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Windshield survey of a rural area: Questions to ask

Steven Lubar
2006; updated 2017

Drive around

1. Transportation routes. Can you figure out when the roads youre driving on were built?
Mentally remove the interstates and divided highways and see if you can reconstruct the
pre-WWII infrastructure. If possible, look at an old map to see earlier routes, ferries, and
railroads/interurbans. Consider the names of streets: are they named after local features or
do they suggest connections with cities or other towns? Can you peel off the layers of
transportation to see how they shaped development? Do surviving stores and
developments on old transportation routes tell you something about an earlier stage in the
areas history? When were bridges built, and how did that change the connections to other
areas? Is there public transportation, and if so, to where?

2. Agriculture. Can you see any farms that look like going concerns? What are they
growing? Are there horses or cows? Turf farms and alfalfa are often just place-holders for
development. Are there farm stands? Organic farms? Crops that need migrant labor? How
large are the farms? Do they have their own tractors and other equipment, or do a few
farmers cover all the farms? (In the spring, is there farm equipment on the road?) Are
processing centers (slaughterhouses, mills, etc.) still in business?

3. Villages. Do the names tell you anything about their history? Have they continued to
develop or have they lost their stores and become just houses? Are there new villages?

4. Housing Development. When were the oldest houses built, when were the newest,
what periods saw the greatest development? Can you tell from looking at the houses
when farm frontages started to be sold off? Is that process still occurring? Can you get a
sense of the level of zoning control? Are the new houses clustered, exactly every two
acres, or just on frontage of farms? Are there apartment buildings, or condos, and when
were they built? Has zoning shaped them as part of town centers or separate from them?
Are there any examples rural renewal or town planning schemes? Where are there For
Sale signs? Use Zillow.com to get a sense of real estate prices.

5. Commercial development. Try to reconstruct the timeline of commerce. Big box stores
are after 1990, shopping centers after 1950, strip malls after 1920. Are they layered, or do
the old ones still survive? Do people stay in town for shopping and movies or do they
have to leave town? How much zoning control does there seem to be: are gas stations
scattered about or only at major intersections, are retail, industrial and housing areas
separated?

6. Industrial development. Are there any factories still in business? What do they do, and
how many people work there (look at parking lot size). Have factory buildings been
reused for other purposes or are they sitting empty? Can you guess if factory space is
considered valuable or is it very cheap?

7. Jobs and commuting patterns. Can you figure out where people who live in the area
work (look at where theres traffic at 8 AM and 6 PM). Look at the cars: are they mostly
cars or pickup trucks driven by carpenters and plumbers and other craftspeople? Are
houses empty (summer houses, weekend houses)? How many cars in each driveway?

8. What can you tell about the level of prosperity of the area? What kind of cars do
people drive? Compare the rough value of the cars and the houseswhere do people put
their money? Are there mobile homes, and are they new or old? Compare new and older
housing to see if the area becoming more or less prosperous. Are there abandoned
homes?

9. What government structures and cultural amenities do you see? How big and how new
are the libraries? How new are the school buildings? Are there other buildings that
suggest that residents stay in town for cultural events? Are there recreation and social
areas, and how well kept are they? Can you tell what level of government, or what kind
of private group, supports and maintains them? Who are they for: children, teenagers, the
elderly? Is there garbage pickup or not?

10. Who do you see walking the streets? What age? If youre there in the morning, how
many kids are waiting for school buses? Do kids walk the streets or bicycle the streets
without their parents being with them? Are houses empty during the day?

11. Look at the towns memorials. Are Civil War, WWI, or WWII memorials more
common? Are there other kinds of memorials? Are any local events commemorated?
What did the town think worth remembering?

12. Can you tell something about the race and ethnicity in the area? Look at store names,
especially food stores and restaurants. Visit some cemeteries and see if you can tell
something about successive ethnic groups. What churches, synagogues or mosques are
present, and can you tell when they were built? Who do you see walking the streets?

13. Can you tell something about the safety of the area? Are there bars on windows? Lots
of police cars? Does UPS and FedEx leave packages out?

14. Can you determine anything about infrastructure? Is there town water and/or sewage?
(Look for wellheads and fire hydrants). Are there cable TV lines, small and large satellite
dishes?

Places to visit:

Real Estate Offices; stop by and see whats for sale. Pick up real estate magazines.
Library. What can the librarian tell you about the town? Whats on the bulleting board?
Who meets there? Whos using the library?

Historical Society. What has seemed worth saving and displaying?

Town Hall: Read meeting notices

Local store: Does it sell the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, or Investors Daily?
What local papers, and what city papers? What magazines do they carry? Any ethnic
newspapers? Any local ethnic delicacies for sale? Food from local farms? Local crafts?

Local restaurant. Whos eating there, at what time of day?

Internet sources

The new windshield survey. Some sites to look at:

Zillow.com or other real estate sites

Town or county real estate appraisal sites

State GIS systems

Google maps