We’ve talked often on this blog about how our current pattern of development is financially unsustainable. The evidence was sufficiently apparent before the steady, and in some cases, precipitous drop in housing prices that began a few years ago. Now, as housing prices continue to fall – or at least fail to bounce back as some had hoped (wished?) – it is only becoming more apparent. Put in its most simple terms, we have simply built more infrastructure than we are able to maintain by any realistic financial calculation.
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On top of the financial costs of maintaining infrastructure, there is also the rising cost of gas for our vehicles and the rising costs associated with heating and cooling our large homes. Just as our overall development pattern is becoming more unsustainable, so are the oversized homes that we have been building for at least two decades now.
In essence, the last 50-60 years (and especially the last 20 years) have amounted to a grand American experiment in using the vast wealth we once had to buy space. We bought space in the form of a vast network of highways and freeways that allowed us to move about more easily. We bought space in the form of housing located far from our places of employment. We bought space in the form of large lots that gave us separation from our neighbors. We bought space in the form of ever-increasing square footage in our homes. We bought space in the form of multiple vehicles for our families. And we even bought space within those vehicles so that we’d be more comfortable as we spent more and more time driving.
Now, let’s be clear. I like space. I grew up on a 19-acre hobby farm 10 miles outside of a moderately-sized city. I enjoyed many days playing wiffle ball in the backyard with my siblings and friends. Building forts out in the woods. Catching bugs in the small stream running through our property (unfortunately, there were no fish, so bugs were the next best thing). Even now, I live on several acres and enjoy the sense of space that we have, while having the convenience of being just a few minutes away from my office and all the services I need. Our house is certainly not huge by modern standards, but it is more than we would need if it came right down to it.
Still, as more and more people begin to come to grips with this reality – that our experiment with buying space will be over for the vast majority of people – we will be faced with what will be a hard pill for many of us to swallow. We will no longer be able to afford to buy as much space as we once did. At some point, I may need to give up some of the space our family currently has – even if I find that hard to imagine now.
Up to this point, most of the efforts to change our development pattern have been based on convincing people to voluntarily change where they live. We’ve touted the benefits of urban living – where you can walk to more places, where you have the option of public transit to get to work and other locations, where you have access to a wide variety of social and cultural activities. We’ve tried various ways to “guilt” people into living more densely by pointing out the environmental impact that comes with suburban living and inventing terms like “carbon footprint”. In more recent years, we’ve noted the rising level of obesity as a way to encourage people to change where they live and to trade in their auto-centric neighborhood for a more walkable neighborhood. And while all of these efforts have managed to convince some individuals to change their living patterns, the vast majority of people have continued to seek out space whenever they can afford it (and often, until recently, even when they couldn’t afford it).
We are coming to a time though, where the cold, hard reality of economics is kicking in. When we will all be faced with higher property taxes, unsustainable heating and cooling bills, oppressive costs associated with filling our gas tanks with $5/gallon or higher gas. As a result, we will be forced to realize that the cost of that space that we value so dearly will simply be too high. But rather than making the change out of a sense of duty or guilt, it will be a decision based almost entirely on personal finances.
At this point, I would suspect that most people dread the idea of living in a house that is not only smaller, but also much closer to other homes. Where there will no longer be a large yard, or rooms dedicated exclusively to the TV, or a three-stall garage with room left over for storing all our “toys”. But as we are forced to give these up in larger and larger numbers, our communities and the types of products and services that the private market offers will need to adapt.
Specifically, I can see the following adaptation needing to occur – some of which are already happening:
1. Our communities will have to become much more adept at facilitating the redevelopment of existing buildings and underused land. In some places, there will be enough value to land to justify a private landowner or developer covering the costs of tearing down old buildings, assembling land from multiple owners, or creating redevelopment projects at the scale of entire blocks. In others communities, where the values are not yet sufficient, we will need to develop strategies for building such value and redeveloping properties in small, incremental steps.
2. Our standard “Euclidean” zoning code that is focused on separating commercial from residential from industrial, creating large spaces between buildings and requiring large amounts of parking space will need to be completely overhauled. In most cases, they will need to be entirely replaced with new form-based codes that focus more on how buildings orient themselves to public infrastructure and to eachother.
3. Building contractors and architects will need to become much more skilled at finding ways to create a sense of privacy and space for homeowners even when their homes are much closer together. Thoughtful design, rather than simply relying on large lots, will become more and more in demand.
4. All of us will need to re-learn what it means to live closer together, with all the benefits and challenges that it provides. No longer will we be able to “escape” from those annoying neighbors, from underperforming schools, or from bustling urban settings simply by moving to a suburb 20 miles away.
5. Small and rural towns will need to adjust back to a time where living in a small town did not mean living on a large lot and having to drive 20 miles to the nearest grocery store or to find work. For many current suburban and exurban dwellers, the preferred alternative to moving back into the large metropolitan city will be moving further out to a small city. These cities will need to be prepared to accommodate new residents and businesses - something they haven’t had to think much about for at least a generation.
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