What Americans Build and Why

Creating authentic community. 

Small houses with sidewalks, anyone?

Too few kids walk to school.

The same issue of the October 17, 2010 Sunday New York Times Magazine that asks us what kind of house we can get for $2,000,000 also asks us whether anyone is going to buy a 1,700 square foot Home for a New Economy (that's our current financial economy in a "post"-2008 recession). The answer: Probably not. That's too bad, in my opinion. What's also too bad is what larger houses set farther apart in suburbs without sidewalks have done to our children's experience of neighborhoods.

After World War II, the American highway system expanded with over 40,000 miles thanks to legislation during the Eisenhower Administration. Along with this expansion came the availability of cheaper land in what has come to be known as suburbia. If you are a baby boomer, you may remember walking to a neighborhood school. As I have written in my book What Americans Build and Why, if you lived within a mile of school and were between 5-15 years old in 1969, there was a really high chance, 90% in fact, that you walked or biked to that school, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency. Guess the percentage for that same scenario in 2001. By then fewer than 15% walked and only 1% biked.

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The evolution of our school system in the United States has something to do with this change, as does the evolution of our homes. In the early 1960s, Americans feared that we were losing the technological race to the Russians when our space program was literally having trouble getting off the ground. At that time, spurred by a book entitled The American High School Today, which outlined what was wrong with our schools and how to fix them, decision-makers championed larger school districts with larger schools (that could offer more advanced courses in science and math, especially) and fewer neighborhood schools. In the United States, there were just fewer than 120,000 school districts in the 1930s. By 2004, there were about 16,000 according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Kids today attend much larger schools than was true in my generation. And these schools are farther away from where they live.

Big houses and where and how they are situated also contribute to children's lack of relationship to their neighborhoods. Big houses, defined by journalist Blaine Harden as houses with at least nine rooms excluding bathrooms, utility rooms, and unfinished basements are a problem for our children because they are often set in neighborhoods without sidewalks. Many of the communities populated with these big houses (often called McMansions) are outside major cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, and Denver, and a lot of them are outside the nation's capital (I find a certain irony in that statistic from the 2000 Census, reported by Harden). What do children miss when they take the bus to school (or are driven by car)? What they miss is the chance to develop an integrated sense of place, what British researcher Terence Lee called a "socio-spatial schema" over 50 years ago. His early research showed that when compared with children who took the bus, those who walked to school were better adjusted, according to a composite measure. The nation's CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) actually has a KidsWalk-to-School program, which targets better health in children through nutrition and physical activity. Walking is clearly is an activity that can contribute to better health in children. In promoting this goal, having smaller neighborhood schools is one of the CDC's long-term solutions in getting more kids to walk to school.

Taxpayers do not easily warm to the idea that building multiples of anything will be more cost effective than the efficiencies of a larger structure (hence our love affair with big box stores). But the data show that if your measure of success is the cost per student who graduates and not simply the cost per student, smaller schools are as cost effective as are larger schools.

Not everything about the 1950s is worth revisiting, but the small school in a neighborhood with sidewalks is.


Ann Sloan Devlin is the May Buckley Sadowski '19 Professor of Psychology at Connecticut College. Her recent book is What Americans Build and Why: Psychological Perspectives published by Cambridge.

Ann Sloan Devlin, Ph.D., is the May Buckley Sadowski '19 Professor of Psychology at Connecticut College.

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