A Mile From the Well

Ancient cities were never more than a mile from the well…

Downtown Los Angeles

“We have to stop building 20th Century cities in a 21st Century world” Tuning into NPR (National Public Radio) on a recent Friday afternoon I happened upon a talk that was being given at TedxBoston by Kent Larson, a researcher at MIT.

The title alone captured my attention but beyond the title, what he said struck me as so significant that I barely heard the rest of the program. Cities in the ancient world centered around wells and no one lived more than a mile from the well. You lived, he said, only as far as you could walk with a water pot on your head. You could look at a grid and the limits were never more than a mile from that well. As the city grew larger, another well would be built and along with it another neighborhood.

If a city began to grow beyond this, another well would be built

The well was the giver of water, the giver of health, giver of community, giver of life. I was lost in a world of disbelief as I thought about how far we have come from this idea. With sprawling cities like Los Angeles and Phoenix trapped with poor transportation systems and gated communities we are miles from “the well”. We try to make it work, but it doesn’t. Moving beyond the well has consequences – we need more cars, more roads, more bridges, more money and we lose community in the process.

The well was the giver of water, the giver of health, giver of community, giver of life…

Mr. Larson directs a research program at MIT called “Changing Places”. His research focuses on urban living – more specifically responsive urban housing, new urban vehicles, ubiquitous technologies, and living lab experiment. In short, how can our cities change so they better meet the needs of those who live in them.

I don’t have answers for any of this – but I bring this up because so many of you know what it is like to live a mile from the well. A mile from where life happens and life is given. And when you move beyond that, you’ve faced distractions and frustrations, loneliness and loss.

So what do you think? What does this idea of being a mile from the well mean to you? Would love to hear your thoughts in the comment section.

10 thoughts on “A Mile From the Well

  1. So many great comments here. I apologize for not responding earlier. I think Elena, your point is so good. It’s starting in small ways and getting to know neighbors, buying local etc. But in some neighborhoods that’s impossible. Thanks everyone for continuing this conversation!


  2. I think of the women in the Middle East and how they ‘gather’ at the well or water supply to wash their dishes and gossip…In some rural villages…water facets in homes are prohibited so as not to loose the culture of ‘gathering at the well or water pump.’ This was a very insightful entry Marilyn. Thanks for sharing.


  3. Very nice, Marilyn. As it happens, Islamabad, Pakistan’s planned capital city, was designed along these principles (did you know that when you lived there?) Each sector (about 1 km square I think) has one central market, and four neighborhood markets, the idea being that everyone would live within about 1/2 km of all of basic necessities. If you think of the center of each sector as the ‘well’ then you have a modern city that at least in concept follows your post ideas.

    So the idea is not to get rid of giant cities – there are too many of us for that anyway – but to ensure that cities are subdivided into liveable neighborhoods.

    It won’t really work in practice until casual transportation expensive, as of course it is already for many in a city like Islamabad. When that happens, places that are designed like this (or just happen to be like this) will be the most popular places to live. So hang on to your condo!


  4. It seems that with huge situations/problems in front of us we can feel helpless as individuals and end up hoping someone else will come up with a really good all-encompassing idea that will solve everything. But as a self-employed person,I am a believer in working off a corner of the kitchen table before trying to spread out. When people do whatever they can as a small start, it’s empowering and it slowly makes for real change.

    I live in a city–Seattle–that is not sprawling like L.A.is and that has distinct neighborhoods. I have my life arranged so basic needs are within walking distance: bank, P.O., library, groceries, drugstore, car mechanic. I’ve purposely cultivated what’s within walking distance. The grocer, the pharmacist, the librarian, the PO staff–they all know me. I buy local. I know my neighbors. A lot of folks in my neck of Seattle live that way.

    It’s a small start.


  5. I think about this all the time too. The idea that urban sprawl is a bad thing and how places like Phoenix force people to live in constant temperature controlled conditions which apparently we like because look at huge it is, add on LA and why do we do it? Anyone who complains about it, I ask them maybe you should think twice about how many children, if at all, you have added or intend to add on..and that if you think having babies is something that just simply happens as part of a miracle then do not complain about urban sprawl and the isolated culture that comes with it. As long as we are overpopulating the earth, mother nature will find a way to bring about balance. My prediction is we’ll slowly evolve so that only those special elite will survive because they live completely indoors and water resources will be so precious only the wealthy will be able to afford it. Poor people will die of dehydration. In certain parts of the world, they already are.

    Wouldn’t it be great if we all embraced science and everything it offers so that we could all be a mile from a well. Science, nature, art, math, language are so interconnected and yet I see so many families drop science off at the door when we go to church. Ignoring science leaves too much room for political powers to control the water and the way we see our communities progress. And as long as there is constant state of influx of growing families looking for a place to live, housing developers will continue to construct their projects based on money not community.

    Water resources are politically charged. Communities are more organic depending on who’s living there. This topic gets depressing. I think nature will set her course and we’ll see who is left standing when it all comes down, maybe just roadrunners.


    1. In many countries where people still live a mile from the well, most families have a lot of children. Resources are certainly limited and larger families can contribute to poverty, but that is not a given. In cultures like this, people are used to living with fewer resources, they can’t afford to waste anything and so they don’t “need” as much. Why would they want a house in the suburbs when extended famlies live in the same house? If us wasteful westerners were willing to learn from those who lived “a mile from the well”, (even if they have 6 kids), issues like limited resources and the problems related to urban sprawl would become much less significant in most places. It is not just a matter of science, but of cultural choices.


  6. I wish we could go back to that time! I can’t help but think that relationships would be richer, more fulfilling; more quality time would be spent with the people we love; more ‘just being there’ would be accomplished. I feel like I spend so much time scurrying here and there, that I miss the here and now in front of me. Inspiring post, as usual!


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