Descend from 40,000 feet into just about any major metropolitan airport in the United States, and patterns of the trajectory of American life over the last century become clearly visible. Old urban cores are etched out in tight grids modeled off a sheet of graph paper. Further out, all those neat lines and right angles begin their curling meander into suburbia. Sparsely populated roads loop through the countryside in an odd geometry designed around the residential real estate dream of post-war America: a cul-de-sac for every family.
“I think it’s a missed opportunity when I’m flying and I can’t look out the window and see what the patterns are,” says Norman Garrick, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Connecticut.
This is where it’s most apparent – from an airplane window – that American ideas about how to live and build communities have changed dramatically over time. For decades, families fled the dense urban grid for newer types of neighborhoods that felt safer, more private, even pastoral. Through their research, Garrick and colleague Wesley Marshall are now making the argument that we got it all wrong: We’ve really been designing communities that make us drive more, make us less safe, keep us disconnected from one another, and that may even make us less healthy.