Why Are Our Parents in Wholly Random Places?

Aerial View of Sea Point%2C Cape Town South Africa

We had gone to great lengths to live in a place where we do not need to use a car in the ordinary course of our lives. We chose to pay a rental premium, induced by legislated scarcity of walkable urban fabric in our city, so we save on transport costs. Our mixed-use neighborhood of Sea Point, Cape Town, South Africa, has a Walk Score of 88 (“Very Walkable”). But we could not choose where our friends, associates, and family live. We could not choose where our parents had chosen to live, long before they themselves would lose the ability to travel easily, out of a range of considerations entirely different from our own.

This is another object lesson in the way the dearth of the sort of fabric which ensures practical pedestrian accessibility in most cities is structural rather than behavioral. The dysfunction of a city doesn’t arise out of the failure of most people to choose to live in a handful of areas which can together accommodate no more than a tiny fraction of their number. Rather, the dysfunction of a city arises out of the range of options available to people, and the conditions to which those options are variously subject. People really do have hundreds of possible reasons for choosing to live where they do, and reasons for prioritizing some reasons over others, and respecting that is an absolute necessity. My wife and I were able to prioritize walkability because, as a childless couple in later middle age, many of the issues which typically dominate the considerations of others don’t apply to our situation.

I should submit (notwithstanding the irrational association of inaccessibility with security, which is found among some white South Africans) that very few people actively choose un-walkability. A lack of pedestrian accessibility just comes arbitrarily attached to the things they do actively choose—be it in perception or in actual fact. Take any home-seeker’s short list of options, and chances are that all of them will fall in car-dependent, dormitory suburbs. People live there because that’s what is available. Other options ought to be available, but they aren’t.

Of course, my penchant for counterfactual imagination often led me over the past year to ask: Why do our parents not live within a ten-minute walk from us—even if that walk were broken into two parts, with a bus or train ride between? And that led to the question: What would it be like? How would they live? That is a matter not only of urban form, but of housing typologies and patterns of tenure.

We’ve been dealing not only with the demands of travel but also with the costs of accommodation in a difficult economy. It has become normal for every generation to rent or finance homes all over again, because neither the location nor the type of the previous generation’s homes suit their situation. This is not because the population is changing in any kind of radical way. It is because the housing typology which is now considered normal is oriented to the needs of a narrow slice of human life: A nuclear family comprising young parents and young children only.

This was surely the kind of occupancy the developers of my late mother-in-law’s little 500-square-foot house had in mind, and for a while she was able to shoehorn her septuagenarian existence into it easily enough. The nearest shops were barely 200 feet away as the crow flies, and the actual walking distance was no more than 900 feet. Yet, in that featureless, placeless environment where speculative development of entry-level gated communities is steadily eating away at the vineyards of the Cape winelands, it felt like a day’s hike—enough to make driving the short distance a serious option. 

That house could not appropriately accommodate her adult daughter living there every second weekend, nor the adult woman caregiver who lived with her for the duration of my mother-in-law’s illness. I could not help thinking that a larger, more populous housing typology might be better at accommodating a greater range of occupants’ specific combinations of interdependence and autonomy, especially as these combinations change over time. I don’t necessarily mean anything like an extended-family (or “forged family”) homestead, or a co-housing development, or a commune, or a small apartment building—but instead something that could become anything between these, in whole or in part. Likewise, a walkable environment might be better at accommodating a greater range of residents’ various situations: It’s not a matter of designing for specifics as much as designing the capacity for flexibility.

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