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Does Your Environment
Surprise You?

by Betsy Hedberg

I’m looking for a new hometown. I don’t yet know exactly what I want – I’ve discovered that no town has it all, so I’d better just figure out what’s essential to me and go from there. One thing I’ve deemed essential in a place is the opportunity for surprise encounters. I recently moved back (perhaps temporarily, perhaps not) to my childhood hometown of Chicago and, hungry on the way to a concert, discovered a tiny African restaurant. Great food, wonderful Senegalese staff…a real "find." That sounds like a normal city experience, but having spent the past four years in a master-planned suburb, it was particularly sublime.

When was the last time you went for a walk in your city or town and discovered something – anything – new and interesting? It could be a new restaurant, an old bookstore, a new doggie in the window of that house on the corner, a new tree in your favorite park. Surprises can be found in the built or the natural environment – in a city neighborhood or along a local hiking trail.

And yes, I did use the word "walk" in the previous paragraph. Driving certainly has its conveniences except in the most congested cities, but it drastically reduces the chances for being surprised. In the Los Angeles area, where I lived for nine years, people plan where they’ll go and then make a beeline in their cars for that place. In Chicago, New York, and other "walkable" cities, people plan to walk to a particular place but sometimes change their plans along the way if they come across a surprise new destination. (My intention here is not to put down LA; it certainly has better weather for walking than the other cities on my list, and I met many people there who were determined to discover as many new things about the city as they could).

What has happened to the element of surprise in our communities? I pondered this question a lot when I lived in an upscale development of single-family homes in Southern California called "Three Springs." Within a five minute drive were all the modern conveniences that we’re supposed to be in love with: two Starbucks, three supermarkets, a Blockbuster Video, and several excellent restaurants. But it lacked a sense of spontaneity and a feeling that you might just be surprised by something in your environment. The shops didn’t surprise. The architecture didn’t surprise. I was surprised to find a wonderful little bar that served $6 pitchers and had ancient pinball machines, darts, a pool table, and a bartender who had been there for a couple decades. The place closed down the week after I "discovered" it.

What impact does our culture of convenience have on our neighborhoods and communities? Many urban planners, sociologists, and geographers have lamented the banality of suburban life, the loss of a real sense of community, the detachment that comes with modern life and all its accompanying technology, etc. Environmentalists decry the sprawl that’s expanding this suburban experience over the landscape, taking away the potential for surprise in the natural environment. Small business associations fight the megastores. While I don’t think life in modern suburbs is necessarily as bleak as some people believe, I do feel that the lack of potential for surprise experiences is a key element missing from many of our communities and lifestyles today. Things are planned for our convenience. We want to know exactly where to shop and what we’ll find at the stores. We want to go places, get what we need from them, and leave. We have easy access to predictable purchasing experiences, but in many towns we’re left with no back alleys or courtyards to explore, no used bookstores with that tattered old copy of Curious George, no narrow little street with diverse or eclectic-looking homes. Everything is nice and neat, all set up for our convenience.

Even many city neighborhoods have been "cleaned up" to accommodate our supposed need for convenience and predictability. The Chicago neighborhood where I lived ten years ago had three nice little independent coffee houses that offered a variety of music, poetry, books, and beverages. Now it has three Starbucks and no independents. Is that really what people in the community wanted? I doubt it, but it’s all in the name of "progress" to know exactly what your morning coffee is going to taste like and cost and to know exactly what type of muffin they’ll be serving.

Is it human nature to want this level of convenience? Or does human nature want to be challenged and surprised and given choices? Some people don’t like surprises. But others thrive on being surprised. Perhaps people who need surprises must seek out environments that will allow them those surprises. Or perhaps we can create our own opportunities for surprise no matter where we are. Maybe if I had spent more time getting to know the people behind the supermarket counter, at the gas station, etc. in my suburb, I’d have found surprises in the human aspect of the environment.

Think about what you want and need in your home environment. Are these things already there, or do you have to try to make them happen? How does the layout of the town, the architecture, and the types of businesses affect your mood? Do you use the town and its businesses in a mainly utilitarian manner, or do you take pleasure from its streets and scenery? Do you have enough surprises in your day-to-day or month-to-month life? And to what extent is that level of surprise controlled by your environment as opposed to by your own motivation? What can you do to find or create surprising experiences in the place where you live? Perhaps pondering the answers to these questions can help us all lead more fulfilling lives no matter where we are.


Betsy Hedberg, geographer, freelance writer and founder of www.studentactivities.com. She develops teaching materials for the K-12 classroom, particularly for geography, and devotes much of her time to pondering our relationship to the cities, suburbs, and master-planned communities in which we live. She recently relocated to Chicago after nine years in Southern California.






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