Daniel Hertz is a Senior Fellow at City Observatory, and a recent graduate of the MPP program at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago. His research and writing focuses on topics like housing and segregation, especially in his hometown of Chicago.
Traditional neighborhoods in American cities take many forms, from dense row-homes and mid-rises in DC or San Francisco to suburban and small-town main streets around the country. But they have a few things in common.
Because they were built at a time when people assumed that most trips would be by foot, banks, grocery stores, schools, and other everyday destinations were built close to homes. In many cases, people built corner stores on otherwise residential blocks, so that neighbors would be able to pick up some dish soap or milk without having to leave the immediate neighborhood. Because most trips were by foot, and decent public transit service was assumed, stores didn’t have to have any parking beyond what was available on the street, and so could build up to the sidewalk, with big, attractive windows to attract passers-by. And to use space efficiently, builders often constructed a variety of home types: some single-family homes, some small apartment buildings, larger apartment buildings in big cities, and buildings with stores on the ground floor and apartments above.
But only a miniscule number of neighborhoods built since the 1950s fit that description. What happened? Did the demand for neighborhoods that look like this:
...completely dry up? Did no one want to walk their kid to school anymore? Or be able to do errands in their own neighborhood?
Surely living preferences changed significantly over the course of the 20th century. But the changes in our neighborhoods go far beyond a simple response to what homebuyers and renters wanted. In fact, governments at all levels implemented policies that effectively outlawed the kinds of traditional neighborhoods that Americans had lived in for generations.
Encouraged by the Federal Housing Administration—which promoted the planning “best practices” of the day—local officials adopted policies that required grocery stores, banks, and other everyday stores to be located far from homes, so that walking was no longer an option. They determined that neighborhoods had to be homogenous: not just all commercial or all residential, but residential communities could only have single-family homes or apartments, not the mix that had often prevailed before. Rules for federally insured mortgage loans pushed homebuyers and developers into single-family homes built far from the city center, with driving often the only viable transportation option to reach work, school, and everyday shopping needs. And federal standards that encouraged or mandated the construction of wide, unsafe, car-oriented roads and highways separated neighbors from each other, their jobs, and their local businesses even more.
The result has been that in many neighborhoods today, Americans are denied choices: choices about what kind of home they want to live in, how they want to get around, and ultimately, how they want to live. Saving time and money by living in smaller homes or apartment buildings is impossible in the many American neighborhoods that have neither; getting exercise and stretching your money by walking, biking, or taking public transit is impossible in places where there’s nothing close enough to walk to, biking is life-threateningly dangerous, and transit service is scant or nonexistent. And degraded public spaces, from wide streets with unpleasantly fast traffic to the parking lots that have replaced public squares and parks in commercial districts, have dealt a blow to the kind of everyday community life that many people would like to take part in.
This “shortage of cities” means an increasing number of people are competing for homes in one of the relatively few traditional, walkable neighborhoods, driving up prices there and increasing economic and racial segregation. That, in turn has national economic consequences: lower economic mobility and growth as people are stuck in lower-opportunity neighborhoods and choose to avoid the high cost of living of more prosperous metro areas.
Many people would like to live in a single-family home, and most people can’t imagine giving up their car for all trips. But that’s the point: at one time, we knew that neighborhoods could serve those people without completely excluding the young person who can only afford an apartment, or the dad who would like to walk their daughter to school, or the retiree who can no longer drive.
Fortunately, the number of people who are waking up to the ways that our public policies force us into neighborhoods with limited lifestyle choices and weakened public spaces is growing. Increasingly, advocates and urban leaders are recognizing that single-use zoning that make for “illegal neighborhoods,” or housing finance regulations that rule out traditional mixed-use urban infill, are not in the interests of their neighbors or constituents.
(Top image by Andrew Jameson)
About the Author
Daniel Kay Hertz is a Senior Fellow at City Observatory, and a recent graduate of the MPP program at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago. He also writes for his blog, City Notes. Previously, he worked as a middle school social studies teacher in Memphis, a travel guidebook writer in the Yucatan, a state representative campaign staffer in Peoria, a community organizer in Chicago and Boston, a freelance writer in Mexico City, and one of the guys who shout “PEANUTS!” at Wrigley Field. He's also been paid to call every Harley dealership in Florida and stock liquor shelves in the Loop. He graduated with a BA in Government from Harvard in 2010, and has also been enrolled as an undergrad at McGill University in Montreal and St. Petersburg State University in Russia.