This Just In: No one is everyone, no place is every place

Now that the recent economic unpleasantness is behind us, we can resume the suburbanization of everywhere.

The Economist apparently thinks so, given its recent special section headlined “The World Is Becoming Ever More Suburban, and the Better for It.”

Forbes, it seems, agrees:

“Nobody moves to a smaller house,” crows Robert “Bob” Toll, the 73-year-old cofounder and executive chairman of luxury home builder, Toll Brothers.

That’s from a Forbes story with this for a headline: “Big Houses And Sprawling Suburbs Are Back” — and this for a lead:

With their younger son off finishing college and their older one out on his own, Linda and Lee Sussman found their four-bedroom house near downtown Boca Raton, Fla. too quiet. But the couple, now in their mid-50s, didn’t want to downsize to, say, a luxury condo. Instead, they sold the old house for $430,000 and moved last year into a $731,000 newly constructed home with a backyard pool overlooking the lake at Parkland Golf & Country Club in the northernmost reaches of Broward County.

So there.

Well, except for a whole bunch of studies, books and surveys that remind us that the trend to urbanization worldwide continues. For instance, this from a recent United Nations report:

Today, 54 per cent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a proportion that is expected to increase to 66 per cent by 2050. Projections show that urbanization combined with the overall growth of the world’s population could add another 2.5 billion people to urban populations by 2050.

And on the domestic front, this:

The annual Professional Builder Design Awards that gave top honors, its Platinum Award, to Concord Riverwalk in West Concord, Massachusetts. The project is a 13-unit cottage cluster on 3.7 acres with homes in the 1,340-1,760 sq. ft. range and priced at $599,000 to $699,000.

Click for source.

Concord Riverwalk has attracted many types of buyers,” says the Professional Builder blurb touting the 2014 Platinum Award winner, “from young families to empty nesters. The common thread among them, however, proves to be an overriding desire for communal living.”

What’s the deal? Where’s the “real” trend?

"Contradictory trends can occur simultaneously?"

“Contradictory trends can occur simultaneously?”

Ready to have your mind blown? Here ya go: Lots of stuff, even contradictory stuff, can be happening at the same time. The conclusions you jump to, the trend lines you draw, depend on where, what and whom you’re measuring.

For instance: What’s a city and what’s a suburb?

For just about everybody, close-in ‘burbs are part of a city. Even suburban areas beyond a city’s official city limits but still in its Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) are often included in what people mean when they say “city.”

If you’re talking housing choice, the universe of home buyers and renters is big enough to accommodate and reward preferences that run in opposite directions. It’s just that we tend to resist that idea when we’re primed to identify and celebrate trends we like, whether it’s a return to the urban center or a retreat to the hinterlands.

New urbanists were among the first to spot shifts in demography and market demand that paved the way for projects like Concord Riverwalk. Ross Chapin demonstrated a market-rate niche for infill “pocket neighborhoods” back when the conventional suburb ruled. And he was in on early design discussions for the West Concord project.

In Ocean Springs, Mississippi, after Hurricane Katrina, Bruce Tolar evolved a similar cottage infill solution, building off the Katrina Cottage ideas developed in the Mississippi Renewal Forum. And now Bruce and partners are developing models of public/private partnerships for community affordability.

Though designer/developer practitioners like Bruce and Ross never suggested that small home clusters on small lots in infill locations were going to replace McMansions and car-centered ‘burbs across America, there was enough pent-up enthusiasm for smaller scale homes and neighborhoods to create a lot of noise in the marketplace. Back in 2009, I posted an amateurish cottage design video with Steve Mouzon on Youtube. So far, it’s attracted more than 110,000 views.

Since those early projects, Ross, Bruce, Steve and plenty of others have learned plenty about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to infill neighborhoods in smaller scale. And — this is important — so have practitioners focusing on addressing preferences for living large in the ‘burbs.

Read past the defensive quotes in the Forbes piece attacking new urbanists for attacking the suburbs (plus an entertaining quote from Andrés Duany saying a McMansion he visited reminded him of a villa in Capri), and you get this:

Yet even Toll agrees with one point some of the “new urbanists” make: What suburban buyers want (and what he’s gleefully selling them at a premium price) is evolving and becoming more, well, urban-like.

Now we’re getting real.

