home Featured, Housing Development Is the American dream of large lot single-family homes crumbled forever? Is there any hope for revival?

Is the American dream of large lot single-family homes crumbled forever? Is there any hope for revival?

For over 60 years Americans have always dreamed about the suburban living. The General Motors presented the “Highways and Horizons” in the New York World’s Fair in 1940 where it envisioned how American cities and towns would look like in 1960s. It was anticipated back then that Americans in 1960s would live in large lot single-family homes with attached garages. Since then the passion for stand alone suburban housing have been growing steadily. Things began to drastically change over the past few years. Subprime mortgage crisis, thousands of foreclosed homes, vacant and boarded- up strip malls, empty parking spaces and poverty are all suppressing the American dreams. Unfortunately the so-called urban centers are now the dying fringe suburbs.

The Brookings Institute recently released the income and poverty data for the nation’s 100 largest metro areas. According to the report, there is an increase of 79% in the poverty rates and a decline of 82% of household income from 2007 to 2010. Especially from 2000 to 2010, the poor individuals in major metro suburbs grew 53% compared to 23% in the cities. The metro areas share of people living in poverty in the suburbs crossed 50% between 2000 and 2010. Population growth, job decentralization, aged housing, immigration, economic decline and government policies, guiding city poor to suburban homes are the major reasons for the collapse of fringe suburb (Business Insider, 2011).

Transformation of Suburban Poor Population in the Largest Metro Areas

Source: Report released by Brookings Institute, 2011

Poverty crossing 50% in the suburbs from 2000 and 2010

Source: Elizabeth Kneebone, Brookings Institution

Christopher Leinberger, an urban planning professor at the University of Michigan, in an article released in New York Times explains that, Capitol Hill in Seattle; Virginia Highland in Atlanta; German Village in Columbus, Ohio, and Logan Circle in Washington are the most expensive neighborhoods in their metropolitan areas, which were considered slums 30 years ago and have transfigured by gentrification. Beginning in late 1980s, developers started building “Lifestyle centers” to provide a substitute for suburban living. Lifestyle centers are mixed-use walkable developments. The Reston Town Center in Virginia is a planned community and also recently voted as top 100 Best Places to Live in America by Money Magazine. According to the 2006 study released by the Brookings Institution, Reston’s apartments and commercial spaces demanded 50% rent over the adjacent typical suburban houses and office spaces (The Next Slum. “the Atlantic”, 2008).

According to Leinberger the changing trend of the housing market is not only because of the shrinking economy and shifting demographics, but also because of the way the younger generations want to live and work. The break down of the suburban fringe is directly tied up with the mortgage collapse. During 1950s the center cities dwindled. In the late 1990s, the outer suburbs comprised the most expensive housing in United States. However, the conditions slowly reversed. Today high priced houses are the ones, which holds the spot in the high density, walkable neighborhoods in the center city and inner suburb.

Nationwide research reveals that the decline of housing values 12 miles away from the central business district are 4% higher than those within 2 miles away (Pittsburgh BusinessTimes, 2008). Analysts, reporters and research present that modern American preferences are mixed-use, walkable and transit oriented developments. These choices reduce the importance of auto-oriented suburban living. According to an article published by TheCityFix, the aging baby boomers will be forced to stay in their suburban homes until the values recover. If they have an option to move they would prefer mixed-use developments. The young baby boomers are the ones who will have hard times to sell the suburban homes. However, they are also attracted to planned communities. The millennial generations are easily drawn to walkable neighborhoods. Immigrants prefer larger homes if they can afford and public policies are also promoting the compact developments. Is the American dream of large lot single-family homes crumbled forever? With this market trend is there any hope for their revival?

References:

  • Geddes, Norman Bel. General Motors Highways and Horizons. Internet Archive. New York World’s Fair (1939-1940).
  • Brookings, 2011. Parsing U.S. Poverty at the Metropolitan Level.
  • Business Insider, Dec 2011. Poverty Is Crushing Suburban America Where Americans Are Reluctant to Ask For Help.
  •  Leinberger, Christopher, Nov 2011. The New York Times. The Death of the Fringe Suburb.
  • Leinberger, Christopher, March 2008. The Atlantic. The Next Slum.
  • http://www.reston.com/ (accessed Dec 2011)
  • Pittsburgh BusinessTimes, Jun 2008. Study: Suburban Pittsburgh home values declining as gas prices rise.
  • TheCityFix, March 2010. Moving through the Recession, Part 5: Are Exurbs still Declining?

113 thoughts on “Is the American dream of large lot single-family homes crumbled forever? Is there any hope for revival?

  1. Or to ask it another way, have lenders and developers done more to move Americans toward sustainable development than twenty years of smart growth programs?

  2. There is trends that retirees actually buying bigger homes. The post 2007 housing bust is unlikely to bend the 200 year trend.

  3. Oh, I certainly hope its dead – the implications of a land intensive development patten in out present growth is good economic model is frightening.

  4. Some how the human race managed to survive without unproductive land, i.e. lawns (except for the aristocrats) for thousands of years–In fact, until the invention of the automobile and suburbs. Maybe its just not such a good idea.

  5. No, I don’t believe so. IMO, the American Dream of a house and a yard are “genetically” woven into American’s DNA, at least for those of brought up in the ‘burbs or whose families have had connections to farming. I think we will see smarter, more energy efficient development, but not to the extent of the neo-urbanist designs.

  6. My analysis calls for super low density of housing that nets out to one unit per 80 to 100 acres. The role of these households are stewards of the wilderness. This would be possible with its parent super high density along the lines of the upper east side in Manhattan and developed on the basis of clearing all of the major mistakes made in places like Honk Kong.

    Read The Next Slum?
    The subprime crisis is just the tip of the iceberg. Fundamental changes in American life turning today’s McMansions into tomorrow’s tenements. Christopher B. Leinberger

    Never trust the vision of a car company.

  7. In states like Maryland where the smart growth public development policy has taken hold (and I am glad it has) the idea of ever expanding suburbs of 5-10ac lots and grand manor houses is going to be limited to the wealthy who will pay for the significant costs of utility extensions and public roads improvements through impact fees, land development costs and permit fees to build the dream. And then live with the continuing rising cost and inconvenience of distance from shopping and services. Of course internet makes some of this less of a problem and if you like being left alone, the distance from all the urban development is good.

    But not an affordable option for most, and the quality of life of being walking distance from most things is hard to beat.

    As the cost of housing goes up on a sqft price, smaller, more luxurious – I call it luxury density – is going to be more desired as the affordable option. Also, interior luxury is not necessarily a taxable item based on sqft public appraisal procedures, but location will be unless development density to maximize public infrastructure cost effectiveness is rewarded with property tax offsets. And changes are made in the way impact fees are calculated and assessed to account for the requirements of increasing central system capacities to accomodate the suburban development sprawl of lower density expansion.

    Big public costs to service the outlying low density areas that never go away once allowed to be included in the general public support programs.

  8. What is the American dream about? Is it about escaping tenement slums and achieving security of tenure? Is it about good schools? Is it about access to jobs. Is it about mowing lawns? Is it about generating wealth – buying a home and then selling it (or refinancing) after a huge appreciation in value?

    As the article indicates, some of the benefits of the suburban dream were oversold. Instead of combining the best of the city and the best of the countryside, some suburbs combine the worst of these two worlds. And most importantly, there were enormous infrastructure subsidies that made the suburbs possible. Now that this infrastructure is aging and in need of replacement, the federal subsidies that created it are no longer available.

    In limited areas, “slash & burn” agriculture can be sustainable. But in urban America, our “slash & burn” economy that abandons cities for suburbs and then abandons suburbs for exurbs is an economic and environmental crisis of epic proportions.

    Fortunately, in spite of Madison Avenue’s hyping of the suburbs, many people are rediscovering the value of urban living. However, unless we reorient our tax structure and a host of subsidies for auto-oriented transportation and development, it will be difficult to make cities work economically and equitably for our population. David Ready’s comments above about impact fees are right on point.

    To learn more about reorienting economic incentives so that they encourage job creation, affordable housing, transportation efficiency and sustainable development, see http://www.justeconomicsllc.com

  9. As planners, we need to educate the general public. Most are not aware of how destructive the “American Dream” has been for the past 50 years. Most only care about buying a new house, car, (only about themselves and neighborhood), etc. It will take time to change course so be patient and continue to educate, preaching about how evil it is only causes anger to those that are oblivious.

  10. No, the American dream of large lot single-family homes is not “crumbled forever.” They’re still being built and sold. However, there are a variety of housing types available. It is bizarrely wrong to say that Capital Hill in Seattle was once considered a slum.

  11. The American dream of large homes was based on a world of inexpensive energy and easily available credit. Neither of those will ever return. The simple answer is NO, that dream will never return so it is time for all of us to create a new American dream based on consuming less energy and promoting a stronger sense of community.

  12. There was just an article on this issue in the Sacramento Bee, applied locally. The BIA rep vehemently denied that this shift in our society is happening. They seem to believe that this will all blow over and we’ll go back to our mcmansion ways. I’m guessing that’s wishful thinking. We have to remember that developers aren’t interested in what our communities will look like in 20 years. They want to profit now and move on, leaving the rest of us stuck with the consequences.

  13. The ULI report, referred to in the SacBee article is available at http://www.uli.org/ResearchAndPublications/~/media/ResearchAndPublications/Report/ULI%20Voices%20Nelson%20The%20New%20California%20Dream.ashx

    Change is hard to deal with for many who are “locked” into making “buggy wheels”. For others, change represents major opportunities. I am currently working with a developer to “retool” an entitled development to reflect tomorrows market place in Central California!

  14. Good schools are key — for both residents and businesses. One key to good schools is parental involvement. DC schools are beginning to improve with a combination of administrative reform and parental involvement.

  15. Rick, there is some debate as to whether DC, or any large city school systems, are improving. My best guess is not. Generally, student achievement varies directly with parent income and parent educational attainment. Parent involvement is very useful, but is difficult when there are a large number and percent of single parent headed households, and where parents have to work long hours and multiple jobs to make ends meet.

    Security is helped by community policing, but those programs have been cut by recent Administrations. In addition, revenue shortfalls in many municipalities have caused the number of police to be cut, sometimes drastically (by 40% in some New Jersey cities). The emphasis by some larger police departments on so-called anti-terrorism/SWAT team efforts (such as those used to move OWS demonstrators) also takes away from everyday safety and security policing. Similarly, as the Dept of Justice noted in its recent reports on Maricopa County, Arizona, and Seattle, Washington, when police departments routinely violate Constitutional protections, they decrease their attention on everyday safety and security issues. Finally, as I am sure you are aware, the Metro system in the DC area has been experiencing a rise in criminal incidents.

  16. What is the American dream about? Is it about escaping tenement slums and achieving security of tenure? Is it about good schools? Is it about access to jobs. Is it about mowing lawns? Is it about generating wealth – buying a home and then selling it (or refinancing) after a huge appreciation in value?

    As the article indicates, some of the benefits of the suburban dream were oversold. Instead of combining the best of the city and the best of the countryside, some suburbs combine the worst of these two worlds. And most importantly, there were enormous infrastructure subsidies that made the suburbs possible. Now that this infrastructure is aging and in need of replacement, the federal subsidies that created it are no longer available.

    In limited areas, “slash & burn” agriculture can be sustainable. But in urban America, our “slash & burn” economy that abandons cities for suburbs and then abandons suburbs for exurbs is an economic and environmental crisis of epic proportions.

    Fortunately, in spite of Madison Avenue’s hyping of the suburbs, many people are rediscovering the value of urban living. However, unless we reorient our tax structure and a host of subsidies for auto-oriented transportation and development, it will be difficult to make cities work economically and equitably for our population. David Ready’s comments above about impact fees are right on point.

