Last week, my eldest and I took part in RAGBRAI (The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa) and had a great time. We started in the western part of the state (in Rock Valley) and finished in Guttenberg on the banks of the Mississippi. It was a wonderful event. A friend of mine described it as a rolling carnival. There were food trucks in most towns, craft beer and organic coffee tents along the route, churches selling spaghetti dinners and pie, concerts every evening, and between 40 and 100 miles of cycling every day.
It was my first time to visit Iowa, and I can only compare it to what I know. It struck me as a combination of eastern Texas and Connecticut—wide open spaces peppered with small, quaint towns. In the west, many of the towns were on a single street—some developed, others all but abandoned. As we rode east, the towns became more vibrant, many of them organized around a central park or square. In between, there was corn and more corn.
As some of you may know, The American Conservative has started a discussion on New Urbanism. In his post explaining the project (and blog), Jonathan Coppage writes that while conservatives have fought against “the breakdown of community and the family” over the years, they have mostly ignored the ways that built environment shapes attitudes and practices:
Just as an individual is embedded in a family, and a family is embedded in a community, so too a community is embedded in its neighborhood. The patterns we live in can bring us into the sort of constant, casual, incidental contact that builds bonds between neighbors, or they can silo each of our families away, leaving civil society to wither as the “place between” is filled with asphalt and strip malls. As Paul Weyrich, William S. Lind, and Andres Duany wrote in“Conservatives and the New Urbanism” in 2006, “Edmund Burke told us more than two hundred years ago that traditional societies are organic wholes. If you (literally) disintegrate a society’s physical setting, as sprawl has done, you tend to disintegrate its culture as well.” New Urbanists aim to reinvigorate those traditional structures, like the classic Main Street with living space above the storefronts, and other homes right around the corner.
An event like RAGBRAI would have been difficult and less enjoyable if it took place on roads lined with strip malls. The small Iowa towns—particularly the ones with green spaces—were perfect for gathering for food, drinks, music, Frisbee, and conversations with other teams and participants.
At the same time, our somewhat more family-oriented team always camped a little outside of town and rarely stayed downtown past 9:00 p.m. Why? Because it could get loud and a little rowdy.
Coppage is right that space matters (to an extent) in shaping attitudes and practices and certain policies make for better or worse spaces. The question is not so much which space—suburbs or cities, rural or urban, strip malls or town squares—but how to develop and use the spaces we have to strengthen the family and build community.