The connective thread among highly valued places is community. Check out the video of a new suburb in India in The Economist package, and you’ll hear residents talk about the appeal of a walkable neighborhood, healthier lifestyles and spending time with friends. Which sounds pretty much like advocates for good planning and design in close-in urban neighborhoods.

What just about everybody also agrees upon is a determination to avoid being isolated in unsafe, unhealthy, opportunity-less places, regardless of where those conditions occur. So both the marketplace and government policy will tend to enable safe, healthy, opportunity-filled environments — at least for those with the means to pay or to influence policy. Both Toll Brothers and developers of Concord Riverwalk have no problem delivering premium quality of life for their customers for the right price. Which turns out to be around $700,000 — at least in certain locations.

I’m tempted to point out that those price points are somewhere between twice and triple the current median new home sales prices in this country and that those median price points themselves are already higher than most Americans can afford. The reason I don’t want to push that comparison too hard is that it violates the point I’m trying to make: Location, location, location.

No one buys a “national” home. They buy into a block or a neighborhood. And the costs — and the barriers to entry — in local markets vary enormously. Same with living in a place.

In a recent story, the AARP Bulletin ranked the “Ten Most Unsafe Cities for Walking,” including most of the usual sprawling suspects like Atlanta, Houston and Orlando. Yet anyone who has spent time in any of those places knows of both new and old neighborhoods that exemplify safe walkability. That’s because no one walks in a city or suburb. They walk on a street or sidewalk in a block or neighborhood. And if safe walking delivers you to places where you can get what you want without getting in a car, that’s a laudable component of community regardless of whether you call that city or suburban living.

What’s grating to new urbanists about the rebirth-of-the-‘burbs stories is the way their authors position them as single-minded defenders of all things citified, while, at the same time, making the case for new suburbs with examples from new urbanists’ tool kits.

As a recovering journalist who earned a couple decades of paychecks playing this game, I’m not the ideal person to make a big deal about the irony of it all. My newsroom buddies and I used to joke that the best model for a compelling story was “Chicken Little.” Still, let’s remember that written into the Charter of the New Urbanism is a commitment to reviving and enhancing community at all scales, including “the reconfiguration of sprawling suburbs into communities of real neighborhoods and diverse districts.”

New urbanists advocate the reform of regulations that inhibit market demand for density and the range of choices for lot sizes, dwellings and mixes of use. New urbanists favor broadening choices for getting around, which could make for more cost-effective and convenient living in the ‘burbs. And new urbanist planners are the ones testing out ideas for retrofitting suburbs so that they become, as Forbes suggests, “well, more urban like” in delivering the amenities of community.

All of which argues for the idea that if the ‘burbs are really reinventing themselves in the new era, it’s new urbanism that’s providing a game plan. And it’s doing that by insisting there’s no one-size-fits-all strategy. Just a set of goals for extending the benefits of community at every scale and for the most people.

–Ben Brown

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  1. Jon Ellsworth says

    In reading the Economist Article, I don’t know that the conclusion was simply that suburbia is a more desirable option, or that it is a better product. Clearly New Urbanist communities are soaking up demand in the U.S. and helping cities mitigate sprawl-induced budget issues. But in other areas of the world, the “urban” comes with lack of personal rights. At least some opportunity to branch away from government-built tenement projects is actually a “progressive” step for social welfare.

  2. I am hoping to develop a small residential community, with adjacent office/retail space, while conserving at least one third of the green space on 15 acres, north of New Orleans. I am struggling with wanting to build (or owners build) net-zero houses versus trying to make them affordable to working people–somewhere in the $160,000-180,000 price range.
    While this area was completely rural 40 years ago (when I grew up there), now there is “suburban sprawl” starting all around us. So, while I love the concepts of New Urbanism and the Pocket Neighborhood, I wonder does our development meet the New Urbanism criteria? It is an hour from both New Orleans and Baton Rouge, 3 miles to Interstate 12. If we were to sell our property, surely all the trees would be knocked down and burned. That is what happens here still, and in many other suburban or rural places.
    So, I am energized by constructing this Greenish Community, but not certain of what to call it.
    Also, in another article, I was interested in the conservative comments from Paul Lind. There is a development down the road from us that claims to be “green”, “but don’t think that we’re tree-huggers…” Quite an amusing dance we spin in this country.


  1. […] has written for Placemakers about several stories recently published in big publications about the rebirth of the suburbs. Both Forbes and the Economist have written about people moving back into big, suburban homes. […]

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