    To learn more about reorienting economic incentives so that they encourage job creation, affordable housing, transportation efficiency and sustainable development, see http://www.justeconomicsllc.com

    1. Rick, two of the main advantages to the suburbs were good schools and personal safety. As you know, this is particularly important in the Washington, DC area. But I observed the good schools aspect play out in San Francisco also, where many people moved to the suburbs when they had kids. If cities are really going to regain prominence, they are going to have to guarantee good schools and personal safety. (I am not referring the Manhattan and other elite places, where the wealthy masters of the universe can afford to live behind doormen and send their children to expensive private schools.)

      1. I agree 100%, Marc. The obsession with Homeland Security has diminished community safety and welfare, as well as constitutional protections, and not just in cities. What hasn’t been well-publicized is that many of these HS and police forces have been trained by Israeli military/police forces and methods. Freedom of speech and assembly are not valued highly there.

        1. Wow, seem to have gotten far from the original topic. Schools as Marc is saying are a major factor and will continue to be. People want different things from each other often and at different times in their lives. We that are into urban development cannot assume that all will want the same thing. I know many people, both younger and older, that at one point chose or did live in urban settings inside the city. They chnaged addresses and lifestyles as their “needs” and circumstances today. I know some who grew up in the burbs and today live donwotwn. Variety and choices will continue to be there because there are multiple market forces and market segments. Given one time or another those forces and segments chnage in scale and character. if you trace urban history and I ma not refering to the last 500 or so years in Europe, but over time you will see ancient cities were not in the same location that the same city is today. the popultaion shifeted way back, sometimes blocks and sometimes miles. Transportation is a second key with access to work, etc. Transportation has chnaged. the last 100 years was dominated here in the US byt the automobile. The primary vehicle may be very different in 100 years from now.

          we have surveyed residents about future housing needs all over this country in urban and suburban settings. I can tell you the majority are not interested in urban settings as constituted at present. However, while the proportion that are is relatively small, because of population growth the actual number interested is and will continue to grow. So there is opportunity for all.

          Yes, cost of infrastructure is significant factor like schools in the final cost of living in an area. But don’t kid yourselves, the cost of dealing with substanadard existing infrastructure in urban settings exceeds the cost of placement of new infrastructure. this favors the cost of building a home in a new location versus trying to rebuild in established areas sometimes, but not in all cases (again my point about diversity). The arguement can be made for abandonment in a population that might have to someday soon “vote” on what to do about the situation. You might think that urbanist logic would supersede and win. Given most of our population today and now and out of choice continues to live in suburban settings, I would not bet on theoutcome of the vote. So don’t kid yourslefves and fgo after the smaller proportion but growing number who might want urban settings. Know your market and be realistic.

  17. I believe Americans will find a way to keep the dream alive. However, I also believe it will mean corporations will have to start compensating their employees better (closing the gap between the management and the non-management employees) so that Americans can once again afford to fulfill their dreams! Unfortunately, since the 1970’s the compensation gap has continued to increase and without management reducing their apparent greed it’s going to be a stricken for most Americans.

  18. For households with children, pets, cars, or even just an interest in gardening (one of the very biggest hobbies/activities of adults), a detached home with a yard is absolutely compelling. The Dodd-Frank law means most households will have to rent all or most of the years there are children at home and be able to buy in their 40’s when a 30 year mortgage extends well past retirement, that’s a huge constraint just being imposed as past of higher down payments like we saw most of the 20th century. It’ll be interesting with lots of unintended consequences.

    We’ll see a lot more single-family detached homes become rentals owned by seniors who’ve moved to smaller quarters and rely on the rental income from the former family home as a significant part of their household budgets unlike the smoke and mirrors of financial investing or hyperinflated real estate appreciation extracted with home equity loans. That’ll also allow many more to decay as cash flow, energy, and credit access for repairing and maintaining rentals is always tight (from overextended landlords who thought it should be entirely passive income) so most of the time rented properties noticeably deteriorate over the years rather than remain in top condition. Homeowners replace and upgrade, landlords patch using tenants’ security deposits for cash flow and lower the rent for the next tenant (or rent to more desperate tenants at the same rate…slumlording is quite profitable.)

    Suburban poverty is a relative term, in the U.S. it means an upper middle class lifestyle for much of the world. Suburbs have always been tax consumers rather than taxpayers except in their grumpy rhetoric, detailed analysis keeps showing they consume 200-300% of the tax dollars they pay in property taxes. The relative health of the cash cows (central business districts, office parks, industry, retailers, mfg., ag, etc.) determines what level of schools and public services/infrastructure the community can build and maintain.

    1. Der Al Jones, thanks for the interesting facts. Like to know more on this. Here are my couple of queries:

      “The relative health of the cash cows (central business districts, office parks, industry, retailers, mfg., ag, etc.) determines what level of schools and public services/infrastructure the community can build and maintain. ”

      Do you mean these cash cows (cbds…..) are in suburbs to contribute to schools and services?

      It is interesting to know suburbanites consume 200-300% of the prop tax dollars they pay. How is this possible. Who is subsidzing them? From where the money comes to let them consume over 200%? Thank you.

      1. Governing Magazine’s article archives have the studies and the Montana State University Bozeman’s Center for Political Economy did similar studies of multiple counties here some years ago. It’s one of those surprises that makes sense the more I’ve thought about it over the years in terms of the kind and types of public services and investments that various types of property require. Think about a suburban home vs. a factory: the home requires access to an elementary, middle, and high school, steady water/wastewater/solid waste hauling but in low quantities in an inefficient distribution pattern (compared to 50,000 gallons to one building), far more police and fire calls for service (fire being mostly emergency medical services these days), etc.. What I recall (the numbers are roughly right and of course estimates from multiple communities but from actual municipal budgets and property tax collections):
        Land Use Public Services $ vs. $1 in local taxes paid
        Suburban Residential $2.80-$3.50 consumed per $1 collected
        Commercial 40 cents per $1 collected
        Industrial 26 cents per $1 collected
        Agricultural 3-6 cents per $1 collected
        and in rural counties when I went through about 30’s budgets years ago the taxes collected went 30-50% to the tax collection costs themselves with minimal services actually provided! I’ve worked on all sides of this issue generally for local governments and it’s always surprising while the popular rhetoric makes one think the suburban homeowner is carrying the whole community’s tax burden on their back when the single biggest cash cow has been the central business districts (high taxable value, low actual services demand.) It sure makes being a suburban bedroom community look like real hell for providing public services.

        Especially if the taxable values decline even further while services demand usually rises in lower income neighborhoods as the residents don’t have the money to “just do it themselves” (private trash hauling, neighborhood SID’s and park districts, residential fire sprinklers and alarms, security patrols and alarm systems to deter crime, large landscaped lots reducing park demand/use, private schools, parent-funded athletic facilities, etc.) Managing taxbase has always been about finding low-demand cash cows to cover the costs of serving high-demand but low/no revenue noisy residents, taxing the heck out of out-of-town merchants passing through in caravans and ships to fund more local services than the locals will pay for goes back to the dawn of cities and why the biggest ones grew up on the key trade route bottlenecks (now we call it big box/mall sales tax collections on arterial roads/major highways.)

        That’s the environment that led to local philanthropists’ funded hospitals, Carnegie libraries, local savings and loans/credit unions, catalog shopping, cooperatives, etc. so very innovative solutions becoming commonplace is also likely as a result.

  19. I think large lot single family homes are the most unsustainable housing option there is. Most are located in residential only communities where there are frequently no sidewalks and shopping and work places are miles from the community. To make matters worse many of these subdivisions don’t have easy access to public transportation if thy have any access at all. This type of housing is unsustainable environmentally, economically & socially. We need people to realize that denser housing has greater benefits than single family housing especially when open space design is part of the overall plan for communities and neighborhoods.

  20. Why should we hope for the revival of a broken system? Why commute for hours, raze the pastoral landscape, build roads, and pollute with our cars when you can live closer to everything and not need a car? The “American Dream” of a large suburban house in incresingly and outdated dream. And what’s wrong with that? “You better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone, for the times they are a changin’.”

  21. May be we should think less in terms of what people should realize, and more in terms of how people think, and act? There is nothing out there called ‘people’, just a lot of indivuduals like you and me. I have needs, I have preferences, I have (limited) means, and that is what drives my choices. As long as you and I have a freedom of choice, we will use it.
    Planners keep on making these mistakes. Thinking they can force reality into neat boxes. I completely agree that a lot that is being built now is unsustainble, but to some extent it always will be. Plan for change, because that is the only reality there is. This is one of the major planning dilemma’s: the need for structure (what we build) versus the need for flexibility to accommodate future needs. And: is that not the essential message of Brundland: we need to ensure that future generations are able to fulfil their needs too, and have the same freedom of choice?

  22. I’ve stumbled across several design competitions that ask this very question. Some solutions are “out there”, others are practical.

    Here’s the link to Reburbia, an effort by Dwell and Inhabitat Magazines: http://www.re-burbia.com/

    Link to the winning proposal for the Integrating Habitats competition sponsored by Portland Metro: http://www.asla.org/2011awards/406.html

    Link to an ongoing competition run by the New Jersey ASLA, the James Rose Center, Rutgers, and the State University of New Jersey: http://www.jamesrosecenter.org/design-competitions/current/suburbia-transformed-20

  23. The article does a good job of citing reasons why this is economically unsustainable. It is also environmentally and socially unsound as it distances us from our neighbors and challenges diminishing resources.

  24. The real challenge would be to create a system that takes the cost of unsustainable choices into account. Unfortunately the current political climate only makes the discussion of such issues more difficult and less likely. What we need are methods that limit growth in greenfields. Growth boundaries can work but they can also increase the cost of housing within the boundary. Also, to be truly effective on a large scale, cities, counties and states need to coordinate and some would see that this is not in their best interest. The way to encourage this would be to develop a method to transfer development rights not only within a municipality but between municipalities as well as sharing of tax revenue derived from the transfers. Additionally housing costs would have to be subsidized or controlled on a large scale to ensure affordable housing.

  25. “It is also environmentally and socially unsound as it distances us from our neighbors and challenges diminishing resources”

    Valerie, plenty of people across the planet actually choose to distance themselves from their neighbors. It is not unsound socially to do so.

    I agree that extending services to less-dense areas is problematic for many reasons, but that is a symptom of the human condition and our impact on earth. That is what we do.

  26. what kind of dream is this?
    1. THE TOTAL ABSENCE OF URBANITY
    2. TO MUCH LOANS – TOO MANY UNHAPPY ENDINGS
    3. MAXIMAZATION OF INDIVIDUAL CAR TRANSPORT
    4. THE BIGGEST POSSIBLE FOOTPRINT
    5. PSYCHOLOGICAL DISASTERS
    6. ENERGYWASTING MACHINES
    7. ONLY LITTLE VALUE WHEN RESELLING
    8. BOARING NEIGHBORHOODS
    9. THE ABSENCE OF ALL KIND OF SUSTAINABILITY
    10. DESTRUCTION OF NATURE WITH 99% HORRIBLE HOUSES
    11. COMPLETE WASTE OF TIME BY DRIVING ETC
    THIS LIST WE CAN CONTINUE – ENYONE WANTS TO FIND MORE “NO-GOES” PLEASE LOOK FOR OTHER DREAMS – NOT ALL DREAMS ARE GOOD
    CIAO PETER

    1. The provocative in me loves this discussion! Wow! No one can accuse LinkedIn of not allowing discussions where all kinds of prejudices can be expressed! :-)

      America’s suburbia was the dream of ordinary people of their time! Planners and developers gave people what they wanted. Peter, they didn’t express their dream as you do, with 60 years of historical evidence and a new global environmental perspective. “Horrible houses” is a very personal view, even if it is shared by many people. I suspect that an awful lot of people would still rather live in their own house with a garden, than on the 17th floor of an (very ugly) apartment block, where they never see their neighbour, but hear their choice of music and TV, their clacking footsteps on the ceiling, and have to share a swimming pool with dozens of strangers (if they have access to one at all).

