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American Pie: Concrete Doth Not A Village Make

...As a whole, the US is a country where everything conspires to keep people apart – politics, race, religion, economics, two career marriages, the TV fetish and modern communications...

Columnist John Merchant hopes that a wireless link is not the only way that US citizens stay connected.

Florida, in common with the other “Sunshine states” in the USA has experienced incredible growth in the past 20 years. A combination of an attractive sub-tropical climate, a year–round building season, and the availability of land and cheap labor, have made this happen. Millions of acres of swamp have been reclaimed for the building of commercial, industrial and residential developments, roads and infrastructure.

Contemporary building tastes in Florida lean heavily on classical Mediterranean, Spanish/Italian architecture, thus the materials of choice are masonry and stucco, with preformed embellishments that are literally stuck on the finished surfaces. Whole towns appear seemingly overnight.

The development where I live, and the associated shopping center, restaurants, bars and cinemas did not exist 10 years ago, and much of it, not even 5 years ago. The planting of mature trees and shrubs, and the use of grass sod rather than seed, further reinforce the illusion of this being an old established district.

In that same 5 year time frame, an International airport has been built, with direct flights to major cities in the US, the UK and Europe. Here and elsewhere in Florida, tacit recognition has been given to the need for community-building, but with the best will in the world, it seems that it’s not possible to socially engineer this degree of population integration.

Churches there are many, golf and country clubs too, as well as the ubiquitous Elks Clubs, Lions and Shriners, but in many ways all this serves to do is segregate the population along lines of interest or faith. Parks and libraries also are not bonding instruments.

This situation is not novel. In England and Scotland, new towns such as were built in Welwyn Garden City, the Severn RiverValley and Cambuslang, near to Glasgow, were, when I lived in England in the late 60’s, soulless places where young people had few places to go and little to occupy them, other than mischief.

A similar situation in the US is made worse by the generally inadequate or non-existent public transportation systems. Fortunately, the schools have an array of extracurricular activities second to none in the world. Participation in these activities generally requires that a parent or neighbor is able to provide transportation. This not always the case in poor urban settings or where both parents work.

In recent years, town planners and architects in Florida have united to build what have been called “Mixed use developments,” as an alternative to the isolating golf communities. These are usually integrated with the current style of shopping malls, where retailers are not under one roof, but comprise very much the old arrangement of stores lining a network of streets, with cafes, restaurants, hotels, cinemas and recreation spaces.

Above the stores or in nearby, dedicated buildings, are apartments and townhouses. The idea of all this was to bring people unavoidably together, but the response on the part of potential buyers and renters has been disappointing.

The appearance of the construction and layout comes about as close to an old style, down town area as is possible, and is made more attractive by extensive tree and flowing shrub plantings. The streets are well lit, and it’s possible to walk to the supermarket and other amenities, but it seems as though people are waiting for everyone else to make the first move.

The doctors and dentists are waiting for patients, the vets for pets, and the lawyers for problems. The potential population is, in turn, waiting for the doctors and dentists, vets and lawyers to be in place before they take up residence. At the same time, it’s difficult to judge the success or failure of such an enterprise in times like these, when populations in Florida are declining, and mortgages are hard to come by.

In Lyon, France, a pioneer of socially engineered town planning, I stayed in a hotel in their equivalent of a “Mixed use” development, built I would guess in the late 70’s. Rather than a shopping mall and residences, this one combined a park with commercial offices and apartments. Such restaurants as there were, were in the hotel or some of the office buildings. The latter served only breakfast and lunch.

During the day it was a lively and attractive community, but after hours it was as dreary and desolate as any of the other places I have mentioned. Its saving grace was its proximity to older established parts of Lyon.

To return to my part of Florida, one has to hope that the “Mixed use” communities work in the end, because it’s the only way people will become socially integrated. As a whole, the US is a country where everything conspires to keep people apart – politics, race, religion, economics, two career marriages, the TV fetish and modern communications.

The prevalence and popularity of social networking is plain evidence that people want to be connected, but let’s hope that in the future, a wireless link is not the only way.

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To read more of John's illuminating columns please click on http://www.openwriting.com/cgi-bin/mt-search.cgi?IncludeBlogs=1&search=john+merchant

And do visit his engaging Web site


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