The "public" side of Roseville

So I’ve spent the last few days adjusting to life in the greater Sacramento area. Sacramento is a fine city, with a great urban core full of life and public spaces, all serviced by public transit, which includes light rail. Virtually everything in the city center is within walking distance. But for a variety of reasons, I live about 15 miles east in Roseville, which reminds me a lot of Irvine in Southern California.

Roseville is, as suburbs go, a pretty nice place to live. It’s also a glaring example of the urban sprawl and automobile dominance that plagues modern American life. My particular neighborhood is full of houses that, except for the variations of beige paint used on the exterior surfaces, pretty much all look alike. They lack porches (the front part of the house has long ceased to be a place where neighbors gathered to talk and get to know each other) but offer two- or in some cases three-car garages that provide most of the house’s actual street frontage.
Streets lined with these dwellings twist and turn for miles, snaking themselves into mazes that will confuse even long-time residents. But once you escape, you quickly find yourself on a boulevard as wide as a freeway that sends cars hurling past gigantic “big box” retail outlets (literally gigantic masonry boxes), light industrial centers and, eventually, a full-blown air-conditioned shopping mall (again, all painted either white or some tone of beige). The other day I drove through at least four strip malls while trying to find a Barnes & Noble.
Except for very modest parks here and there (usually just squares of grass holding playground equipment in one corner) and the very quaint “Old Town” on the other side of Interstate 80, there is no real public space in Roseville. In a disconcerting twist, “The Fountains at Roseville,” one of those strip malls I wandered through earlier, is trying to set itself up as public space. The mall itself is an attempt at an old downtown, laid out in a plus sign with shops and restaurants lining each block. This would work, except the roads are completely open to auto traffic, meaning pedestrians and cars inside still have to dodge each other. That little design quirk is left out of promotional blurb for the center in a special advertising section of the May 2009 issue of Sacramento Magazine:

“Fountains brands itself as a lifestyle center–a place where the community comes together. That notion is catching on quick.”

Never mind that old “lifestyle centers” (towns) were places where people lived and worked. Fountains is a place to shop and eat–nothing more and nothing less. That a place like Fountains might actually become synonymous with “community” is just one more depressing piece of evidence that “citizen” is nowadays just another word for “consumer.”

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