      The tone of the discussion is that today’s planners know best what people should have – Planners need to educate the public to their point of view. What happened to participative planning where stakeholders educate planners on what they want collectively? Come to where I live and accept that the (individual) municipal architect/planner has sole discretion in determining what colour you can paint your house, what external decor/trim you’re allowed to have – where there is a regional and national level “Beauty committee” that can decide what is “nice” architecture. The planner as dictator. No thanks.

      If the little town in Australia really doesn’t want a MacDonalds it will fold. Don’t worry. If it makes money, it’s because someone wants what it provides. Planners most definitely contribute to commercial monopolies, but they are not alone in this responsibility.

      If we take the argument in the right direction we’ll finally get to the place where we will get rid of the consumer society. Wonderful! Peace for the earth! Of course there will be a lot of unemployed people, but we’ll get the situation where people cannot afford their large suburban single family plots….

      or maybe they will need them more than ever, because they’ll have to start growing more of their own food, and their nice green lawns that soak up huge quantities of fertilisers and pesticides, will now start eco-production of food crops. They won’t need their cars because they’ll grow food and exchange with their neighbours. And the unemployed who are stuck on the 17th floor apartment will have to do with growing what they can on their balcony (if they have one) or on the roof.

      Thank you Kjell-Erik for your comment (and your’s Solomon). The Africa I spent much of the beginning of my professional life traditionally allocated large residential plots – right into the middle of town. But these were FAMILY plots, Several generations of family members would build on these plots, so building density could get quite high, Yet the FAMILY had a great deal of “private” space. That is disappearing now, because young people don’t want the parental/familial interference it implies. I now live in a country that I characterise as not being or having a society – only a collection of individuals. Interaction is restricted to a few hours a months with those others who share a particular interest – in very structured forms (associations). Yet this is not a country of large American suburban life styles. At the same time, rapid collective transport has allowed commuters to travel 200 kms daily. So depending on how you define it, sprawl is even greater with efficient public transport.

      Keep on keeping on, with this fascinating discussion! What is your own dream home? And older discussants – has your dream changed with your progressing age? Maybe we’re forgetting life and generation cycles in the discussion?

      1. The tone of the comments is disturbing to me. As planners, we think we know better what people should want, rather than working to help give them what they want and make it work better. Large (but hopefully not excessive) lot single-family homes should remain an option for today’s families. They should also have the ability to choose urban living if they so desire. However, it’s not our responsibility to cram whatever we think the best solution is down their throats.

        There are plenty of things planners can do to make suburbs work better. They can incorporate employment centers and services nearby to reduce vehicle trip lengths. They can be linked to cities by transit. They can be arranged to be made more walkable. I especially would like to look back to the model of “streetcar suburbs,” where corridors of still-modest-but-not-tiny single-family homes were arranged along transit corridors. A lot of these places still exist and if they could only get decent schools the demand would probably be high.

        1. “Disturbing tone of comments” and “prejudices” are interesting word choices. They are normative, and, as we all know, discussions about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ tend to be less fruitful than discussions that tell WHY something is viewed in a specific way. What exactly is disturbing, and what exactly is prejudice? There is a large diversity in the opinions expressed above, and I feel we all are searching for constructive solutions, although in different directions.
          Tim says: “What happened to participative planning where stakeholders educate planners on what they want collectively?”
          This intrigues me, because we have a rather strong tradition (some says) in the Netherlands for involving a variety of actors in planning. We have also experienced both the positive and negative sides of this approach. What people want collectively is often a weak compromise, or even, in some cases, nothing at all. There is also a very strong NIMBY-effect operative. Then there is the fact that usually only the ‘active lot’ gets involved anyway. On the other hand, there are positive developments too. We have a long tradition of neighbourhood approaches in Deventer (where I live), and inhabitants have influence on how specific budgets are spent. Often small, but effective, measures. Effective because people know exactly where the real problems are. Still, the large scale developments are dominated by ‘the market’. To ‘blow up’ the problem a bit: Planners make their over-ambitious, futuristic, designs, and property developers reduce them to (financial) feasibility size. An interesting trend (or, at least, it looks like it might become one), is more freedom for people to design and build their own homes. I heard an example where the costs were very much lower than what usually is achieved by the ‘classical’ approach, AND the consumer had at the same time much more liberty in how the houses were built. It all actually seems to be the result of the economic recession.
          I also liked the question from Tim about age and housing. I am 55, so yes, I have seen some changes, and yes, my preferences have changed a bit. However, only a few. I still love my garden, I still love the suburb, I still use my bike to my job (10 minutes: excellent for ‘clearing your head’), and I still have a car that actully mainly is used for my summer vacation and the weekly grocery shopping. But, we do think about the size of our house, and we do think about its flexibility for being able to stay living there. We like the neighbourhood, and – as most people getting older – we would prefer living where we do now.
          This brings me back to change. We have developed a number of large scale neighbourhoods here in the Netherlands that were thought to be appropriate. But, needs change, and populaition changes as well. A big mistake is to forget that new neighbourhoods tend to have a ‘non-representative’ population. I remember when we moved to where I now live, the neighourhood was full of young people with children. Then we got the youth, and things changed. A neighbourhood should have the flexibility for accommodating all target groups, and I believe thinking in terms of temporary use can be very helpful.
          (sorry: a bit long comment, got a bit carried away)

          1. You’re not as long-winded as me, Kjell-Erik! and you make good points. I think that the time and generational aspect (and therefore the flexibility you mention) is needed. With sustainability we are told to think of keeping open options for future generations. When we look back we tend to criticize former generations of planners, without really trying to understand the (social, economic and political) context in which they worked.

            Technology has opened many possibilities. We need to use them wisely, rather than give them too much power over our lives (which to me is one of the lessons of the automobile). Economics and financial situations, trade, environmental and resource management realities are also changing, and will continue to do so. Therefore designing for flexibility from many perspectives is definitely needed.

          2. I wish you the very best with your new endeavour Kjell-Erik. In my own work I am frequently frustrated by the disjunct between academia and the real world, especially in urban management. So often academic researchers and urban managers talk past one another. Researchers don’t want to address the questions that urban managers need answers to, and/or urban practitioners don’t know how to pose the questions in ways that will interest academia.
            Encourage your students to ask “why?” endlessly; to challenge underlying assumptions, and never lose their curiosity. As parents of 3-4 year olds we begin to kill curiosity because we get sick and tired of these small people constantly asking “why?” I’m so glad I had a father and some teachers who encouraged me, rather than shut me up!
            My latest “why?” concerns some people’s belief that cars spawned sprawl, and that good public tansport is the answer. Personally I think cars ALLOWED sprawl. Now, in European cities (and elsewhere) with excellent high speed commuter trains, it is this form of transport that is allowing the same thing. The why is about why we keep asking the wrong questions, or satisfy ourselves with incomplete questions and .answers … another reason to get your students to ask why (and for the practical side – how?).

          3. I agree with Mathew. It should be a choice.
            I believe there are two issues that, for the sake of the argument, we must separate. Economics and effectiveness of performance.
            Economically speaking, we must consider location. If you live in a large city (NY, LA, S Francisco), perhaps the dream can be a bit more difficult to achieve because of the affordability issue. In a medium size city, the dream is within reach, still.
            Now, how effective are we being. Urban planning in large cities requires and encompasses more variables to be considered than in smaller cities. We cannot urban plan the same way in every city. Trends and booms that have driven developers and banks to operate similarly in Los Angeles and Charlotte, for instance, can not take place. While in Charlotte an affordable suburb is 20-30 mins away from its downtown area, in Los Angeles the commute (and ALL of its consequences) is 2 hours, plus or minus. While in one, the suburb is still being integrated accordingly and somewhat efficiently, in the other, the word “suburb” should not be applicable.
            I personally think that technology will become a big variable in the a good urban process. Smart cars, intelligent highways, vehicle sharing, etc. should all be part of the equation to be laid out.

          4. There has been some research on time and commuting in the Netherlands. Generally, people accept up to one hour travel distance (one way), but it should not be much more before they start looking for another place to live. The NL is small: distances are short, and population density is high. I agree that public transport present opportunities. For example, since a couple of weeks ago we have an increased number of train connections between the major cities: now there is a train each 15 minutes. It will be interesting to see how that will affect the system. On the other hand the total capacity still is too low, and the problem of getting fast enough from train stations to destination needs improvements. Another interesting factor is the ‘new working’. Managers still tend to distrust emplyees working at home, but there is a large potential for more sustainability of that is encouraged: at least in a country having about 81% of the population working in the service sector.

          5. Thank you Tim. I would like to add one more perspective: the youth. I believe we (and I include myself) have done a lot wrong to the youth. There is a need for real ideals, and fresh ideas, and we only give them educational systems where we (unconsciously?) try to force them into becoming copies of ourselves. When will we learn that conservatism is the defeater of all creativity? When will we learn that our (the ‘old’ folks) task is to facilitate and guide, but not to prevent and constrain? I see young people of 18 in four undergraduate years loosing their curiosity, and I know that they are the future planners that will make my neighbourhood a living hell or a nice place to be.
            At the moment we are developing a completely new undergraduate program for our top students, which we preliminary call “Practice oriented research”, where I want to focus on the link between real life and research, the daily life of boys and girls (and the differences between those: we have considerable underachievement among boys, so it seems we have a ‘girlish’ education system), curiosity and much more.
            Getting back to the sustainabillity: the youth is sustainability, and it always will be.

  27. I have just come home from Japan to Australia. The differences could not be more stark in terms of planning. The juxtaposition, proximity, density and diversity of uses in Japan and the splatter sprawl of the Gold Coast where I live. It made me consider a lot of things. Too many for a short post, but I did wonder if we need planners at all here in Australia? Because the unintended consequences of the plans people have made, produced places that are soulless and so alike to each other there is no identity. Whereas the seemingly chaotic Japanese cities have so much more soul. I don’t think you could or should transplant Japanese cities to Australia. Mostly because the cultures and social structures are so different. However I think planners on the whole in Australia are so tied into the development industry they have lost the plot of their public servant role. For example, they want to build a MacDonalds in a small town that does not want one. The comments made seem to equate a KFC, MacDonalds, Woolworths, and Coles with progress. Personally I think they could not be more wrong, planners in Australia create commercial monopolies, the system in Japan produces competition, originality and diversity. It starts with people not money, planners in Australia work for the money not the people.

  28. If you travel around US cities, you get an impression that city is a grand urban sprawl and dependence on car is most pronounced.It looks same and monotonous every city in the US like standardized MacDonald or Kentucky fried chicken. There is no unique characteristic which can distinguish one city from another barring few legacy landmarks. There is no interactive space in the core of cities or neighborhood where people can meet coincidentally and interact.The concept of city we know about in Eastern Civilization do not exist there. In eastern cities open spaces are culturally defined. It is uneconomic to provide infrastructure for US cities. US cities with its sprawl is most vulnerable for terrorist attack unlike eastern cities where some amount of controlling terrorism is possible, but this opportunity is not effectively used. Deliberate promotion of compact, high density and mixed use cities are good prescription for US cities. They should embrace New Urbanism.

  29. I rather believe not to revive the large plot dilemma that encouraged selfish and closed life style. I would rather prefer to suggest instead to protect the existing ones and create more other large communal green areas that allow people to come together and communicate to reestablish the disappeared living together life style.

