Saturday, December 29, 2012

Mass Shootings and Suburbanization

Whenever a mass shooting occurs, public opinion focuses on one of three things: guns, video games, or mental illness. Where and how we live, a prominent aspect of our culture, is rarely discussed in relation to increasing violent tendencies.

Most mass shootings have occurred in suburbs or small towns, not in cities. This includes the Virginia Tech shooting, Columbine High School, and most recently, Newtown, CT. A recent study by the Brookings Institute showed that as the crime rate for inner cities is decreasing, the crime rate for suburban areas is increasing.  

Likewise, poverty is shifting from the inner cities to the suburbs. This is due to both the special severity of the financial crisis in account of the pervasiveness of mortgages, and the fact that suburban living is highly decentralized and infrastructure intensive, and thus has higher living costs.

The ways suburbs are planned and built runs contrary to the ways the built environment is intended to work for people. Jane Jacobs notes how shared and varied land uses promote use of outdoor space and socialization with other users of that space. This goes for adults as well as children, as she notes that when children play on sidewalks or in alleys they are indirectly protected by public surveillance of the streets.

This is a process that is not allowed to occur in suburbs chiefly because land is segregated by use. There is no incentive for those who live in residential neighborhoods to survey their streets because nothing of interest is taking place on them. Likewise, residents of suburbs are also less likely to use sidewalks on their streets because of the lack of destinations reachable on foot and the fact that fences have been erected around yards, prohibiting residents from interacting with each other via streets.

In addition to this, a growing amount of research is being done on the mental health effects of pollution and traffic congestion. An article in the Wall Street Journal notes that research has found possible links between air pollution and Altzheimer's, Parkinson's, and Autism, as well as increased levels of stress. Traffic congestion has also been linked to increases in stress.  

This stress, combined with the few opportunities for socialization provided by suburban life and the easy access to weapons in American society no doubt contribute to our high rates of gun violence and mass shootings. If mass shootings are a problem we wish to address responsibly and permanently, we need to look at the way we live and how it shapes us.

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