City Virtues, Country Virtues

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(HOST) Commentator Bill Shutkin is a relative newcomer to Vermont. After spending most of his life in cities, he’s surprised at how much time he’s now spending in his car.

(SHUTKIN) For the past dozen years I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, one of the most densely settled places on earth, not far behind Hong Kong in the number of residents per square mile. In cities like Cambridge, you can walk, bike or take a train almost anywhere; a car is optional.

But in southern Vermont, where I now live, the National Forest dominates, and getting from point A to point B isn’t so easy. It’s one of the great ironies of rural life. Those of us who live “close to the land”, where natural areas are still largely intact, have to spend a lot of time in gas-guzzling vehicles owing to nature’s very presence. Meanwhile, in cities, where finding even the barest signs of indigenous nature can sometimes be hard, folks can generally move around in much more environmentally benign ways.

The lesson here is that cities aren’t as unfriendly to nature as they appear; nor are rural places like Vermont as environmentally virtuous as we would like to believe. Cities and countryside each possess their own unique advantages and disadvantages when it comes to environmental responsibility. And therein lies an opportunity for learning.

Cities teach us that density – living close to each other – can be a good thing. It’s what brings people out of their living rooms and onto the street: for a walk, to say Hello to a neighbor or just to sit on a stoop and watch the clouds go by. Density is the glue that binds a community together while allowing for mobility that’s not car-dependent.

Rural areas, defined by their lack of dense settlement, remind us that our ability to experience nature in its unengineered state – free of street lights or sidewalks or exotic plantings – is itself a great benefit. Not only do healthy forests and wetlands provide essential services like clean air and clean water, but they also supply recreational and spiritual amenities: trails for hiking, streams for fishing and scenery for inspiration and repose.

As technology, population and other forces reshape Vermont’s landscape, we must be mindful of how our settlement patterns affect our environment. While there will likely never be mass transit in Vermont – at least, not in our lifetimes – I sure hope we encourage more urban-style development in our downtowns: greater density, fewer parking lots and more sidewalks. At the same time, we need to ensure our vast expanse of forest remains green: fewer ridge-top mansions, less pavement and no cul-de-sacs – that dreaded symbol of dead-end subdivisions whose place in Vermont has always been suspect.

The best of the city and the countryside here in Vermont. Why not?

This is Bill Shutkin of Peru.

Bill Shutkin is president of the Orton Family Foundation and a Research Affiliate at MIT. He spoke from our studio at Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester.

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