© 2004 Tom Purcell