On Solid Ground: What happened to my community

  • Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Will Haynie

“Our lifestyle, especially in this wonderful country, is a disease more deadly than cancer, war or plague.”

- Younger Next Year, by Chris Crowley and Henry S. Lodge, MD


We have recently seen dueling proposals by South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and Rep. Bakari Sellers addressing the obesity epidemic in our state. The focus of both is on food and activity.

That’s a start. That is part of the problem.

But there is more to it than that, and to see it, all you have to do is look out your your window. The quote at the top of this column is from the no-nonsense, no-magic-formula book by Chris Crowley and Dr. Henry Lodge that describes why government leaders are addressing bulging waistlines. Crowley and Lodge’s book is designed for those of us seeking to live healthily in the last third of our lives. I’ll vouch for Crowley and Lodge - their book helped me lose 25 pounds last year. But there is another contributing factor to the obesity epidemic, and that is the design of our communities.

“What happened to my community?”

How many times have you heard people ask that question in the last 10 or 15 years? This isn’t just an issue of growth, size and traffic. It’s also about the loss of the sense of community, the sense of living amongst neighbors who care and belonging somewhere.

Why did communities change?

Lots of research and speculation have gone into that question. The introduction of air conditioning made houses more closed up, with fewer people out for a walk on the streets on summer evenings, sharing a glass of iced tea with neighbors on a hot summer night.

After World War II, more families owned cars and started commuting longer distances.

Then in the late ’60s/early ’70s, government took a bigger role in the design of our communities when zoning laws became the norm.

The older generations grew up before the advent of suburban shopping centers. “Town” looked like the Old Village in Mount Pleasant. Homes were near stores and vice versa.

People walked around their communities. A boyhood pleasure in the ’60s was walking to Pitt Street Pharmacy for a cherry Coke.

I heard an excellent presentation by local developer Vince Graham, whose breakthrough New Urbanism style neighborhoods are wildly successful, in which he said that no communities built after the advent of zoning have ever been as desirable as the ones built prior to zoning.

Downtown Charleston is prime example. Add the Old Village of Mount Pleasant to that list. Contrast their quaintness and mixed-use layout to the communities zoned into existence at the end of the twentieth century. The zoning group-think for decades was to separate retail from residential, multi-family from single-family, and on and on. A big box store here, a strip center there. Neighborhoods with no throughways here and multi-family units way down there.

There was a leapfrog of single-use sprawl that took life further away from real community as it took our heart and our health with it. Before we knew it, a 20-minute drive to the local high school wasn’t all that big of a deal. The high schools ended up way out of the communities, too.

I don’t advocate doing away with zoning or planning. But as Crowley and Lodge write, our modern suburban lifestyle is a disease. A whole generation is being robbed of community and now also of their health.

Food and exercise are part of the cure for this new suburban disease. But so is the return of communities as we once knew them.

Take a drive around the neighborhoods east of the Cooper and you can tell which ones were planned and built in the late ’60s and early ’70s by one distinction – no sidewalks.

Talk to people from other towns in other states, and you often hear the same lament.

Perhaps we have felt it more here because for the last 20 years, it seems everybody has wanted to relocate to the sunny Southern coast.


(Will Haynie has published more than 400 oped columns as a feature columnist for the Asheville Citizen-Times and the Hendersonville (N.C.) Times-News when it was owned by the New York Times. His niche is as a humorous conservative.)

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