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Far From the Maddening Crowd
The morning after I arrived home from my two-month-long foray into the scantly populated
West, I awoke to the roar of chain saws as a wooded lot less than 150 feet from my
front deck was being cleared for a new house. Mine is a 50-year-old neighborhood,
so this kind of infill was a dramatic disruption to the status quo.
My reaction was pretty mild. Ours are mostly old school half-acre lots, so the new
house would not be right on top of me. But I was sorry to see so many modest sized
oaks felled to make room for the foundation. Another neighbor was concerned for the
doe and her two fawns, but I was secretly glad to see them go because their kin destroyed
my beautiful front yard hosta bed a few years ago and have ruthlessly attacked anything
I tried to plant back.
For me the question of how much space we need for ourselves and for nature is more
than just academic. I’m downsizing my life. Attempting to simplify things. Trying
to live with a smaller footprint and have less of an impact on the world around me.
At my age this cannot be misconstrued as a noble gesture but as a surrender. Like
Sisyphus, I’m tired of pushing the boulder up the hill. Time for a smaller hill, a
smaller boulder or both.
Humankind is a social animal selected by the forces of evolution to live in small
family groups. As our societies developed over the past 10,000 years, these family
groups banded together for protection and so that we could eventually sell life insurance
to one another. We are not territorial like a robin defending its patch of lawn, but
instead have a home range where we allow others to come and go so long as they follow
established social norms and don’t invade our personal space.
Let’s consider population density for a moment. My trip out west took me into some
sparsely populated country. Comparing Wyoming to Arkansas, the former has a statewide
population density of 10 people per square mile while ours is 100 people per square
mile. Interesting, but not helpful. If we consider where people are likely to live,
say Laramie, with a density of 1,781 people per square mile to Fayetteville (1,657/sq.
mi.), we get a better feel for how chummy we are in our respective spaces.
Looking at a range of Arkansas communities, I found densities ranging from 490/sq.
mi. (Huntsville), to 931 (Berryville) to hot spots such as Bentonville with 1850 souls
per square mile. Communities not changing much in population ranged from 500 to 800
people per square mile while growing communities were about twice as densely populated.
But, in reality, the densities we have here in Arkansas reflects communities in the
sprawling mode, not one where upward growth is a consideration.
Densely packed cities like New York City (27,000 per sq mi), Mexico City (16,000 or
66,000 if you consider the metro area), Hong Kong (17,500) or London (14,800) first
went through the sprawling phase and then built up for high rise living. I remember
flying into Hong Kong before they built the new airport and seeing people eating dinner
in their high rise apartments as the plane settled onto the runway. Now that is high
population density. Most of us from small-town America might enjoy visiting a big
city on occasion, but we don’t want our neighbors quite so close.
So, I’m glad for the infill that is going on here in my community. I visited a cousin
who lived on a five acre farmlette in New Mexico. The road to his house was lined
on both sides with miles and miles of these small parcels, each too small to farm
and too large to mow. Unfortunately, the land was rich Rio Grande bottomland that
had been subdivided 30 years ago for housing. I hate seeing prime farmland carved
up for housing, even though the notion of having some extra elbow room and fleeing
from the maddening crowds is understandable.
Gerald Klingaman is a retired Arkansas Extension Horticulturist and retired Operations
Director for the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks. After more than two decades of penning the popular Plant of the Week column, he’s taking a new direction, offering views on nature as he pokes about the
state and nation. Views and opinions reflect those of the author and are not those
of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. If you have questions
or comments for Dr. Klingaman about these articles contact him at email@example.com.