    1. Good point Solomon. I have never been to the USA, but everything I read (including studies of culture) put it as the no. 1 in individuality. If everybody only pursue the “American dream” without wanting to see that most welfare development (still, unfortunately) is created at the cost of other people, we will have a major problem. I guess that is what is getting increasingly visble now.
      I used to work for a large mutinational, and I remember the extreme familiarity expressed by US managers in when I met them. The “call me Bob”, kind of people. But there was nothing below that, no real interest in other people, no living together as you refer to: only very shallow non-meant politeness. So, indeed, I guess what we need is not only the physical green area meeting points, but a radical change in the way we meet and live together.

  30. So the question is whether large lots secured from other people using them is what is really desired. Or it is secure opportunities in a large number of areas?
    Joining with other people with similar likes is important for social beings. The issue of security in public space is upper most in peoples mind. We don’t want to find ourselves in the middle section of the food chain.

  31. I think many of these McSuburbs can be repurposed and made to be energy-efficient. With people out there, businesses will come. Not everyone will abandon their little paradise.

  32. Hi Josephine, read your article and responses on your website. It seems there are a lot of folks who would be happy with having the power to remake the world the way they see it. (Don’t we all). .

    One man’s dream may be another’s nightmare. My experience has been that not everyone wants to live in an urban area, and they don’t feel trapped and excluded from where the “action” is. People have different desires, and the right to legally pursue them.

    If someone wants to live where all they will ever need is provided for them at their doorstep, it’s their choice (at least for now); likewise those that don’t want that restriction/convenience should have the same choice.

    Want to preserve urban areas? Then regulating authorities should let property owners make them someplace people will WANT, and be allowed to be. As it stands, inflated land prices in the urban area, bolstered by land use regulation and requirements are increasing the costs of goods and services that attempt to locate there. The result is that only the most well-off can afford to live and do business there. There are plenty of places in our small city that I would not be able to afford to set foot..and that boundary is growing outward from the center.

    I don’t think keeping folks in little community pods is going to have the effect some imagine. The point is, there should be an opportunity to live in multi-use areas–not a requirement. I plan on keeping my car.
    Probably touched a few nerves here. Sorry about what may follow.

  33. The American Farmland Trust has conducted cost of community studies repeatedly throughout the country and reached similar conclusions to what Mr. Jones presents. The median cost to provide services to commerical/industrial areas is $0.28 per dollar of tax revenue, $0.36 for open and working lands (agricultural/forestry areas), and $1.15 for residential areas (regardless of density and design). In no case has their research ever shown a community’s residential area fully offsetting its public expenses with tax revenue. See http://www.farmlandinfo.org/documents/27757/FS_COCS_8-04.pdf

    Strong Towns in Minnesota has been gathering information showing that the long term infrastructure costs associated with our dominant land use patterns: low density residential areas, single use zoning, large arterials, etc is creating a “perfect storm” where the long term infrastructure maintenance costs far exceed expected revenues. http://www.strongtowns.org/

    Mitch Silver, the President of the American Planning Association and Chief Planning and Economic Development Officer for the city of Raleigh, NC, has a powerful presentation about the demographic changes which will occur in the coming years, including how single person households will exceed family households, and how the population of people older that 65 will soon be 20% of the nation’s population. He suggests that the country will face a surfeit of s

  34. I agree that the model that we used to develop the country over the last 50-60 years is not the best way to go. The cost to extend urban type services to these areas is higher and the amount of land that is utilized is also higher. There are a couple of issues that those who want to kill off the single family home have to deal with first.
    1- A lot of people like to live in a detached single family home.
    2- If you attempt to bring in density in many areas you discover that the two things people hate the most are “sprawl” and “Density”.

    My experience has been that about 20-25% of the market wants to live in a dense mixed use area. I have found that many people would like to live in a small town type environment where the community was close knit, had a “complete street” grid, public open space and parks, and was walkable, in other words a place designed for people and not thier vehicles. We also need to address the actual design of our environments to lessen the stress that we create on natural systems by relying to heavily on engineered solutions to utilty design and storm water management.

    Our challenge as designers is to create these types of communities not force everyone into the “New Urbanist” box.

    1. Amen Jon.

      I’d also point out that the majority of stated preference studies show what I call the “1/3, 1/3, 1/3 rule”: 1/3 prefer density, 1/3 will live in it if there are enough amenities nearby, and 1/3 will move there over their dead body.

      Efficiencies are needed everywhere, wherever folks choose to live.

  35. I thought I’d seen the number of single households eclipsed couples this year to everyone’s surprise and for the first time since frontiers/very new colonies. That is a huge factor in home affordability with just one income against mortgage, utilities, and upkeep but also quite a bit more of a burden in household chores. Many of the homes you see that are owned by a 1-person household had a downpayment and years of payments/work made by a pair of workers, one now deceased or divorced away, rather than were acquired and kept solely on a single income. In most markets that would require a top 20 or top 10% income level which many 2 income households won’t have, that’s a tremendous constraint on suburban neighborhoods whether it’s McMansions or 1946-1960’s starter homes (we forget how many of those starter homes were purchased by long-married couples in their 30’s who’d long saved up rather than new grads/newly wed 20-somethings.

    An article in Governing pointed out from the late Hoover Administration to the early Reagan Administration, communities could indeed get federal grants for the majority of their infrastructure costs, an era when 40% of federal revenues came from corporate income taxes, import tariffs, etc. that were drastically shrunk since about 1982 and you find so much of the public infrastructure stops being built when it becomes purely a local or end-user expenditure with occasional help from state funds. We’ve never been very good at paying for the infrastructure and services we use personally, the search for a formula that works remains but the current system was built on “coasting” on a massive infrastructure already built and hoping it didn’t fall apart before one’s terms of office were over or after the grumpy taxpayer had retired to sunnier climes or died. “Stop-gap solutions until I’m gone” are reliably the way to bet and have made us all a lot poorer, the cost of long deferred maintenance and replacement costs the most stark.

    Our school board chair pointed out if we replaced our mostly 70-50 year old schools at a rate of 1 every 2 years instead of 1 every 10-20 years as we have, in just a 140 years we’d have replaced them all in turn with of course all but the last 30-50 years of replacement schools not worn out themselves. And you historically build suburban neighborhoods around schools…but with 20% or so of households having kids currently in K-12, instead of the 60% during our school building boom 1950’s-1960’s for the Baby Boom. We already have a fair number of our counties here with better than 25% of their population over 65 and hit that statewide in a decade our top demographer figures. Makes you think about it a lot.

  36. Wonderful discussion — just thought I’d mention that. I had the opportunity to hear Mr. Mitch Silver’s presentation on severe demographic changes and how they impact community development. All of us local municipalities need to wake up and stop planning and/or advocating for large, suburban lots (4-5 DU/acre) and seriously look at providing housing for all demographics. Particularly the ones drastically changing as indicated above — 1-person households, retiring baby boomers, Gen Y, Gen Z, etc.

    Multi-family, shared-wall developments are going to become paramount in filling these holes, especially considering the dramatical increases in restrictions on residential lending. That’s not to say Midwesterners here in Kansas City are still not going to clamour for large lot, suburban-style traditional developments, as they grew up inside one. Density tends to be an evil word around here. Midwestern county-level planning is also quite different, where lot sizes below 1 acre are extremely rare.

    1. I guess it’s footprint of the house as well as the lot size, post WWII houses were literally a fourth the current average new house square footage (and those were double the size of 1920’s-30’s homes!) The Bungalow movement’s been addressing that in part. But we all wondered how folks on mostly stagnant real incomes over the past 40 years could keep doubling average house size every 10 years or so (300 avg. sq. ft. in the 1930’s to 2,300 sq. ft. now and for smaller households!) Homes used to need the larger lots because they kept horses stabled and grazing there, chickens and ducks, maybe a few pigs and far bigger gardens along with fruit and nut trees…farmsteads without the cash crop fields, but now it’s virtually unused land with expensive infrastructure service, tremendous water consumption if it’s lawn, and considerable care (or a place to make weed management that much harder for the area.) From a local food production perspective that’s happening in many communities, the large lots make considerable sense if they’re zoned and used that way although still don’t make sense from an infrastructure cost.

      I think Matt’s right about what will get built and occupied. People wanting far more house/land than they can afford or even use is endemic and incredibly stupid mortgage lending made a lot of transaction fees enabling those fantasies that have set up an infrastructure and services cost structure that will plague local governments for easily a century.

        1. Richard, look it up in their article archives by key word search, that’s how I found it again a few years ago. http://www.governing.com. The studies here used to be available on the website, it’s a thinktank of Montana State University that’s looked at tax policies, yields, etc. for 20+ years and surveyed a quiet rural county, Broadwater, and a booming college town becoming a high tech city with massive new housing, business, etc., Gallatin County which’d be our closest to Henderson.

          You can do your own cost of services study internally which’d be the most useful and compelling to policymakers (I also found it took the wind out of the sails of the folks who’d show up at public hearings or planning sessions for downtown or commercial development who were just sure as could be that their tax dollars were subsidizing that business instead of the reality of the subsidies running the other way.) It’s surprising how often departments have done good cost of services delivery studies for various neighborhoods and types of services like fire trucks, water mains, etc. but not wrapped it all together in what all is being delivered to particular types of properties or neighborhoods and then matching it to actual tax yields. The information is all existing, it just hasn’t been assembled and compared (putting it into GIS maps is really interesting too, just like a farmer looks at their land now for relative crop productivity and the results from his inputs of fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, irrigation, tilling, fencing, etc.).

          Communities that don’t track their taxbase specifically and do much to preserve and develop it (which is different than knee jerk reactions to anyone who claims to be helping or hurting the tax base) continue to surprise me. It’s like talking to a dairy farmer who doesn’t know how many cows he has, how much milk each cow produces, how old or healthy each cow is or what their breed or feed is, feel veterinary care is a waste of money as are fences and barns, and bets his financial life on milk production going up 10% every year still and cream increasing to 50-70% of the total output.

  37. I agree that many people hear the words greater density or increasing density in relation to housing and run screaming. The key is to present density in a less frightening way by showing them visual representations of the densities being discussed. There is a great book titled “Visualizing Density” by Julie Campoli and Alex S. MacLean. The book shows multiple aerial photos of each density with each photo representing a different configuration for that density and shows densities from 0.2 units/acre to 300 units/acre. While putting the book together they showed the multiple images for each density together and asked the audience to determine the housing density in each photo. They found that for the different configurations they received different estimates for the density. Basically they determined if you can change peoples preconceptions of what densities can look like they are more willing to accept and live in higher density areas. I highly recommend getting there book and using there materials on density when discussing the topic with stakeholders.

    1. Alyssa your comment on visualizing density is correct. I have done many community charettes in my planning and LA practice and it is always strange when people attack high density and then pick the higher density views of neighborhoods as the ones they like the most. What people are looking for is a place that is designed around thier needs as people, density is not irrelevent to them but it takes a back seat as long as the place is comfortable and is inviting,

      Pere also is correct in the thought that the needs of people change thier perceptions of what is good or bad over thier lifetime. A persons needs in his surroundings change from the young, single person, thru the newly married into the growing family, then back again to the couple with visiting relatives, to perhaps a single person in the end. It is all about designing the community to meet the needs of the residents.

      1. Thank you Alyssa, I have that and many other such books in my personal library. They have helped me realize not everyone likes to live in the depictions in those books.

        That is not to say we should not be building (or re-building) nice neighborhoods for people to live in, and trying to make them as efficient as possible. We should, and hopefully we will if the economy changes.

