There is No Antonym for Subdivision

As a doctor, Rob Gorski’s training and livelihood is intervention. But when it comes to his island, he’s decided to let nature run its course.

The English language does not have a fitting opposite to the word subdivide, strangely. Combine, reconstitute, aggregate, multiply, unite and others come close, but none serve as antonyms in the context we use subdivision and none are closely related to economic principles underlying the way we subdivide. This nuance within our language signifies a subtle but very large cultural theme underlying almost everything else that we undertake as individuals and as a society. With the benefit of modern data aggregation and visualization it is clear that we have had many irrational blind spots in our historical land use patterns. How we arrived at the satellite images of today from a native environment that existed only a few centuries ago is fascinating. Rabbit Island adds relief to this idea by offering well-controlled exhibition within finite borders. Rabbit Island is a rare gem—an undivided parcel that has escaped the normative pattern of subdivision.

In the 1400s, America welcomed its first European settlers and small sections of forest were cleared and settled. The continent thus suffered its first major cuts. Over the next several generations these initial events evolved slowly into the divided parcels we have today and the acts themselves became, perhaps, the enduring metaphor for the larger American settlement experience. Purchase, divide, profit, repeat…a way of life that goes on and on, though practically never in reverse. An abundance of forest has been swapped for an abundance of subdivision.

Conservation was a relatively late idea in the context of America’s history (it wasn’t until 1872 that the first national park was created) and today the commodification of remaining developable land around the remaining open spaces continues and new, ever-smaller lines in the land map books continue to be drawn. This change plods along so slowly that it is hardly perceptible from within the daily routine, but lots and parcels are continually marketed and cut into sections, acres, portions of acres, square feet, etc. Final lines are being drawn. “Get yours while you still can!”, cry the real estate agents. “Prices only go up. Supply will never change. The system will never move in reverse.”

I protest this idea. The fact that subdivision happened and continues to happen with such binary imbalance in winner-take-all fashion, and that land is then taken off the table, is, on a fundamental level, uncivilized. As it currently stands, one of two things generally happens to land within the framework of our cultural practice:

  1. Conservation gets to a parcel of land first and locks it in, or,
  2. Subdivision gets first crack and development progresses without regard for collective ideas and smaller units of land are ever-passed to successive generations.

The larger picture on the map only becomes more polarized as time horizons are extrapolated further into the future. This binary historical example has obvious limitations that are in conflict with contemporary understanding. In a civilization that no longer has the luxury of a new frontier, it is only logical that recycling of existing land, in a manner consistent with reason and scientific advances, becomes a basic requirement for maintaining quality of life. Yet thus far in our history this has not been conceived, or at least not yet successfully, on an organized scale. It doesn’t even appear to be part of any serious conversation. Our society’s founding documents and legal precedents were, after all, conceived in a time flush with frontier. Foresight apparently has its limits.

It is clear that very little opportunity for parcelization and road access has been missed and open space in America has suffered a death by a thousand cuts, leaving only remnants of land. Development has most certainly won a lopsided victory over conservation in the binary American historical experience. Only about 30% of land is set aside in programs for the public intended to retain or celebrate broad stretches of natural function. Of this allotment the vast majority is unevenly distributed in western states and Alaska, and, more specifically, concentrated in areas of uneven terrain (mountains), areas containing an excess of water (everglades), areas without enough water (deserts), or regions having inclement weather patterns (far northern latitudes). If you scroll across the country from the perspective of a Google satellite it becomes evident that there is not a single area of ecologically important scale that does not fall under one of these categories that has been given pardon from development.

As a result, ‘locavorism’, as well as general interaction and benefit from surrounding intact natural ecosystems, is not possible for the majority of the population in our country. Thus, a divide is formed whereby cultural institutions primarily benefit those living proximate to urban civilization while intact wilderness areas, northern forests, southern swamps and southwestern deserts serve mainly the relatively light population density surrounding them. In very few places do the two ideas exist reasonably adjacent to one another and almost nowhere has nature been celebrated simply because it is nature without a caveat. Rabbit Island can perhaps claim a cold winter for receiving pardon from historical development, though the fact that it was given reprieve at all at this point in history is amazing.

Empirically the evidence of land division is striking and what has been lost in most places east of the Rockies or in states without long winters is profound: anything involving systems, ideas, or populations that cross individual property lines, migrations, salmon runs, climax forest communities, apex predators, clean rivers, expansive views, dark night skies and stars, the fundamental experience of uninterrupted nature, etc. Certainly we value these things and our heritage is founded on them, yet, peculiarly, there is no organized mechanism to un-divide land hundreds of years after we started cutting it up. Why is this? This is a big question for society and perhaps—and in all seriousness—on par with the big questions of previous generations: Why were women not allowed to vote? Why were unions allowed when before there were none? Why was Medicare created? Why were black kids and white kids assigned different schools? In hindsight it appears absurd that there were times when such disparities existed. So too does it seem absurd that society has no way to un-divide on an ecological scale with the intention of giving people reasonable access to the fundamental instruction that nature provides. Will the next several hundred years of American experience witness a continuation of the historical example of subdivision or will the pendulum swing in a new direction given our collective understanding that now spans from DNA to Google Earth?

It seems an obvious inference to suggest that something must give. This is not to say that civilization should move in reverse or that technology should be shunned, but simply that it would be an advancement if nature and the urban environment were organized more rationally so as to maintain a full spectrum of experience including the untouched, the gridded and everything in between—on a more local level. A mechanism for this does not exist. Herein lies vast potential for things to be organized more intentionally for the benefit of all.

Our predecessors have subdivided relentlessly and our system is set-up only to continue this. Apart from the few sparks of genius, foresight and political will that popped up along the way (national parks, national forest system, private preservation, etc.) as we moved westward from Plymouth Rock, our modern maps illustrate the unintended consequence of our development heritage. It is striking in aggregate.

Land is generally purchased on an open market with two motivating premises: development and profit. Historically these ideas have manifested themselves in various forms of subdivision and parcelization (Think of a farm that was nearby when you were a kid that was bought and turned into a subdivision, or the brownstone single family house that was purchased and renovated into several one bedroom apartments, or even the field and forest that were there before the row of brownstones even existed. Consider the island of Manhattan—the ultimate example of land use study—sold to Peter Minuit in 1626 by the Lenape tribe to manifest itself as smaller and smaller subunits of private property over time). The common thread in all of these transactions of property is that the effect on the integrity of the land is never part of the bottom line. And the process rarely moves in reverse. In the end, because of our society’s individual liberty and participation in a market that does not fully value the costs of development, we have had the freedom to historically subdivide without the requirement of foresight. When these subdivisions are summed we see that there are significant unintended consequences: namely, there isn’t very much land left that isn’t subdivided. Collectively this limits the opportunity for anyone to enjoy intact open spaces that resemble whatsoever their historical baseline, especially near population centers. Indeed this is an odd and ironic historical loophole in the code of American ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom.’

Subdivision is, of course, against everything that Rabbit Island stands for. Rabbit Island will never be subdivided—the miracle that Rabbit Island remained unsubdivided and unlumbered when it was purchased in 2010 is its most remarkable feature.

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