Tag Archives: Suburbs

Urban America’s Renaissance?

Nothing makes a geographer more excited than the release of new census data.  If you’re a nerd like me, you’ve most likely read by now about the resurgence of urban america from the latest US Census:

The Census Bureau also recently reported that America’s urban population increased by 12.1 percent from 2000 to 2010, faster than the nation’s overall growth rate of 9.7 percent. The exurban tide may be receding.

Outer suburbs (or the exurbs) have ground to a standstill, with only 0.4% growth.(NY Times).  Cool.  Good stuff.

Of course, this has more to do with the mortgage crisis and financial woes of the US of A than any sort of dramatic shift in thinking.  In my opinion, those heralding this as some sort of end of an era/beginning of a new era of “smart growth” are deluding themselves.  I hope I’m wrong,  but I don’t see whats to start the exurban building once the economy picks back up.  Maybe this is a trigger that will start a shift.

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Does size matter? Americans weigh in on housing desires

I’ve heard it said, and have often repeated, that one can get used to living in a smaller house (or condo or apartment), but you never get used to a long commute. After decades of continued car-dependent sprawl, maybe we’re all finally cluing in. Or maybe not.

According to the 2011 Community Preference Survey that outlines what Americans look for when deciding where to live:

Six in ten (59%) would choose a smallerhouse and lot if it meant a commute time of 20 minutes or less. Four in ten (39%) would stick with the larger houses even if their commute was 40 minutes or longer

OK, so we’re not exactly all on the same page here.

A couple other interesting factoids from the survey:

1) We want to walk.  More than three quarters of Americans consider having sidewalks and places to  walk one of their top priorities.

2) In fact, 6  in 10 people  said they would sacrifice a bigger house to live in a neighborhood that featured a mix of houses, stores, and businesses within an easy walk.  (Probably the same six in ten that would sacrifice space for a shorter commute?)

3)  Even more important than walkability is sense of  neighborhood.  88% of respondents would choose a good neighborhood over a larger home.  What that means I’m sure is up for discussion.

I know these things are true for me personally, but I wonder about the 39% of people who would rather live in a larger home for 40 minutes extra commute. 40 MINUTES!!! That’s a long time to be on the highway, or on the train.  I’m sure it’s a matter of scale, for some.   I’d love some more detail on what those numbers mean for people individually.

Check out the full survey results here.  And let me know what you think.  Does size matter?

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Allison Arieff on Suburbia

Allison Arieff  is an infrequent contributor to the New York Times’ Opinionator blog.  I don’t read the rest of it, so I can’t comment about the quality of the rest of the contebnt, but Allison Arieff is stellar – one of the best writers putting the challenges of suburbia and the state of urban planning in context for laypeople.  Whenever I see her name on my RSS feed, I click it.

Today, her post “Shifting the Suburban Paradigm” addresses how little attention people have paid to the design of their houses.  While good design has become an increasingly important component of our other consumer decisions, the housing market has not risen to the challenge, and developers and boutique architecture firms both continue to make uninspired, boring homes.

Here is a good example: this is a new ZeroHouse, developed by KBHomes.  It is intended to provide a synthesis of suburban comfort and green living….but the first things I noticed were 1. it’s ugly and 2. the garage is the dominant design feature, but there is no driveway.  Where does the car go? That doesn’t look like a super walkable neighborhood.

Ms. Arieff suggests that the current economic situation should provide an opportunity to rethink the nature of homebuilding, but that instead, homebuilders have rethought the nature of their marketing.  What was frustrating to me is that she didn’t address how ludicrous it is that homes are being built at all (and I say that as someone whose profession would really, really profit from some more homebuilding) when there are literally thousands of vacant and foreclosed properties around the country, and the only real demand in the last five years has been for multi-family homes.

What buyers want may be debatable; certainly, there have been plenty of people who bought ugly houses with views of the highway in exurbs located 45 trafficky minutes from the city.  All this would seem to support the idea that what people what is single family homes, at almost any cost.  But then, in the last decade, there has been a downtown condo-building boom (midsize cities like Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Nashville, TN have seen their downtown populations explode from a condo-building craze).  However, the issue is less what buyers want than what cities enable developers to give them.  Zoning is crippling development, especially in edge communities that are maturing and are in need of densification.  Builders have continued to produce ugly, boring houses, but town councils (many of them staffed by community volunteers) who have failed to understand the effect that their zoning laws have on development.

I don’t know the best way to educate rural communities about sustainable development.  Certainly working with builders would be a good place to start, but its hardly the end.

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