        That is merely to say we can’t get *everyone* to live in them, which is an important premise to consider when in the planning stages, as it affects your design. When I do public meetings, I also always have posters and visuals with the idea of what the end result will look like to help people visualize, as visuals are the most important method of communication in my view. Most people are visual learners.

  38. Beyond any empiric rules of housing market segmentation in terms of densities (from approx. 5-10 houses/Hectare in sprawl, to 50-100 h/Ha in european-like and ex-soviet city, to 100-300h/Ha in asiatic high density urban towers developments) and building types (e.g. 1/3,1/3, 1/3), which may vary greatly from city to city, from cultures and lifetime of a city (see “social morphology”), urban sociology shows us that we must take into account the dynamics of demographics by age and household, especially the so called trajectories of residential mobility in each stage of family life (in Paris one finds the rule that each new child distance the family 10 km from the center!), which is a decisive factor in the choice of housing (building type) and urban environment (density, urban fabric, land uses, community type, etc.).
    On the other hand, Valerie, in the big city people also faces the distance between them. Anonymity and even the “blasé” attitude (see G. Simmel) are typical on the conventional dense metropolis.

  39. What is the American dream about? Is it about escaping tenement slums and achieving security of tenure? Is it about good schools? Is it about access to jobs. Is it about mowing lawns? Is it about generating wealth – buying a home and then selling it (or refinancing) after a huge appreciation in value?

    As the article indicates, some of the benefits of the suburban dream were oversold. Instead of combining the best of the city and the best of the countryside, some suburbs combine the worst of these two worlds. And most importantly, there were enormous infrastructure subsidies that made the suburbs possible. Now that this infrastructure is aging and in need of replacement, the federal subsidies that created it are no longer available.

    In limited areas, “slash & burn” agriculture can be sustainable. But in urban America, our “slash & burn” economy that abandons cities for suburbs and then abandons suburbs for exurbs is an economic and environmental crisis of epic proportions.

    Fortunately, in spite of Madison Avenue’s hyping of the suburbs, many people are rediscovering the value of urban living. However, unless we reorient our tax structure and a host of subsidies for auto-oriented transportation and development, it will be difficult to make cities work economically and equitably for our population.

    To learn more about reorienting economic incentives so that they encourage job creation, affordable housing, transportation efficiency and sustainable development, see http://www.justeconomicsllc.com

  40. Good article. Demographics suggest that having 2 generations and 3 incomes supporting a McMansion is not sustainable. It will be great to see how conversions to several group homes in palatial estate developments will house the workforce to maintain the luxurious lifestyle that only a few can afford.

    Somehow, local suburban politicians will have to overcome “fear of housing with children” and “fear of housing for the single person household.”

    1. Its an interesting discussion. I agree with John. Demographics indicate that the number of seniors and singles are increasing as a percentage of the population. Seniors may not be able to drive everywhere and singles are often attracted to centers of culture and activity. The remote single family home may not be a goal for as many people as it used to be.

      Also, many metropolitan areas grew at incredible rates during the last 60 years. Washington DC hardly had any suburban growth outside of its city boundaries 60 years ago, and now there is virtually no agricultural land or large natural areas within a 25 mile radius. The very extensive roads that had to be constructed for each suburban dwelling were often paid for by govt. funds. Can that really continue? I’m not saying new communities can’t be created, but maybe we should accommodate changes in demographics and leaner budgets for infrastructure in new growth plans. I’ve already been asked to retrofit suburban areas to accommodate these changes.

      1. Hi Marc, aside from having a great name, I’m not sure about this: “The very extensive roads that had to be constructed for each suburban dwelling were often paid for by govt. funds.” Roads built with highway trust funds were built pretty much through users buying gas and paying property taxes. So if by “gov’t funds” you mean “taxpayers and other users,” I agree. I’m also curious about this: “retrofit suburban areas to accommodate these changes.” What are you doing and how do you do it? Thanks very much.

        1. Hi Marc, by govt funds I mean that state and county taxes people pay often go to pay for roads. The 3rd biggest line item in some state budgets is transportation. In addition, federal funds for highways are in the billions. Certainly, many new roads in subdivisions are paid for by private developers, but who pays for the maintenance? All I’m saying is that given the increasing portion of the population that is looking for an alternative to suburban development, there may be room for more compact forms of development that don’t require as much infrastructure per person.

          I worked on the retrofit of a suburban shopping mall in which all of the parking lots are converted into a series residential side streets and walkable mixed-use main streets. The final outcome looks more like a village than a suburban neighborhood. The plan caters to people who want to live near many activities and restaurants, etc, but may not wish to move into a big city. The plan was approved through a series of community meetings and public reviews.

          1. Marc B — Suburban infrastructure was paid for by gas and other taxes that were paid for by urban and rural dwellers. While some of these taxes can be thought of as “user fees,” the fees were applied to places where the users did not live. (After all, the suburbs did not exist in any major way until enabling infrastructure was created.) Eventually, many auto users moved out to the suburbs. However, the burbs were often off limits to people of color and others subject to restrictive covenants. So the initial inhabitants of the suburbs received a windfall of new infrastructure paid for by all taxpayers.

            Furthermore, the operational costs of roads (traffic signals, emergency response, etc) are paid out of general taxes. Thus people who live in multi-family buildings (and who consume less infrastructure per capita in terms of roads, water mains, sewers, utility lines, etc.) subsidize the infrastructure for those who live in the low-density, single-family areas.

            In a similar vein, the mortgage-interest and property tax deductions confer the greatest tax savings on affluent households who consume the largest homes. (Large incomes and higher marginal tax rates generate more tax savings per dollar deducted. Larger home means more total dollars deducted).

            Infrastructure is expensive wherever it exists. But one of the biggest cost factors is distance. The fewer businesses and residents occupy a mile of road, sewer, etc., the more expensive the infrastructure will be on a per capita basis.

            As mentioned above, after World War II, federal funds were applied to new infrastructure rather than to maintaining or improving existing infrastructure where people already lived. So city dwellers faced high local taxes to maintain old and failing infrastructure while residents of new suburban areas faced low taxes because their new infrastructure did not require much in the way of maintenance.

            Both the environmental and economic costs of over-extended suburban infrastructure are now becoming apparent to some. It will be interesting to see how we deal with this situation.

          2. Rick, I know you’re an expert on land taxing, but I think if you ask people in Montgomery County and Fairfax County, they’ll tell you that they pay plenty in property and other taxes.

            When the original suburbs were built, like the Levittowns, are you saying that the roads within the developments were paid for by taxes and not by the developer? If so, news to me.

            Back when we still had a progressive income tax system, the more you made, the more you paid. Even today, the lowest income people pay almost nothing in income taxes. And as house prices went up, so did property taxes.

            While this sounds intuitively right, “people who live in multi-family buildings (and who consume less infrastructure per capita in terms of roads, water mains, sewers, utility lines, etc.),” when I lived in San Francisco, the cost books all showed that doing any work in SF cost 150% of the national average. And indeed, that’s about what it cost. So I sure didn’t observe any savings in infrastructure.

          3. You are correct that developers often pay for infrastructure within their development footprint. But, in terms of the life-cycle cost of infrastructure, the initial construction cost is often small in comparison to operations, maintenance and eventual replacement.

            When the suburbs were new, taxes were relatively low because new infrastructure did not require much in the way of maintenance and rehabilitation. As suburban infrastructure ages and there is no federal subsidy for infrastructure maintenance or replacement, suburban taxes have increased.

            We are taught that poor people get subsidies. People who live in affluent suburbs have never been informed about the degree to which their infrastructure is subsidized. It is quite understandable that they would resist this information because it contradicts their belief system. But perception and reality are not always the same thing.

            Exacerbating this perception problem are the externalities of infrastructure. Thus, after I pay the taxes and fares necessary to build and maintain a transit system, if I want to maximize my use of the transit system, I want my home and my business to be close to a station. But when I go to a landlord to rent a place near transit, the landlord charges me a premium rent for the privilege of locating near the transit that my fares and taxes have already paid for. If value capture were in place, then my higher rents would be paying for transit (and keeping my fares low). Instead, my high rent provides a windfall to my landlord and inflates the cost of urban living by making me pay a third time for the infrastructure I have already paid for through taxes and fares.

  41. Did we ever really want a llittle chunk of the prarie? I’m not convinced that large lot sf homes were ever the American dream. They were a response. Up through WWII, housing choice was constrained by transportation and the work trip was king. Everyone’s job was in the city, so people had to stay close to make a living. That also meant necessarily enduring the hazards (traffic, pollution, noise, and crime/corruption). Getting to work and shopping each day meant staying within the bounds of affordable transportation (walking or the horse/street car). When cars became an affordable option for most and roads made them usable, I think people took the new opportunity to escape the bad things about urbanization that the White City had highlighted and the City Beautiful and Efficient Movements had been working to fix. The inconveniences of suburban living were a small price to pay for peace and safety it offered. Well, in typical American fashion, we took that to its extreme and then some. Now a generation has realized that cutting grass is a life-sucking choice not a lifestyle. The bad things of city living are diminishing and the bad things of suburbanization are exacerbating and the pendulum is reversing. Now if we could only figure out the schools…

  42. I thnk that this will not died out, maybe the future homes will be smaller and more sustainable then the homes that were built in the 60’s but then the same can be said for homes in the UK as well

  43. In 2002, Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission’s General Plan set an objective of limiting the percentage of dwelling unit growth in the Rural Tier of Prince George’s County through the year 2025 to less than one percent. These land use practices are the real lines in the sand worthy of supporting. All of the rearrangement of deck chairs on the suburban Titanic in the discussion is pointless unless super low-density is allowed to occur, and its sister super high density. These two will have worth over this next centuryi, the rest is unsustainable and a crime.

  44. There are plenty of people who aren’t inclined or don’t know how to write cursive, cook a potato, read a novel, make change or follow a bus schedule either. These all went by the wayside in the lifestyle changes that suburbanization was a part of. Maybe it never should have been this way but they’re never going back to the way things were, dream or no.

    1. Good point, Martin. It is very hard to discern cause and effect from behaviors. Still, 70% or so of the world’s population is urbanized. Food security aside, the economics of food production are beginning to dictate locally grown crops. That will raise the cost and stature of agricultural land. Then there’s rising fuel costs bringing people closer to those jobs that can’t be done over a wire. Finally, demographic changes are bringing in people who are accustomed to urban living and mixing them with a native population that is aging and incresaingly in need of services not available in the exurbs. A return to something looking a lot like pre-Highway Act America may not be so much of a dream. Behavior or economics? Either way, we better be planning on more mf than sf.

  45. really interesting discussion!!! here in Italy we’ve had our (small) share of sprawl-related problems: personally I believe that most people (it’s not my case) prefer a house-with-garden situation, especially if they live and work in crowded, chaotic urban contexts and they have children. I think it’s simply human to long for privacy and tranquility if you are constantly “attacked” by traffic, noise, annoying people, etc. But as sprawl is not sustainable, I think the only way out is to make the alternative really attractive, that is, making cities more interesting and comfortable to live in – we planners won’t have the need to brainwash people then! Cities here definitely need better public transportation, more private green spaces (also for food crops), more mixed-use neighbourhoods, more care for public spaces. I think that we as planners should most of all give our contribution to build a “sense of community” through participation…a long, difficult process, but not impossible!

  46. The suburban house as “American Dream” may not be over but it cannot be financed and things will change a a result. The bank accounts are empty and mortgage credit is very hard to obtian. We Americans are going to join the ranks of the rest of the world regarding limits on consumption and we must value our resources with a long-term perspective. The big suburban house is the symbol of high consumption, keeping up with the Jones’, and “I’ve arrived in a class level I never dreamed I could join.

