An Alternative to Sprawl

According to an article in The New York Times, many Americans are tiring of the lifestyle associated with sprawl and, finally, developers are responding. The age of the McMansion may be waning. Young people, especially, seem to be looking for a new version of the American Dream.

Increasingly, many of those looking for places to live found that the market had nothing for them. Houses were too big, too isolated, too generic, too hard to maintain. Or they were designed for the quintessential nuclear family that exists more in our cultural imagination than in reality. Few homes offered options for aging in place, for returning college kids or elderly parents, or even decent home office space. Would-be residents lamented the lack of amenities like a café or a playground within walking distance in master-planned communities of 5,000, 10,000 or even 40,000 homes (!), an absence often explained away with “a community of this size couldn’t support it.” For years, I heard from builders and developers who said they knew there was a market for smaller, more sustainable properties — they just couldn’t get such projects to pencil out.

But with the economic down turn, more traditional neighborhoods are once again under construction. It will be interesting to see how this trend shapes up in the next few years. Surely energy prices will play a significant role. But equally important will be the opportunity for serious consideration of different possibilities. Real alternatives make it easier for individuals to choose intelligently, for they can see the differences in concrete examples. If this author is correct, traditional neighborhoods just might be the American Dream of the future.

h/t Rick Avramenko

6 comments on this post.
  1. EricK:

    How is a traditional neighborhood defined?

    Is it one in which homes are close together, square footage is smaller and the residents can walk to most of the businesses and other facilities (post office, library, etc.) they need to go to? Is it something else?

    What tradition is this going back to? I’m not asking these questions to be critical, but to try to better understand what the author is talking about.

  2. love the girls:

    “with the economic down turn, more traditional neighborhoods are once again under construction. ”

    I don’t know about other parts of the country, but here in Colorado the new planned mixed use developments that have the characteristic of actual walking distance communities are not for those suffering from the economic downturn.

    Nor are they an effect of the downturn because most were started years before the downturn.

    And while the new developments, including the new ones to come along the lightrail corridors do offer hope because they are a dramatic shift, and zoning, while slow and behind the times is better than it was, nevertheless, all the old car scaled housing developments which comprise virtually all housing are not going away.

  3. Eric Brooks:

    That is very interesting, although I might say that an unspoken, or not fully spoken, cause may be that many of us twenty-somethings are not having families large enough to even more or less fill a big house. Even so, it would I think be a good thing to see more “mixed zoning” neighborhoods in which many basic amenities are within walking distance and one is not isolated from neighbors.

    I’ve noticed that many distributists or similar groups of traditional conservatives tend to idolize the small town and the country, but I recently moved to North East Chicago and have found myself impressed by how much more in line with distributist ideas on social organization a big city is than a suburb. A Chicago neighborhood is in many cases a very tight-knit community compared to a suburb, this in part because it is more time consuming to drive far in city traffic than in the suburbs or the country and comparatively easy to walk. Further, I would say a surprising number of the shops– clothing, grocery, electronics, etc.– are hole-in-the wall locally owned businesses, in fact outnumbering big box stores. If I want to go to a Sam’s club there’s one in a nearby suburb. There’s one Target not too far away in the city, and a couple McDonalds. But none of these stores compare in number to the small restaurants, the local grocery stores every mile or so. Further, housing seems to be in some sense more decentralized. Certainly more people own their homes in the suburbs, but suburban apartments are always controlled by large management companies whereas a large amount of the buildings here are owned by someone in the neighborhood, or are just the top flat of someone’s house. Renting from mr. so-and-so is a different sort of thing than renting from Big Management. Buildings here are also beautiful, as the neighborhood once had its eye turned toward old world architecture. We may not have the rolling countryside, but we have a Great Lake and city parks which go far beyond the suburban playground next to a soccer field. It’s certainly no paradise here, but it’s not the hell described by Chesterton who were attacking the cities in an earlier period of industrialization. Also, the alderman system is in many ways a more direct form of local government than is the town council of the suburbs. If it’s not a paradise, I will say traditional conservatives who are critical of mcmansions and suburban sprawl should reconsider the merits of city life.

