Denying Ourselves Community: Why Moving and Moving Again is Bad for Cities and for Us

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If you didn’t catch today’s broadcast of To The Best of Our Knowledge on National Public Radio, click here and take a listen. Entitled “There’s No Place Like Home,” several authors discussed their latest book or in one case, film, but I found the segments featuring Michael Schuler, author of “Making the Good Life Last: Four Keys to Sustainable Living” and Peter Kilborn, author of “Next Stop, Reloville: Life Inside America’s New Rootless Professional Class” particularly interesting.

Kilborn focused on mid-level managers and executives who move every few years to advance their careers or seek new opportunities while Schuler examined the benefits of “staying put” and building a civic life.

The program hit a nerve with me for two reasons, first because I share some similarities with “Relos.” While I am still only a few years into my career and my wife is in a PhD program we have already moved several times. First it was off to college, normal enough. Then it was overseas for a semester, common as well. Then it was back to Indiana and then back overseas for a year. And finally to St. Louis. We’ve been here five years and we will be here for another five but then almost certainly off to another city.

We have lived in our home for three years and it’s taken that long to really become engaged in our community. We met most of our block within a week of moving in and were slowly introduced to various community organizations. And though we’re now more involved than many, we still know that we’re not likely here for the long haul. All we can do is make where we live better, no matter how long we live here.

But enough about us. The larger issue is that fewer people are staying in one location long enough to help create a better place. Today, we buy a “starter” home and then move to better school district and then move away for a new job and finally move someplace new for retirement.

Kilborn made an interesting comment that our cookie-cutter suburban landscape and chain restaurants are well suited to the mobile professional class. Moving from Ft. Wayne to Phoenix? Except for the heat your new home is going to look a lot like your old home. Like eating at Olive Garden, yep, they have those. Shop at Sam’s Club? No problem, keep your membership card.

So our built environment is purpose-built to kill distinctiveness, to allow a person or family to move across the nation and not see the difference. But our communities feel the difference. And we, as residents, feel the difference. This brings us to Schuler’s advice to find happiness by “staying put”. His point is that happiness is found in enduring relationships and strong communities.

Unfortunately fewer people are recognizing “staying put” as a viable option. Eventhough we seek community and long for a home we’re not there yet. Even if you’re not chasing the next promotion, pursuing an education and professional training can take you far from home and from place to place.

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