    In the 40’s and 50’s it was the extension of the Westward Ho mentality, i.e., let’s get the most land we can rather than get the most out of the land we have. That is a cliche and very unsustainable. The suburban pattern has created a complete land drain and involves the uneconomical creation of major roads and infrastructure which cannot be maintained in a constricted economy. Socially, suburbia is alientating and in response to this, the New Urbanist Movement comes to the rescue. Unfortunately, you cannot engineer community even if it looks like you can on paper.

    The Growth Management legislation in Florida and Maryland put a dent in the sprawl trend but the recession worked even better. It stopped the construction of thousands of houses and malls that were often redudant developments eating the countryside, destroying water resources, demanding access to nowhere. As a planner, my hope is that we look at consumption differently, live within our collective means, create public discussions about what the real quality of life and translate these goals into land development policies.

  47. All of you are bringing up excellent points…but many are issues and solutions that have been discussed for a long period of time. I think Rick is hitting it right on the head…economics and its study is most important in achieving sustainability.

    As a private consultant to developers, I can bring these ideas to them, but unless they see the cold, hard cash benefits of their endeavors, it is a waste of time. They want to see the economic benefits of any new ideas presented. When they see that, then they are willing to examine the ideas presented here and in other articles.

    There is a short, very informative book (that Kobe has just stolen from me) that describes the current design, bid, build (DBB) process that cannot be sustained. He suggests changing our whole design-permitting system that has been supported over the past 4 decades. He suggests this has to be a job involving both the private and public sector so that the sides realize what they have to do to make this successful on both the public and private sectors’ parts. That is a big job, but it is working in some places in this country.

    My major point is that economy of our suggestions have to be taken into account and they have to involve strategies that we have not examined before.

  48. “economics and its study is most important in achieving sustainability. ”

    The economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment, Doc.

    But I definitely agree from a narrow, land-development point of view, if the project doesn’t pencil out it will fail. And I also agree that we need new solutions as the old methods are not working. I hope we can implement them in this new economy we find ourselves in.

  49. I think it is dead, but not for these reasons. What is dead is the notion that there is a single, shared American Dream. For some, perhaps many Americans, their dream is a large-lot suburban home. For others, it will be a brownstone, or a geaming steel flat, or something else.

    Gen X and Milleniels, decide for themselves what the American Dream is and they don’t need General Motors to define it for them. My dream is my dream. Yours is yours. It’s all good. That is the big shift from 1940.

  50. I believe that the question that should be asked is not whether or not there is any hope for a revival of the “American Dream,” but whether it should be relegated to the dustbin of history. The “American Dream,” is nothing more than the slickest marketing gimmick in the history of mankind. Thanks to it, our infrastructure costs are outstripping our municipal governments’ ability to pay for them. Whether it is publicly owned and maintained, water, sewer, or streets and highways, or privately owned and maintain electric, telecommunications or IT infrastructure, the public and private sectors in the US must maintain 5-10 times the amount of infrastructure per capita than do the European or Chinese.

    Of course, thanks to the “American Dream,” we also pump on a per capita basis 4-5 times the amount of greenhouse gasses in to the atmosphere than just about every other nation in the world, China included.

    Our metro areas are not merely ecologically unsustainable, they are economically unsustainable. Despite now forty years of evidence of the ecological and economical costs of sprawl, US planners continue to still facilitate, and yes some even continue to advocate for sprawl. We label it with a cute oxymoron like New Urbanism or Smart Growth, but it is still sprawl.

    The low-density development that epitomizes the “American Dream” is not just threatening public sector bankruptcy. In this age of globalization it directly undermines the competiveness of American industry, and American industrial workers. Unlike most of the rest of the world, the typical US company is saddled not only with the added cost of providing huge amounts of free parking for employees, it must also subsidize the $10,000 – $15,000 per year cost of maintaining and driving the vehicle their employees drive to and from work. These are costs Asian and European competitors don’t even have to think about in their pricing strategies.

    And let us not forget the rising cost of healthcare in the US, driven to an increasingly greater degree by health costs associated with obesity and lack of exercise, thanks for our automobile oriented cities and towns.

    The “American Dream” makes the provision of convenient, reliable mass transit options to the automobile impossible without the huge and increasingly unaffordable state and federal subsidies that exist today.

    I think it is time the American planning profession wake up and smell the coffee and relegate the “American Dream” and all its problems and costs to the dustbin of history before it triggers an ecological calamity or, more likely, it bankrupts the us completely.

  51. I agree with the above comments surrounding many American’s desire to live in a single family home. Regardless of whether the trend is closer to the city or a continued move into greenfields, people have shown time and time again that given the choice a single family home was the preference. In part the move to suburbia was precipitated or dictated by the continued challenge within city school systems. If city schools are able to provide a product at the same level as their suburban counterparts there could be a move to gentrify many city neighborhoods.

    To Dave A’s point this is not a cut and dry issue. We like our freedom of choice and what works for one family may not work for another. If we can create more desirable options, we could see a movement toward a new housing trend just as that of the 1950’s.

  52. In Ohio, 80% of property taxes goes to school; the remainder split between county and munis. However, the property taxes paid by a house rarely pays even 75% of the cost to educate that student. The remainder is paid through property taxes on commercial/industrial property, hence the reason schools scream when tax abatements have been given. In Ohio we depend on municipal income taxes as the main source of revenue. I think less than 10 of the over 400 cities/village do not have an income tax. In may communities a “credit” is applied. In other words, if I live in City A and pay an income tax where I work, I do not pay the income tax in my home community. In some cases, I will pay a portion of the income tax levied in my city of residence.
    It is a huge political issue: paying income tax to 2 communities. As a former city manager I looked at this way: a person pays an income tax in the communities in which they live for the services they receive 8 hours a day. They should also [ay a tax for the services they receive in the town in which they live.
    I should add that the municipal income tax ranges from .25% to 3.25% of wages. In some cases, school districts may also levy an income tax on local wages.
    Let’s be honest about these discussions: cities/schools have always sought the development of businesses to cover the difference in the service costs! That’s why economic development is such a hot topic in communities and states. They pay the community freight!

  53. For any of us involved with sustainable communities, why would we “Hope for revival?” for a human settlement arrangement that destroys the landscape, uses vast amounts of resources and energy and destroys community? The faster we can get back to compact walkable communities the better.

  54. I think the article is missing the real seismic shift. I do not agree that the American Dream has been seismically shifted from a suburban one to an urban multi-family lifestyle. That is the dream for some, but the suburban dream is the dream for some too.

    The real shift is the end of the era where there is a singular, dominant collective ideal. Americans of the 21st century seem to reject wholesale the notion that there is and should be one single “American Dream.” The new consensus is this: “I don’t need General Motors to tell me what I should want. You have your dream, I have mine. It’s all good.” We forget how different that is from the 1940s and 1950s.

    If we are trying to convince everyone that they should want something different, we are swimming against the tide. The dominant truth to plan for is that instead of one housing market, we have many. Our task is to assure we are making room for more choice in the community.

  55. This seems to fit with the trend toward Common Interest Developments (even for single family detached homes with yards) with their privatized amenities and services, somewhat relieving the local municipalities and counties from providing those services.

  56. When people play the ‘dream card’ it makes me nervous (just as I’m on guard when a company embraids the term ‘trust’ into their name).

    Planning needs to address the ‘rational imperatives’ involving housing (which BTW is a relatively new concept in the globe’s history).

    And if we’d been rational about the sub-prime market – perhaps that fiasco might have been averted.

    I’ll admit that in my 20-years past-experience running a residential design-build firm, I experienced first hand clients’ deep-seated imperatives about ‘home’ and recognized that if otherwise they would have slept in their cars – bless ’em! for they hired us to serve their needs!

    Toronto’s first planned subdivisions arose from the growth-demands of the post-depression war-boom and thereafter.

    Somewhat ironically these first suburbs offered a small house – often a bungalow – on a large lot compared to the traditional city.

    It was an affordable development strategy easily replicated like so much sausage… easily transforming farmland into a recognizable consumer commodity.

    These were the gray belt ring around the old city, now being systematically torn down house-by-house – replaced by super-sized houses.

    The ‘dream’ was a manufactured ‘sizzle’ characterizing the mass production of stick-built housing – generated and fueled by the industry’s interest in maintaining the momentum.

    One of the most telling things about these earlier suburban house solutions was their general lack of kitchen space and facility, indicative that the sell was to the man-of-the-house and the little-woman would simply do her thing miraculously.

    There’s a delightful cover-illustration on Sydney Australia’s post-war County Plan http://arris.ca/SYDNEY/index.shtml?21

    There’s the planning-engineer rolling out the blue print greenfield of ideal housing, schools and hospitals aplenty with the family looking on.

    The astute industrious dad, mum gazing poetic, clean and playful children… and an ecstatic dog.

    Beneath the plan… there’s the depiction of the old polluted city of crowded tenements, with scrawny children playing in the streets along with lurking cars and malingers.

    Humorous in hindsight perhaps – but a reminder nonetheless – lest we make a similar mistake today with re-urbanization!

    Do I think the ‘dream’ is over? No.

    But it was never everyone’s dream

    AND we have quite enough suburban house product, albeit not necessarily where we need it in an ideal environment.

    The challenge is to deliver a broad array of accommodations, and in so-doing to outflank the reflex to replicate further suburbia.

    Cities are comprised of many tribes and communities interlaced together, requiring a diversity of housing solutions.

    When the great urban centres around the world addressed re-urbanization it was almost universally regarded as being about ‘Consolidation’…

    …except Toronto – which embraced the term ‘Intensification’.

    Intensification is about increasing magnitudes.

    Consolidation is about addressing how things fit together.

    Planning is all about a rational urban strategy – not dallying with dreams, especially manufactured ones.

    That’s my two-cents worth…

    And may I leave you with another vision about red-tape planning.

    When I built my cottage in the woods, an hour away from the nearest store.

    I enquired about getting a build permit and was told to leave $20 dollars at Liz’s gas station.

    I did, and that was it – no plans, no levies, no requests for variances required.

    Bless ’em!

  57. When dealing with development it is all about market acceptance and unit cost. One of the best ways I have found to get people to do a sustainable development is to pitch it as a way of building smart and saving money on the development side while creating value on the customer side. Godd design that is sustainable is a win -win-win situation.
    The developer spends less to create a product that has greater percieved value.
    The consumer who buys the product sees value in an environment that is designed to fit his needs and give him a sense of place
    The local goverment, who usually assunmesa ownership and maintenance resposibilites of the public utilities and streets that are developed has much lower maintenance cost over time and in many cases has much better storm water control and water quality.

    Having a chance to do a good sustainable product is an extra added benefit for me as a designer.

  58. You guys are on to something. There are a lot of influences in these movements, not all about real estate markets. But Jim, I don’t think economics will be the driving factor. I think Martin is closer to the reality.

    For example, what will be the bias of the current “entitled” generations who will be our business and industry leaders in the next 20 years? These folks are the products of the suburbs and exurbs, but they have been raised to purchase everything from services to products, which is more of an urban attitude. Given that predisposition to living, it will promote urban lifestyles and they will be more likely to shun suburbia.

    Then they start raising children and wonder about schools. We are already seeing a rise in the interest in charter schools, but is that sustainable too? I think we will see some significant reforms in urban school district qualities in the next 15 years.

    1. Hi, Ed. I was hoping you’d join the fray.

      I certainly agree that money is a strong driver for people that are thinking rationally about money. I also remember from not so many years ago when financial planning was a luxury whose chief manefestation was “Can we cover the rent check by Monday?” When your kids’ future is up for grabs, money may become secondary. (help me out here parents, I’m a DINK.) Community indicators (broken windows and beer bottles) are likely more influencial than cost either way.

