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.