Wilderburbs: Communities on Nature’s Edge is the environmental history of a housing phenomenon that places human developments in close proximity to wild places: on the edges of forests, deserts, and mountain slopes of the American West. Author Lincoln Bramwell, chief historian for the USDA Forest Service, spoke with us recently about what drove his interest in this topic and some of the major challenges that can accompany life in wilderburbs.
Q: Are wilderburbs and the sort of human/nature encounters they introduce a new phenomenon?
Lincoln Bramwell: Wilderburbs are in no way a new phenomenon. People with means around the world have maintained country estates outside of the crowded metropolis for millennia. Wealthy Americans began imitating English country estates following the Revolution when cities like Philadelphia and Boston grew in population and density. While these spaces were definitely out of reach for all except the upper class, by the nineteenth century rail lines allowed the middle class to live in larger single occupant homes away from the city. The automobile further expanded how far Americans could live outside of town and maintain a job in the city, but the romantic suburb of the wealthy remained unattainable as the homes and development outside cities morphed into suburban sprawl.
Only in the mid- to late twentieth century did you see a confluence of factors that allowed the middle class to find their version of the romantic suburb in greater numbers. After the development of all-weather highways throughout the country, the affordability of all-wheel drive vehicles, the information and communication revolution that freed people and capital from the city center, and the availability of forested lands for sale and development did you start to see large numbers of Americans move beyond the suburban fringe and into wilderburbs. The trend really began to boom the last two decades of the twentieth century, but the desire to live in the woods but close enough to enjoy the amenities of the city is as old as our nation.