      We’re in a transitional period on every level and subject. My problem as a planner is that I see too many deeply-interrelated elements in cities. I can’t sort them out. Do you bloster the middle class so lower-income families have a reasonable migration path to a better life? Do you reduce crime to nurture achievement and remove competing, but unacceptable, career paths? Do you create industries to provide jobs or educational programs for jobs that don’t exist? Unfortunately the answer is to do them all at once. We can’t afford that, and the country has no plan for how to use what we do have holisitically.

      Marketing and incentives can change behavior. I have no idea how to fix a school, but if the kid sees a goal and makes the connection between learning and a good life, even a substandard school will be successful. If the kid can’t make the connection, somebody has to bridge the gap. A parent working 3 minimum wage jobs may not be convincing as a motivator. For me, economics is a strong driver in a bag of poor options and something we have a hope of influencing.

      1. Jim all you had to do was ask…
        You are absolutely right about the influence of the economy, but the suburbs are demographically more middle class. Yes, they are very bottom dollar oriented, but as you stated for the cities, suburbanites cannot handle all the priorities for being economical, or living a sustainable life through funding higher education for the kids and retirement planning, while the general markets are declining. Had they been living in an urban setting, with one car and no yard, smaller kitchens and walkable neighborhoods, they would have shifted their economic profile to one that may have saved a ton of money, while also supporting local business. But oops! It’s too late now. So now we are all living the opportunity cost of some poor suburban choices.

        The problem is that the folks trying to figure this out are actually trying to preserve their suburban experience. Hence, the priorities are to fix suburban ills like traffic and better telecommuting options, rather than the urban ills of neighborhood revitalization. I believe the emphasis needs to be on the community indicators that influence the market.

        Don’t get me wrong though, some people are cut out for suburban or exurban life and others for urban. But I would bet there are many that are in the wrong environment too, which is part of their struggle. I could be comfortable in a city, but I am definitely a person that fits better in the exurban context. We need to provide for all sectors of society, not just urban, as the latest wave of planning trends are flowing.

        1. I appreciate you and Martin straightening me out. I am becoming a city snob. I really should be more open to a variety of lifestyles and arrangements. As one who likes toys more than savings, I can’t prove that the location makes a financial difference either. Irrational choices aside, urban living just makes sense. I can’t seem to get past that. Urban living will intensify here like it has all over the globe for the same reasons. If that happens, then there will still be exurbs for those that fit better there. For the rest: Give me concrete and better schools or give me death!

          1. I’m not trying to straighten anyone out, but Ed does make some interesting points. People don’t design their lives based on a rational assessment. If they can afford to, they make decisions based on their self-image and aspirations. Look at the comments that come in on any public bulletin board concerning cycling, growth controls, density or any related topic. Many literally feel threatened about being forced into boxes and cubes, and it’s not just hyperbole. They aren’t about to see the city as a vibrant place for innovation and the transmission of culture. The more space between them and their neighbors, the more successful they feel.

            No wonder both the left and the right are indignant about being scammed and manipulated by banks and developers. Those who were sold on the dream now need to have something as self-affirming to replace it with. What in the vision of a reborn city is as seductive as a developer’s model?

  59. Dave’s point that it will always be many varied kinds of housing that are in demand. Elizabeth Warren’s excellent book “The Two Income Trap” makes a compelling case for what Forrest is talking about in the quest for safe, quality schools driving much of the exodus as well as driving up home prices around attractive schools since the much slower rate of school-building the past 30 years has put those proximate homes at a premium. It was one of the smartest explanations for some parts of the housing bubble I’d seen as parents will sacrifice tremendously for better opportunities and environments for their kids. Of course overpriced new homes adjacent to newer schools are beyond the price point of most young families, something that seemed to get missed a lot as young families often seem invisible with childcare keeping them at home and multiple jobs.

    We’ve never had this many households single and at the middle age ranges rather than starting out or finishing up in the adult life-cycle.

    At 50% now single households (unmarried) and 20% of households having children in the local schools, housing demand and capacity to buy/rent are going to be markedly different than in the past, perhaps like the frontier communities which had similar demographics.

    That market for affordable, convenient, low-investment of both time and money space (opposite of a run-down home to be repaired and restored) suggests condos, 1-2 bedroom apartments, downtown lofts, and using rented storage spaces to replace lost garages, basements, and sheds.

    But betting against the attraction of single family detached homes is consistently wrong so living in small towns for surprising commutes and often better schools has been growing for 20+ years now and seems like the way to bet (of course it’s based on broadband availability, cheap gas, and cars that last 150-300,000 miles.)

    The surest bet I’ve seen are single floor patio homes with attached, heated garages. The outdoor work handled by contractors to the homeowners’ association. I thought they were for retirees but empty nesters still in the workforce and singles working heavy schedules or with very active lives appear to be growing parts of the patio home market as well (and the share of the population with impaired mobility for whom stairs are a challenge or barrier is very hard to gauge.)

  60. I think the most important lesson to be learned from the housing and economic implosion is the foolishness of allowing the FEDERAL government to meddle in the marketplace. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac became political footballs in a very lucrative game played by career Washington politicians and political operatives from both parties, but especially on the Democrat side.

    It ids time to demand that Washington, D.C. play by the rules of the U.S. Constitution and leave housing policy to “the several states” where it properly belongs.

    1. Rodney, I can’t find your quote in the constitution. Do you have the citation where the federal government is prohibited from creating housing policy?

      1. Mr. Potter, if I was quoting the Constitution I would be happy to cite the article and clause for you. For anyone that has studied post World War 2 housing policy in the United States, federal government housing initiatives can easily be seen as a repeating pattern of failure and unintended consequences.

        For decades the answer to any criticism of federal *public housing* policy was automatically countered with, “Yes, there have been unintended consequences associated with post-war public housing, but look at how much good has been done through federally guaranteed home mortgage programs!”

        Now, finally, the manipulations of the home mortgage market that began during the Carter Administration and were put on steroids under President Clinton have caused “unintended consequences” for the vast majority of American homeowners.

        All of this is ample evidence of why the federal government should not be involved in creating blanket housing policy for the country. Better for this to be handled exclusively at the state level, where policymakers are far more directly accountable to the people of the state. Also, this arrangement would create far more opportunities for innovation, as 50 potential “policy experiments” could more quickly lead to the discarding of bad policy options and the elevation of a menu of best practices for various circumstances.

        Mr. Potter, if you need a constitutional citation for this, it remains where it has always been, in the enumerated powers of Congress and in the plain text of the 10th

        1. Thanks, Rodney. I thought I’d missed something.

          The problem is that the states aren’t doing anything substantive about housing. Many are in fact promoting policies that are counter-productive in terms of energy efficiency, ecosystem health, and habitat protection. The states gave us sprawl because it was easy and because, as we established above, people wanted it. Even if all the states started to do something about it, the efforts would need to be coordinated. That’s the executive powers in Article 2. As it is, they leave it to the private sector to determine what housing products they will offer and at what price. Without guidance that’s anarchy. Since the private sector can’t or won’t offer low-income and most special-needs housing, the national government provides the incentives. As we all know, the states control how that money is spent through discretionary programs like CDBG and local jurisdictions control the spending of a host of other programs like Choice Neighborhoods, HOME, NSP(x), SHOP, HOPWA, etc. We’re all in this together. Somebody identifies a problem and somebody tries to design a way to fix it within the current rules or new ones. The incentive system we’re using is highly inefficient and unperdictable, but it fits the balance of power while trying to create chances for people to succeed.

          1. James, the states did not give us “sprawl.” “Sprawl” has always been with us in some form; as population increases previously rural or agricultural areas have been developed into urban spaces and new neighborhoods. Under the common definition, even the development of Washington, D.C. could be considered a “sprawl” project.

            What put “sprawl” on steroids following World War 2 was a combination of market forces and federal government intervention in the marketplace. Thousands of returning veterans poured back into the private marketplace seeking homes, stores, schools, etc. for their new families. Private capital, so recently poured into supporting the war effort, became available for private development as investors sought new markets.

            In my home state the “Arsenal of Democracy” investments in new road and utility infrastructure made “sprawl” an easy option, as families could easily move north and west out of Detroit while using the war-enhanced road network to reach jobs in the city.

            Added into this environment was the federal government’s effort to encourage home ownership through the subsidizing and eventual guaranteeing of home mortgages. Also added into this is the Eisenhower interstate highway system, which is probably the biggest federal subsidy of “sprawl.”

            Federal investment in interstate highways peaked in the 1970s, but federal intrusions into the home mortgage market only escalated, culminating in the 1990s with “fair housing” regulatory changes that created the subprime mortgage market, securitized mortgage investments, and ultimately the collapse of both the U.S. financial sector and the housing market.

            James, article 2 does not grant the President authority to “coordinate” efforts among the states to plan for future growth. That is a ludicrous reading of the Constitution. The power by which the federal government does what it does with regards to housing policy is through the coercive power of the purse. The federal government has become little more than a schoolyard bully, buying off favorites and punishing those who don’t do things his preferred way.

            Little innovation can occur in that environment.

            As for your comments:

            “As it is, they leave it to the private sector to determine what housing products they will offer and at what price. Without guidance that’s anarchy.”

            No, James, that’s free market capitalism, and it works wherever it’s tried.

            “Since the private sector can’t or won’t offer low-income and most special-needs housing, the national government provides the incentives.”

            Funny, James: My own neighborhood and town is chock full of privately owned housing that is quite suitable for low income inhabitants. The rental housing stock is quite solid, because it is regulated BY LOCAL ORDINANCE – not the state or the federal gov’t. In fact, our local publicly-owned low income housing developments, heavily subsidized by HUD and operated in accordance with federal rules, has proved to be a continuing failure and source of civic problems.

  61. Rodney, your reproach to Mr.Potter is unnecessarily offensive and caustic. It is irresponsible to reduce planning practice and the housing market to an R vs D argument. Although you touch on a couple issues that contribute to trends, you are quite obviously party-biased and missing many, many other historical factors in your argument, which cannot be plausibly reduced to a discussion board comment.

    I recommend you consider more objective perspective and a tone of respect among your peers, here in Maryland at least. I for one am disappointed by the direction and tone you have colored this particular discussion.

  62. If you want to be pedantic about it in an American history kind of way, the interstate system didn’t do anything the railroads didn’t do earlier, and the sprawl west was actively promoted by a combination of Federal investments and incentives and private sector enthusiasm and profiteering.

    In any case the question is, Is this the best way forward? For the first half of the 20th century in the US, moving to the city was the dream. What if the subsequent dream of a big house on the little prairie up the highway from the mall was actually doomed from the start? Do we revert to the previous dream or imagine something completely different?

  63. I wish we could all work on something completely different. The first thiing I thought of when reading your comment, Martin, was the city concepts of the 20s and 30s where flying cars dominated the airspace. The separation/isolation of suburbia comes vertically not horizontally and the urban density is in the stacking. Totally unrealistic. But what if the city were made of skyscrapers with alternating land uses on each floor or interspersed on various floors? Evenings, nights, and weekends (family time) other people are close but not intrusive. You can socialize if you choose, or not. During the day the environment is buzzing with activity and life. I wish I knew more about Asian cities like Tokyo, Shanghai, or Kuala Lumpur . Are mixed use buildings there really mixed? Do they work? If so, would their success work here?

    Anyone out there have any experience in Asia? I could use some lessons learned.

    Thanks all for a great discussion on a slow week. Happy 2012 to all!

