Each year, by his own calculation, my dad drives as many miles as the circumference of the earth. He gets up while the dawn mist is still clinging to the hemlocks and the horses are still crunching grain in their pails, settles into the car with a travel mug of coffee and a book on tape, and makes his way from a tiny hill town in Western Massachusetts to his job in a city near Boston. He’s been doing it for over 24 years, which means he’s been rotating the earth longer than many satellites.
He lives on a dirt road, not far from the boundary of the state forest. It’s the kind of place where mountain laurel grows in gnarled thickets under the canopy of oak and maple and you can’t see your neighbors. Moose wander up to the barn to make eyes at the horses, coyotes yip to each other at dawn and snakes seize wood frogs under the porch. It’s a place where you can swim in a clear pond in summer and amble across its frozen surface in winter.
“Days like these,” my dad will say on a summer Saturday evening, sitting contemplatively on the deck after an afternoon swim in a nearby lake, “this place feels like a little bit of paradise.”
Two Acres and a Car
What is an exurb? Is there only one kind, or do different sub-types appear when you look more closely? In 1955 the social historian Auguste Spectorsky defined the exurb as a landscape of second homes and estates well beyond the outer suburbs, yet still connected to the city as a source of employment.  A 2006 report by the Brookings Institution identified communities that “have at least 20 percent of their workers commuting to jobs in an urbanized area, exhibit low housing density, and have relatively high population growth.”  At the height of the ill-fated housing boom, the term exurb became synonymous with sprawl, with the explosion of cul-de-sacs and big box stores in the middle of farm fields and houses soon to be abandoned.
Is my dad’s small town an exurb? According to the Brookings study, nearly half of the nation’s 10.8 million exurbanites live in the South; fewer than 5 percent live in New England. The exurban South is growing fast, thanks to the availability of zoning-free open space and a regional population explosion. Cities in the Northeast already have established bedroom communities, suburbs that should limit exurban growth. Surprisingly, however, Worcester, Massachusetts, where my dad works, ranks eighth in the nation among exurban metro areas; its 20 percent exurban population puts it right behind Birmingham, Alabama, and Knoxville, Tennessee. My dad’s long commute is more typical than I had imagined.
Read the rest of James Barilla’s essay at Places at Design Observer >>
Image by James Barilla