For people who move away from the highway, it’s like they quit smoking.
- Urban planner Wig Zamore on studying the effects of highways on human health
There’s a house that sits abandoned by the side of the highway. Does anyone live there? Who? Why? You've seen this house, you've asked yourself these questions, assuming you weren't too busy dodging blown truck tires and erratic drivers to notice the passing blur of roadside life. These forlorn eyesores dot many a highway, representing simpler times before ribbons of asphalt and endless streams of cars descended on the countryside like a plague of locusts.
Ursula Meier's 2008 French film “Home” is the story of one such house on the side of the highway.
"Home" is an eye-opening tale of a house and family destroyed by a defunct highway in their front yard that unexpectedly reopens. While admittedly melodramatic at times, the crux of the story is accurate and stands as a warning to anyone that resides next to a highway, either by choice or circumstance. Below are some screenshots I took of the beautifully-crafted film that illustrate the transformation of one family's home from sanctuary to hell, followed by a commentary on the reality of living next to a highway.
Ah, the French countryside. Watching an opening scene with Isabelle Huppert tottering down a dirt road in her heels and flowing dress, one smells the earthy scent of the grassy field, feels the slight breeze caressing bare shoulders warmed by the afternoon sun. This simple French family is content in their isolated, peaceful refuge. The children use the empty highway to their advantage by riding bikes, playing street hockey, and sunbathing in private; the father smiles upon returning home from work, ready to cross the highway to his concrete block castle; the mother happily hangs laundry out to dry and calls her family to breakfast in the airy kitchen overlooking the empty highway. Crickets chirp, nights are tranquil, life without cars is heavenly.
But the good life in "Home" quickly unravels, when one quiet evening spent crammed on a sofa in the front yard watching television, the son mentions to his family the truck he saw on the highway earlier. Everyone laughs, incredulous chortles of disbelief that taper off to nervous half-smiles and vacant stares at the empty highway before them. Could it be...? Days later, a highway crew appears from nowhere like a mirage in the searing midday sun to carelessly clear the road of the family's belongings and install metal side rails. “They’re really coming this time,” the father says ominously, referring to the highway opening as if it were Genghis Khan coming for their heads. And when an army of trucks and faceless workers arrive in the middle of the night to pour steaming, fresh black asphalt, the family's tenuous grip on blissful country life is lost. Suddenly, nothing feels the same and their symbiotic relationship with the road disappears: it's family versus highway.
And then... then the cars come.
“The new section of Route E57 opened at 7:00 a.m. And the star of the day is the first user of the new section of Route E57. He’s called Georges Schwed, a name to remember. Jean Luc Pacard was there to hear his first impressions. “It’s extraordinary! It’s wonderful. Un-hoped for. And I’m the first on it, too.” What changes will this new highway bring you personally? “A radical change! I must drive between Favières-South and Louvigny. 1h30 in the morning, 1h30 in the evening. 3 hours is infernal. When you stay on the A road with the jams, the stress…” Have you been waiting long for the reopening of this highway? “We didn’t believe it. 10 years ago they started… Suddenly everything stopped… Nobody thought it would reopen. It’ll mean a complete change for all the inhabitants of the area.” (Translation from French)
Cheery voices spill from the radio as the family gathers around the kitchen table to listen to news of the highway opening. While everyone on the radio is excited at the inauguration of Route E57, the family receives the news with wary reluctance. How much will our life change? they ask themselves. This question is soon answered when the highway's traffic increases from a quasi-bearable trickle to an overwhelming deluge, practically overnight. The younger kids now dart across the highway to the school bus like it's a game of Frogger; the teenage daughter continues to sunbathe in the front yard despite honking trucks and crowds of oglers; the mother fights whipping winds of cars to hang laundry on the line; even the cat is miserable, tied up in the yard next to a crusty can of food to keep it from running into the road. The family tries to adapt to living next to the constant stream of traffic, but it proves too much to handle.
Son: Think it’s the highway?
Youngest daughter: What do you think. Micro particles from the exhausts settle everywhere.
Son: What then? What do we get?
Youngest daughter: Constipation. Pallor. Vomiting. Problems of anorexia. Psychomotor diminution. Risk of sterility. Irritability. Sleeping problems.
In the last part of "Home", our once-tranquil French family has officially gone mad thanks to the highway. No more enjoyable time in the garden, no more comprehensible phone conversations, no more quiet dinners in the front yard (or at least without earplugs). Not only have the most intimate aspects of their life been thrust into public view, but the family begins to suffer from poor air quality, sleep deprivation, delusions, and paranoia. The youngest daughter becomes increasingly vocal about the toxic air they're breathing, taking a handful of grass and wiping it with a paper towel to demonstrate streaks of particle pollution from vehicular exhaust (“I’ve counted the cars. There are ten times more. At this rate, we won’t outlive the summer. We’ll all die before. All of us.”).
But the mother is so adamant about staying in the home that the father takes matters into his own hands, bringing home rolls of insulation and concrete blocks to fill walls, doors, and windows in attempt to escape the deafening roar of the highway. And just like that, the family becomes prisoners in their own home. The film ends with Huppert arising from her drug-induced sleep to the dark cell that once was her airy home and taking a sledgehammer to the bricked-in door; one by one, family members squeeze through the crude opening to the world outside, pale and squinting in the bright light as they walk like zombies in search of a new home, one far far away from the wretched grip of the highway.