  4. Marie:

    Eric, I love visiting my friends in Chicago, Madison and Milwaukee, but the cost of living is way too high. Most of my married peers have moved back from Chicago (to our mid-sized, admittedly depressed city) and are buying up 1920s bungalows and 1930s cape cods.

    My husband and I prefer a grid neighborhood with old homes with porches and mature trees. Which is good, because we could never afford our brick 1975sq.ft. 5 bedroom if was 5 years old instead of 95. I always associated McMansion purchases with those 10-30 years older than me. The crisis arrived, and folks my age looking to buy their first home had to be a little more modest.

  5. David:

    South suburban Chicagoan here (hey Eric!). I have lots to say about sprawl, being surrounded by it. I did one piece at my “culture” blog that might contain some insights. I have been intending to do more on the topic.

    Little do most people know that the main culprits are (to quote myself): ” … stupid and/or evil policies — chiefly tax policies — and subsidy of car culture at all levels of govt, further incentivizing anti-human development patterns. See Kunstler essay on how taxation helps create the geography of nowhere.”

  6. David:

    “Would-be residents lamented the lack of amenities like a café or a playground within walking distance in master-planned communities of 5,000, 10,000 or even 40,000 homes (!), an absence often explained away with “a community of this size couldn’t support it.”

    Absolutely crazy. These places are deserts. Usually freshly carved out of a cornfield. No trees for shade. (Consequently, few birds or squirrels.) No groceries within walking distance. Often, not even a strip mall — and strip malls suck, but at least you can find some food and see people at a strip mall. And don’t even get me started on how hard it is to find a pub or some other place of human fellowship in these “master-planned communities.” These places are poor for families but absolutely hostile to singles and the elderly.

    The only even somewhat liveable type of megahome developments are those where homes are close together and you can actually say hi to your neighbor without yelling. Cul-de-sacs and courts do allow spaces for children to play and sometimes, for parents to hang out and chat. But those are poor substitutes for actual green space.

    I feel sorry for the human lab rats that somehow are supposed to live in such places.
    You really have to wonder sometimes: What is the “master plan” anyway? Developers may just be following prevailing currents. But who sets those currents? What are they trying to do to us? Have we been subject to a massive social-engineering/control experiment since the ’50s? Or, have thousands of developers for the last 60 years really been that devoid of imagination? Or both of the above?

    Eric (my comment is so late, you may never see this but here goes): I’ve lived in Lake View and, briefly, Rogers Pk. My bro lives in Roscoe Village and while I live amongst my suburban relations and lick my financial wounds due to unemployment, I am contemplating my next move. I’m split: my bro is having so much fun in the city …. well, strike that, because he’s also always got some tale of woe about his vehicle being ticketed and towed by the money-hungry vultures. So, I’m beginning to think that the cost of the Chi life nowadays is outweighing the benefits. So I may go totally in the opposite direction, to an edge city such as Kankakee, Joliet, or Elgin — all of which I find to be nice places, where nature is much more accessible. Supposedly, those are where the next wave of growth will happen, if you believe Richard Florida. Maybe even a smaller town like Peotone. (Looks like Jesse Jr’s hobbyhorse, the Peotone airport, has been put on ice for a good while; so a lot of beautiful farmland and forest will remain undisturbed … at least until sprawl catches up.)
    Being allergic to dairy, and finding it impossible to get sanely priced goat cheese out in the burbs, I had recently been doing a bit of reading about the goat business. I have the same problem with chicken eggs.
    “Coincidentally,” I recently met a couple who own a small farm out in the direction of Peotone, and among other things, they raise goats. Also, ducks, who make perfectly delicious eggs that some of us chicken-egg-intolerant folks can eat. I’m interested to see what I could learn from them…

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