Sprawl Is Beyond How We Build

I grew up in the small village of Briarcliff Manor, which sits along the Hudson River 30 miles north of Manhattan. What is most charming about Briarcliff is its nature; a few miles away in nearby Sleepy Hollow is the Rockefeller State Park Preserve, which boasts over 1,400 acres of land. The famous Blue Hill at Stone Barns is also located there, where I was lucky enough to celebrate my high school graduation and my parents’ 25th wedding anniversary.

The only way to see the beauty of this village, however, is by car. Although Briarcliff has a Metro-North railroad stop, the village is completely car dependent. Much has been written and filmed about the negative effects of living in a car dependent place, but I have not heard much about how sprawl effects peoples’ mindsets. I am not an expert in psychology or any other science focused on a person’s thinking and interactions with others. I only have my personal experience.

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I lived the first 18 years of my life in suburban sprawl, 15 of those years without the ability to drive. I relied on my parents and my friends’ parents to drive me everywhere I needed to be; school, soccer games, friends houses, home, etc. I often played alone at home, isolated from friends. This isolation, I have noticed, has made it harder for me to reach out for people. Although I relied heavily on my imagination for fun, I did not have the access to peers that I would find in college or in New York City. The main reason why I have been able to effectively create community after high school is my experience at summer camp, which was a completely walkable, interactive experience.

Sprawl is so damaging because it creates environments secluded from the diversity of the world. Briarcliff Manor was a very wealthy, white suburb when I lived there, and I only had my first real interactions with diversity in terms of race, social class, and nationality when I went to Wisconsin for college. My thoughts about what other people were like were necessarily limited to my experience growing up in the bubble of Briarcliff and media representations of different people. Sprawl damages our most human qualities of wanting to connect with other people and valuing differences.