Years ago, I first saw "Home" and, while I thoroughly enjoyed it, I didn't think it was anything more than dramatized social commentary on the effects of cars on society. That is, until I moved into a home of my own next to a highway. Only then did I re-watch the film, feeling true empathy and understanding for Ruppert's struggling family, because I, too, experienced similar issues from living next to a busy thoroughfare.
Before returning to the U.S. this past December, on the other side of the globe in Budapest I signed a lease for an apartment in Portland sight unseen. Sure, I did a cursory scan of the neighborhood and amenities using Google Street View, but the housing market in Portland is tight and I badly needed a place to live, meaning I was more than happy to sign a lease and PayPal a small fortune to someone I hoped wasn't a Nigerian scammer. I noticed how close the building was to I-405 (not "Home" close, but pretty darn close) but I didn't think it'd be an issue. Wrong.
The apartment itself, a unit in the modest Lauer Apartment Building in Northwest Portland, is a lovely 1905 historic row house that's listed on the National Register of Historic Places. I immediately loved my new home but quickly came to dislike the adjacent highway 300 feet away. Within a few months of moving in, I felt like a tamer version of Isabelle Huppert in "Home". (Before going on, I readily admit that I'm an urban planner that 100% supports car-free living and people-oriented spaces, so over the years -- and especially after my prolonged recent travels in Europe -- I've become exceptionally sensitive to traffic noise.)
First, there was the noise, the constant, non-stop drone of cars and trucks on the highway and frontage roads. I tossed and turned at night, forced by insomnia to listen to the incessant whoosh of traffic in the not-so-far distance. From the time I crawled into bed at 9:30 PM to the first rays of morning light at 4:30 AM, the cruel melodies of I-405 infiltrated my apartment like a swarm of hornets whose nest had just been whacked with a baseball bat. I tried to block the sound with white noise and earplugs, and for a few particularly rough weeks I slept on an air mattress in a back-facing room; the only thing preventing me from bricking in the windows was the thought of losing my security deposit.
Then, there was the isolation, not just the kind that comes with keeping the windows shut on Portland's rare spring days because the highway is so... damn... loud... but the unpleasant solitude that comes with living in a dead zone (thank you, crappy 1960s urban planning). Experiencing this charming neighborhood sliced in two by a noxious thoroughfare reminded me of what Jane Jacobs wrote in the introduction of her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities: "These amputated areas typically develop galloping gangrene." Eating lunch at the outdoor restaurant across the street tested my patience, crossing the highway to reach downtown felt like a miserable trek across the Sahara, merely walking out my front door was an assault on my senses. Locals must have picked up on this, as there was very little activity (and foot traffic) near my apartment, making it a welcome oasis for vandals and transients.
Lastly, there were the toxins drifting over from the highway. While I didn't wipe down the grass like the daughter in "Home", I knew that living so close to the interstate meant I had a front row seat to excessively harmful air pollution. In a recent article online, the American Lung Association states that 30-45% of North America's urban population "live next to a busy road" and global studies conclude this population is at risk of childhood asthma, impaired lung function, poor cognition, premature death and death from cardiovascular diseases and cardiovascular morbidity. Yikes. And the area most affected? Those within 300 to 500 meters of the busy road. Double yikes. Anyone living closer to the road, especially those within 50 meters like the family in "Home", is at risk for dementia. Triple yikes -- my apartment was within 96 meters, similar to how 10% of the U.S. population lives. You can't swing a dead cat on the Interwebs without hitting other articles describing the health hazards of living next to a highway, like this one from Think Progress that says the EPA estimates 80,000 to 100,000 deaths a year in the U.S. alone -- perhaps at least four million worldwide -- from particulate matter that makes up air pollution. Packing my bags now...
While there isn't much people residing next to a highway can do apart from moving to a different location as I did (although I still live near busy roads -- such is life in Portland and the U.S.), not a realistic solution to the problem considering many don't have the means to do so, the real power for change lies in local governments and car drivers. Urban planners could plan more efficient, affordable public transit and city officials could support that initiative through funding and legislation, thus encouraging more car drivers to use public transportation. At the same time, local governments could encourage mending broken urban neighborhoods by capping highways like Boston and Madrid have done and forward-thinking cities all over the world are considering (Portland's mayor from 1993 to 2005 Vera Katz dreamed of capping I-405 and this topic resurfaces from time to time). Throw in some congestion tax like Sweden's Stockholm and Gothenburg, and suddenly living next to a highway becomes less miserable thanks to a drastic reduction of traffic. Or, better yet, cities could be super proactive and reduce highway lanes or get rid of an offensive highway altogether (!), because we should all know by now that "the system is broken and adding more lanes is just a futile token", as Paul Rippey recently crooned to the Portland City Council in his song on induced demand, and that reducing traffic lanes reduces traffic as a whole, as I experienced firsthand in Nuremberg's Bärenschanze neighborhood.
On real estate message boards, a popular topic is buying a home next to a highway. Some people advise against it due to noise and pollution, others casually say if the price is right, go for it and just crank up the white noise. It's the latter response that makes me want to pull out my hair and scream "NOOOOO!" Because if there is any home buyer on the fence about that amazing house with the amazing price tag, with the one teeny caveat being its location next to a highway, it would do them a world of good to watch the film "Home" before signing any dotted lines.