10/16/2012 05:07 EDT | Updated 12/16/2012 05:12 EST

Exploring the Lonely Exurbs of America's Midwest


I've been spending the year in the Netherlands, a nation the size of Maryland, with a population of 16 million. The Dutch live in dense, compact cities and towns, and ruthlessly guard their countryside from sprawl. Pasture, cows, and cropland are shockingly accessible from the centre of the biggest Dutch cities, usually less than half an hour away (by bike path!). The Netherlands may be crowded but there's plenty of shared, and private, open space.

That's why the geography of Colorado Springs, where I'm spending a few weeks, hit me so hard. This is a city on the edge of the Great Plains, set hard up against the front range of the Rocky Mountains. There has been exuberant growth over the last 20 years: the population of the metropolitan area was over 600,000 in the 2010 census, and El Paso County, where "The Springs" is located, recently passed Denver County as the most populous in the state. In 2006 Colorado Springs was ranked No. 1 as "Best Big City" in Money magazine's "Best Places to Live."

With large military installations (Fort Carson; the U.S. Air Force Academy; the Cheyenne Mountain NORAD Command Center) Colorado Springs is considered a "conservative" stronghold in a swing state. "Conservative," I think, is not a meaningful description: it's that side of U.S. opinion that is decidedly, radically, reactionary. The geography of the metropolitan area mirrors a political and cultural divide. The original, older sections of city are pleasantly midwestern, with wide, tree-lined residential streets and wooden houses in a delicious mixture of American styles, from massively New England colonial to simple woodframe bungalows that might have belonged in any Colorado mining town, c. 1890.

Downtown is surprisingly small, with some office buildings & hotels, and wide -- often empty -- midwestern-style streets. But the real Colorado Springs is located in the sprawl of suburbs -- really exurbs, since they are only precariously connected to the city -- to the north and east of the old core.

And the exurban neighbourhods of El Paso County seem, to this observer, environments designed for alienation and loneliness: street after street of developer-built houses fronted by enormous, power-operated garage doors, which display an defensive attitude to the street, and to the larger world. Any notion of a neighbourhood being in some sense a "commons" is bitterly denied by the developer-created geography, and the paranoid style of domestic architecture. Fear and loneliness seem written on the landscape by the silent streets.

Citizens of the exurbs speak fearfully of 'downtown' and rarely go there: this must be why downtown is so disturbingly somnolent. The minimal amount of urban activity it does display is apparently startling and threatening to exurban citizens, who stay away in droves. Is the geography of the exurban areas -- the isolation and fear that sprawl reinforces among homeowners -- part of the reason why the fundamentalist and evangelical mega-churches are so popular and powerful? They are really the only "community" available. It is not really an urban life here, but something quite different.

Last week the Colorado Springs' Gazette ran an Associated Press story that was not set in Colorado Springs, but does say something about the way we live now: the strange, febrile cultural divide that runs through the nation, and seems to be growing wider every year, and which our wrong-headed, developer-driven urban geography is just making wider and deeper.

The head was "Congressman: Evolution is a lie from 'pit of hell'" and the story reported videotaped remarks made by Georgia Rep. Paul Broun, a medical doctor, running for re-election in November -- unopposed by Democrats."God's word is true," the story quotes Broun. "I've come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of's lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a saviour." Dr. Broun said that he also believes the world is about 9,000 years old and was created in six days.

End of story. It all makes The Netherlands seem mighty urbane, and civilized, though fear and know-nothingism have their place in European life and politics, too.