The Nation’s Number One Robber of Time

Vermont Public Radio Commentary
by Chester H. Liebs

© 1999 by Chester H. Liebs, Aired 6/4/99
Made possible by: The Alma Gibbs Donchian Foundation and the Preservation Trust of Vermont

The other day, in a university class on the bottomless topic of “Global Sustainability” the professor commented on the word Sprawl. “Sprawl” he quipped “I have no idea how to define it, It means so many different things to so many people.” This got me thinking.

Let me begin by saying that I am an unabashed city dweller. Yes, when I was younger I did a stint out in the country, grew a vegetable garden and hiked in the woods in back of my house. Like a photographer taking only pretty photos, I tended to deny a major downside to my bucolic life-- the two hour drive to work and back each day with even more hours spent behind the wheel each week just to shop or visit friends. Finally I decided that unless I had a real reason, like farming, to live on the land, I was best off in the city

....Well at least a small city for around twenty-five years ago I moved to Burlington where, instead of spending hours a day in the car, I could now do almost everything by waking on a marvelous invention called sidewalks. For a newspaper I could walk to the corner store. The supermarket was only a few minutes further. In fact just about anywhere I needed to go, including work, was just a short walk away. But that was a quarter-century ago.

Gradually, like a woodpile shrinking over winter, basic services have disappeared from many downtowns, including Burlington’s, to reappear in a widely-scattered jumble of buildings and parking lots, often miles away from each other, with little else but increasingly crowded roads in between. More and more I am being forced to use my car again for even the most ordinary tasks.

For example the other day I needed to buy a pocket-sized appointment book for the year 1999. I walked to a downtown stationary store where I had bought such books in the past but it was no longer there. Ah I’ll go to Woolworth’s. They have a great stationary selection. Eh, no good. They went out of business a couple of years ago. I continued my search without any luck.

Finally I had to got in the car, stare through my windshield at the backside of a semi-trailer truck while waiting at numerous traffic lights, dodge cars backing up in a parking lot, and then wasted some more time searching a cavernous chair store for something that I could once have purchased close to home. And this is only the beginning. I now go miles away to see my doctor, shop at a good supermarket, even find a decent selection of auto parts. This is not to say that our city has not worked hard to try keep its downtown alive. A great new book store has opened, there are many specialty shops, restaurants, and places for tourists to shop, and an up-scale department store is on the way. When I want to hear a concert, go gourmet dining, or buy trinkets decorated with black and white cows, then Burlington’s the place to be, but except for a few hold outs, like a wonderful north end hardware store, to acquire basic necessities, you now need your car, lots of gasoline, and tons of that most precious of commodities, time.

And I am not alone. During the last presidential election there was lots of media talk about so called “soccer moms” -- how disaffected they were, how busy with the demands of modern life, working, caring for the kids.“There are simply not enough hours in the day” they said. Almost no one mentioned the fact these soccer moms, and dads, in fact more and more Americans no matter where they live and work, spend an increasingly amount of time bouncing around from home, to school, to the office, to the mall, to the box store, to the doctor, to the gym, to the post office, like so many pinballs in a giant continental pinball machine. No Professor, I might not be to define it in one easy sound bite, but I think this is all about SPRAWL, and one way or another it effects us all.

Author, and observer of the everyday landscape, Chester Liebs is Professor Emeritus of History and Founder of the Historic Preservation Program at the University of Vermont.