Where the Deer Roam
The deer barely noticed us. They have become such an unremarkable part of the suburban scene that we might have had the same reaction ourselves if they were not munching away on the small yard in the cul-de-sac where we visited yesterday, almost brushing against our parked car. It is the other part of sprawl: just as suburbia reaches into nature, so nature reaches into urbanized areas, with deer, foxes and even coyotes moving through the loose fit of streets, lawns, parking lots, and leftover bits of green and farms, and sheltering under highway underpasses as if those cathedrals to greasy mobility were just larger burrows. Every night when we come home from a dinner party or event, our headlights sweep by the copse of woods next to our house and “the girls,” as we have come to call them, raise their heads, twitch their ears, stare at us, and then go back to dreaming whatever deer dream. At night, the owl calls out against the hum of the highway a mile away, and the coyotes’ braying occasionally cuts through the relative calm of the night.
It all sounds rather bucolic, but of course, it is not a pretty scene. Those coyotes ate one of our cats, the one who brought us at least a vole a day. Our choice of plant material is limited to what the girls don’t like to eat, and we wouldn’t even think of having a vegetable garden without a serious fence. That is only our perception: from the animals’ viewpoint, they have had to learn to live with traffic, limited places to hide and unnatural things to eat, not to mention the hunters some suburban communities now sanction to “cull” (i.e., kill) the girls. Sometimes the animals fight back, and the stories of toddlers snatched by roving bands of predators have become a part of suburban myth.
It only proves that sprawl is not just the uniform spread of concrete and asphalt over green. It is a much more fundamental transformation of all of the physical environment into a field fed by a mainly invisible technology, from the water pipes and sewers underground to the cell phone signals coursing around us, whose appearance and use is unstable. An open stretch of land can be a field one moment, a housing tract the next, and, if the economic tides turn, a home for myriad animals a few years later. As sprawls spreads out into the furthest reaches of the landscape, it becomes ever thinner: large parts of inner-city Detroit go back to nature and whole counties in the country’s mid-section are becoming depopulated. Animals, plants, and humans mix, and the result is a surreal combination.
Just as we have come to accommodate the deer, marveling only for a moment at what, despite the fact that some people see them as rats on hooves carrying disease, is their elegance, poise, and beauty, so we need to accommodate such a version of urbanity that makes little sense according to traditional models of architecture. We have to learn to live with deer, owls, and coyotes, as well as with cul-de-sacs, big box retail, and Edge Cities. We have to come to recognize the value of the in-between and the leftover in the manner the animals have, and figure out how we can use and design for such an uncertain, wild, wasteful and sometimes amazing space. However unnatural and unhealthy, there is a beauty here, it is not going away, and we need to figure out how to recognize it.