  64. Ed, you are reading party politics into my comments – what I wrote was neither caustic nor partisan in nature. If anything, my focus is on who should be “doing the planning” – as in whether planning for housing is more appropriately a state or a federal function. My argument should not be offensive to anyone viewing the issue from a long term planning perspective rather than the partisan one you appear to be taking.

    I appreciate Mr. Potter’s perspective and his obvious grasp of the issues, regardless of whether I agree that he and his department should be doing the work that they are doing.

    I chose to live in an older neighborhood, where the home we purchased had been divided (badly) into 4-apartments. We re-divided it into the 2-unit duplex arrangement that is more consistent with the historic (post WW1 anyway) use of the property.

    A colleague who “specialized” in exurban residential development (later he went to work for Pulte Homes as a project planner) repeatedly questioned my choice, especially since I had small children at the time and our neighborhood could be a bit dodgy at times. This was a decade ago, and at the time my reply to him was that the time would come that his preferred neighborhood of “unaffordable” housing would be the troublesome one, with vacant homes, illegal apartments, and problem rentals becoming the norm.

    I didn’t envision it coming quite so quickly, but it is true that his neighborhood and the other recent subdivisions around it are now dotted with vacant lots, vacant and foreclosed homes, and rentals-of-necessity. My “historic” neighborhood may still have crime issues and a large percentage of low income residents, but it remains within a short walk or bus ride of shops, a university, and employment centers.

    The key for planners to remember is “sustainability” does not mean a one-size-fits-all, “we know best” solution. That is one of the reasons why the federal government (the ultimate “we know best” entity) should not be deciding or coordinating housing policy. My neighborhood is not the best choice for everyone, and neither is my colleague’s nor Mr. Potter’s Asian city high rises.

    As planners we must be prepared with a menu of options, including restrofit options to improve conditions in the suburban and exurban environments as well as ways to sustain and support healthy rural and agricultural economies at the local level. For this reason it is essential to resist the trend of nationalizing planning in favor of ensuring that states and local units have the tools they need to do the job right themselves.

    That’s not a caustic nor partisan solution, it is an American one.

  65. The planned Wakefiled settlements in New Zealand in the 19th century were both a commercial and moral endeavour. The equal distribution of land for all citizens (a quarter acre plot purchased at the same price) was intended to give people the ability to produce their own food on their own land that was measured as being suffieicent to sustain a family. And they did. early national statistics books were full of statistics about how many pigs and chickens people kept in their yard, and as this way of life decilined and society changed the type of statistics collected changed as well (suffice to say national census questions stopped asking anyone how many chickens they own a long time ago). What was also notable though was that the settlements that had a stable population maintained the quarter acre plot. For the cities that grew, the quarter acre block, and the grid street network associated with it, was the perfect template for organised subdivision and intensification -and unsanitary slums, no building permit required. Yet with modern sanitation, water and sewerage systems, and yes, planning codes and interventions, these overcrowded fire risk slums became desireable, high density suburbs. From what I can tell, peoples dreams and desires change with time and technology, as does the planning professions idea of the most effective city form. In my view high density living does not automatically equate to sustainable living, everthing depends on context.

  66. One notion so many planners posess is “one size fits all.” We must educate (force) people to live in cities so they don’t need a car to get to work. Highways are expensive. What about light rail? Its well over a millon dollars a mile to construct. And nearly every system operates with a hugh deficit. Let people vote with their feet and their wallets. Many younger people and baby boomers prefer a more urban environment. People with young children like a big yard and a successful school system. Also, there has been a 30 or more year trend to the exurbs, beyond the suburbs by residents and businesses.
    Those of us who live in smaller cities and towns like our communities. We do not need nor want to be relocated to urban centers and we have jobs right here. If a few people choose to drive longer distances to work so be it. They must buy more gasoline and contribute in part through the additional taxes they pay on each gallon of fuel.

    1. Daniel…

      Having hammered out my comments… I appreciate that it wouldn’t fit within the goal posts of this blog… so bear-with I’m going to have to stream it into play.

      I was motivated to write this detecting at first a certain angst in your commentary… or perhaps your remarks were intended to paraphrase other people/planners’ views when you mentioned such thing as: we must ‘force’ people to live in cities so they don’t need a car…

      There’s no doubt that urban solutions are undergoing a massive transformation, most easily recognized in traffic engineers no longer rolling out grand strategies based upon overcoming congestion by means of infinite expressways – and instead looking for other means of resolving our mobility concerns – or accepting an overall degenerating viability.

      1) In part the solutions is to stop moving people about frantically and instead seeing that they are situated within reasonable distances to their places of work, school, shopping etc. (If we have to inject hard earned dollars into the transportation equation, then perhaps subsidizing relocating expenses might prove a more sustainable green investment). Furthermore the cost of commuting in terms of gas, and again the time spent on public transit, is borne disproportionately by those who can least afford it – who find themselves straddling great distance to make ends meet or simply find a job.

      2) Looking at how we design our urban environments, I’ve come around to accepting many of the consolidating, intensifying, propositions – having come to the recognition that our society is comprised of many different ‘tribes’ who are looking for a diversity of urban solutions. If we can broaden the offering of accommodations by recognizing different housing and community solutions… we can interlace these in a fashion that relieves the flat-playing field scenario wherein people find themselves thinly spread across a vast landscape reliant upon a high degree of mobility to touch base with their daily requirements. I live in Toronto, having grown up in the outer sub-urban belt with no inclination to re-experience that environment… meanwhile I’m amazed by the younger generation of 20-30s who consider living north of Bloor Street (that’s deep inner city) a denial of their tribal values punishable by social embarrassment amongst other things. By expanding the urban offering into new facets… it takes the pressure off the traditional supply of housing stock – and it is my belief that we may find that in fact have enough existing SFDU, single family dwelling units, in place on the ground today – if we develop these alternatives.

      3) High-rise towers provide a valuable bank of accommodations especially when their density is squeezed into tall slender buildings, and additional efforts are taken to push this density well up and away from the street level(s) below… in order to achieve a low scale public realm experience. I pluralized ‘level’ because this is an essential component of this high-rise equilibrium – ensuring that there is a rich offering of local shops, offices and services within walking distance to support such densities. Furthermore we can’t readily make more public realm whereas tower floor plates are virtually infinite, however we can expand the public and semi-public realm offering if we adopt a positive approach incorporating the levels immediately above and below grade.

      4) As regards new suburbs, I had the pleasure of living and working in Sydney Australia for some years and in particular working on its new metropolitan strategy for what was referred to as the ‘Growth Centres’ of new peripheral urban growth. It was a pleasure to see how the development industry, government authorities, urban professionals and the public alike could focus upon a sustainable strategy that configured house-form solutions around walkable crossroads that incorporated local shops and services with public transit.

      5) The traditional definitions of open space need to be revisited and the open space we have must be carefully attended to – to ensure its ‘fit-to-the-purpose’. Open space is no longer something that is to be naturally found at the end of the street where urban meets the rural context. I’m quite prepared to declare long-stay coffee shops to be part of the open space continuum as long as they provide an apartment dweller, a student, or for that matter anyone the opportunity to get out into a relaxing space that provides many of the social recreational facilities recognized in a traditional park-form. This goes for exercise clubs and so on. Returning to my second point about ‘fit-to-the-purpose’ I’m aghast by the quality of our public realm. I happen to live in a high-rise neighbourhood that original overtook a house-form neighbourhood with its ‘towers-in-the-park’ toasters (although the ‘towers-in-the-park’ were more rightly ‘towers-in-surface-parking-lots in many regards) and this area is now being re-intensified with super-high density monoliths of 10-times density and proposals are now soaring up to 30-times coverage. However… the sidewalks throughout this neighbourhood remain slavishly maintained by the city as narrow strip commensurate with the original house-form neighbourhood of yesterday a half-century ago. So we must apply a highest-and-best-public-use approach to our limited public realm and also enter into partnerships to interlace it with publicly accessible open space on private lands adjacent there to. This involves clearing parking off of grade consolidating it away, gathering up the shards of low-usage land remnants into a higher yielding public offering and furthermore consolidating the current proliferation of redundant load areas and vehicular ramps etc.

      6) Ultimately, I believe the solutions need to be ‘locally truthed’ and that they cannot be forced top-down upon local communities. It requires extensive planning to inform and orchestrate locally-sensitive solutions rather than big-picture one-size-fits-all applications. One of the biggest problems that Toronto experiences is an impoverished planning department whose resources are so limited they barely dare to open the lid on exploring strategies and instead focus upon processing applications as they arise (because that is where their fees accrue)… in the interval developments have past through the stage of flux where real directions can be readily established and instead these applications have crystallized into ‘planning-resistant’ propositions galloping at this point to cross the finish line, fearing that any question threatens their ability to acquire approval. This circumstance doesn’t lend itself to forthright discussion of what represents a good sustainable urban solution.

      1. Interesting discussion, for sure!
        I am bothered though by some of the rather smug comments about Americans in general…(“Call me Bob”) as though we are friendly only on the surface, superficial people. Myself, and I’ve traveled widely, I find good, interesting, very real people every where I go. Perhaps what we get from people…it often depends on what we bring ourselves? It also seems trite to make comments about America and Americans based on only meeting multinational managers….they don’t represent most Americans!

        I think, too, it is a big mistake to compare America and Europe. America is big, it is huge; we have hundreds of millions of acres of land that no one lives on. Take a road trip across America sometime. Europe is pretty much wall to wall people. We’ve got the room to spread out, they don’t. America was first settled by adventurous Europeans who wanted more space.

        On density: I’ve read numerous studies that show that the greater the density of people, the less friendly they are. I’ve seen this myself…in small American towns everyone you meet on the street says hello; in big cities they often look the other way, pretend they don’t see you.
        Even with rats, when living in high density situations…their stress levels go up, their sociability levels decline, and their health declines.
        Many of us like some space, we like our fruit trees and gardens. Community gardens are a great idea, and I once developed several of these in Watts, in south Los Angeles…but too often communities don’t protect these gardens…they let them get sold, built on.
        The American Dream probably isn’t sustainable; none of my grown children own their own homes yet. They can’t afford them. But a real house, with a yard, is what they’d like…not to live in some high-rise condo with a tiny balcony.
        The middle class around the world is not growing, it isn’t prospering. The top 5% own most of everything and most of the rest are in ever-increasing debt to them. Expectations are getting lower….but let’s not expect people to have to live in high rise towers, pretend it is a “real home,” and then they should, what, learn to like it? It’s asking too much.

  67. Gentlemen: This string was a great read as my introduction to this site. A hearty thank you to you all. That said, I am struck by the way we look forward and backwards and see different things. To me, the city in 1890 or the city in 1950 were unsustainable. For the ’50’s you had virtually no home development for 20 years (depression and war) and the doubling and tripling up of families was intense. I know of many suburban areas that expanded in the post war era that had nothing to do with interstates or Federal investment — they were a continuation of the spread started in the 1920’s and put on hold. I very much support vibrant urban places, but hoping for a return of the 1950’s era city isn’t the same thing. Most of the really great neighborhoods in the Northestern cities that I know best are being returned to single family occupied townhomes (or a duplex as described above) — its a reduction in neighborhood density from post-war peaks that is bringing these neighborhoods back to vitality.

    1. Creigh, you are right that rapid growth in northern industrial cities before the suburban expansion was unsustainable. The dream then was to simply get off the farm and into a job somewhere. Bringing the discussion back to the original theme, the dream of home ownership before the suburban era was abetted by the duplexes you mentioned. The working class could get home loans for income producing properties. That stock continues to get people a foothold in many cities today. Since easy money and “liar loans” are presumably a thing of the past, will banks loan for duplexes again, and will already developed communities accept more renters in their midst? As discussed above, not everyone wants to live downtown in an apartment and so many areas are underdeveloped by design.

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