paula minaert executive editor HL&T mugBY PAULA MINAERT — A lot of new growth is happening here in Hyattsville. The Route 1 corridor has blossomed since Busboys & Poets and the other shops at Jefferson Street have opened. There’s a definite energy you can sense, something creative and exciting. And that energy has attracted more development, in the form of the new apartments and townhouses going up.

Some scholars say that the history of civilization has been the history of cities, that when a critical mass of people comes together, something special happens. New ideas are born and new experiments are tried, in art and technology and science. Look at ancient Athens, where Sophocles and Socrates and Euripides lived. Look at the city-states of Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries, which produced Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Look at Paris in the early 20th century.

I feel a real tug here. I think we all want the positive things that come with development. But what about other, less beneficial effects, like more traffic and congestion and perhaps less green space?

On the east side of Route 1, hundreds of apartments and townhouses are under construction. Photo courtesy Paula Minaert.
On the east side of Route 1, hundreds of apartments and townhouses are under construction. Photo courtesy Paula Minaert.

And there’s more. Some recent research (published last year in Nature magazine) shows that city dwellers react differently to stress than do rural residents. And they have more anxiety and mood disorders. It was found that being raised in an urban environment or living in one changes specific parts of the brain, causing it to perceive threats in certain situations. The brains of people not raised or living in cities, by contrast, did not respond that way. Will we be changed, at our most fundamental level, our brains, as our city grows?

Of course, the issue isn’t clear-cut. When you dig deeper things get even more complicated. Rural life is certainly not perfect and visions of an idyllic past can be deceptive. Statistics reveal more health problems in this country in rural areas than in urban, partly from lack of access to health care and partly from the greater prevalence of factors such as obesity and smoking.

And there is—there always is—still something else to consider. The Journal of Public Health has noted significant strengths of rural areas, like “dense social networks, social ties of long duration, shared life experiences, high quality of life, and norms of self-help and reciprocity.”

That all sounds good to me. What can we do to hang on to those kinds of strengths here in Hyattsville, the strengths of small-town living, but still reap the benefits of our growing urbanization? I think it’s worth exploring.

What isn’t productive in an attitude reflected in a comment made last year in the discussion about Whole Foods coming to Riverdale Park. One supporter of that development, talking to people who were concerned about things like crowding and environmental effects, said, “This is an urban area. Get over it.”

The goal here is to try for the best of both worlds (not to mention listen well to each other), rather than assuming that some things just aren’t possible.