My wife, my daughters, and I went a couple of weekends ago to a birthday party for another friend’s child — and it’s got me all down about the place where I live.
We live in the upper floor of a two-story house downtown, renting out the basement apartment. Not counting our deck or the front and rear arctic entryways, our floor is about 800 square feet. We have two bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom, and a combined living room and dining room. I sometimes wish we had more space inside for the kids to run around, but we do alright in the space we have. I suppose any larger would just mean more cleaning.
Our friends, on the other hand, live on a large lot off of Farmers Loop Road. Their children’s bedroom is smaller than our children’s, but they also have a playroom downstairs which I did not see. Their bedroom is smaller than ours, but they have an adjoining office where they can work or read in solitude. And their yard — well, their land, really — is plentiful, large enough that they can pretend they don’t have neighbors and their children (and guest children) have a large playground adjacent to the house.
Part of me is envious. We have a fenced yard, but it’s on the small side. We have two playgrounds within 15-20 minutes’ walk and Weeks Field a bit closer, but nothing visible from our windows. Other than to the yard, we cannot simply send the kids outside to play, since (1) there are far too many cars on our street, and (2) there are far too few people on the street to watch out for the safety of neighboring children. Our suburban friends, on the other hand, can send their kids out to play with minimal supervision at any time.
Of course, the drawback of living on some large plot of land is that little but the wilderness would be within walking distance. We would be more isolated and more reliant on our car. And we would further de-populate the city, thus providing incentives for businesses to locate outside the urban core, in turn giving city dwellers still less reason to want to live there.
We have here an exercise in game theory — a branch of mathematics that anlalyzes behavior in circumstances where an individual’s best choice depends on the choices of others. If many people choose to live in the city, then they are more likely to try to make the city a pleasant place to live. The city’s appeal will increase, and more people will choose to live there. (At some point, the crowding starts to make the city less appealing, so that negative feedback brings the system into equilibrium.)
On the other hand, if too few people are convinced that cities are worthwhile (which seems to be the case in Fairbanks), then little effort will go into their good planning. They will in fact become worse places, due largely to the neglect of those who would live there but instead just drive through.
If city-dwellers had real clout, we would have a grocery store in every neighborhood and frequent buses to take us all over. Instead, we have all major retail on the periphery of town, where it is convenient to suburbanites, and a lack of meaningful destinations in the core. Instead, we have suburban flight that leaves city-dwellers not only without the benefit of a 20-acre wood around them, but without the joys that a good city can bring: shopping, restaurants, public space, and enjoyable street life.
I wonder sometimes if Fairbanks is tipped irredemably toward the suburban lifestyle, tipped so much that high-quality city life has no chance at emerging. I think about our choice to live downtown and wonder sometimes if we are the chumps.