Imagine the American suburbs shrunk by a factor of five

A comparison of suburbs in Germany and the United States hints at places built on two different scales:

The fact is, my wife’s parents didn’t drive her anywhere because they didn’t need to. Her German suburb looks like an American suburb – shrunk by a factor of about five. The houses are smaller, the lots are smaller, the gardens are smaller, and around most corners are buildings with multiple housing units. It’s denser. That means friends and volleyball practices and first jobs at pizza shops are all closer, and parents can tell their kids to walk or take a bicycle.

For the younger generations in America, that is an increasingly pleasing prospect. Car buying is dropping and a growing share of millennials and Gen Zers is putting off getting a driver’s license or eschewing it entirely. They want to take the bicycle. Add in concerns about climate change among many young Americans (and wanting to limit car emissions), and you get a scenario where density becomes desirable.

Yet most American neighborhoods have been designed with the exact opposite in mind. The expression “your home is your castle” gives some indication of the prevailing mindset since the 1920s, when modern single-family zoning first took hold. Who wants the smallest castle on the block?

So what is happening now, from the D.C. suburbs to California, is a recalibration of what American homeownership should look like. There are other important factors, too. The single-family mentality and its lower density mean fewer places to live – and therefore more upward pressure on home prices. That has meant many people of color have been locked out of the most common way for individuals and families to build wealth. Many young Americans say equity demands greater density.

The argument for denser suburbs is a common one in recent years. Packing in more buildings and housing units in the same amount of land has the potential to allow suburbanites to keep single-family homes (just with smaller yards and multi-family housing would not look as out of place). New suburban development would shift from new homes on the the edges of metropolitan regions and focus instead on filling in existing communities.

I could see this happening in at least three kinds of suburbs:

1. Mature suburbs with little greenfield land for development but there is still demand/interest in more housing. The only way is go denser or up and denser at least preserves the vertical scale.

2. Communities built around significant mass transit options. Transit-oriented development promotes density and less car use.

3. Suburbs with larger populations. More density is likely to be resisted in smaller communities because they can still claim to be a small town. In contrast, large suburbs are already past that point so more density already fits the size of the community.

Then, we might see in a decade or two an altered suburban landscape where certain communities are quite dense and nearby suburbs are in the older mode of single-family homes and bigger yards. Imagine “surban” pockets with sprawling neighborhoods next door. This will provide options for homebuyers but also means mass transportation options in the suburbs will remain uneven.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s