“More than 150” agrihoods in the United States

Find the true suburban ideal of combining urban and rural life by moving to a new “agrihood”:

At the center of Olivette is a 46-acre organic farm that’s already growing salad greens, root vegetables, tomatoes, squash, berries, and Asian pears. Beehives are producing honey, and there are plans to add chickens, as well as goats to help trim the grass. All this creates a bucolic setting, but the farm isn’t just there to look pretty. Olivette’s early residents are already swinging by the packing shed to pick up baskets of fresh produce grown right here—just one perk of living in an agrihood…

There’s no question the farm is the star here. Interest from potential homebuyers has backed up Scott and Allison’s idea that people are ready for a closer connection to the land. “Typically, the highest value property is always on the water,” says Scott. “But here, so far, most people have been interested in buying home sites that are by the farm, even more so than down by the river.”…

Despite the focus on open space and sustainability, no one will be living in hippie deprivation at Olivette. Buyers choose a lot and then work with a building company to customize and build their home. The high-end houses, all of which are held to the gold standard of efficiency and are heated by geothermal wells, start at $650,000, well over twice as much as the county in general…

This interest in living in nature is creating a bumper crop of agrihoods. According to the Urban Land Institute, more than 150 have sprung up all over the country. “It’s a strong trend,” says Allison. “There are so many more now than there were three years ago when we started this project. Even some golf communities are looking at transitioning to agrihoods, but of course they’ve put so many chemicals into the ground that it’s tricky.”

Not surprisingly, this amenity of living next to or in a neighborhood with a farm comes at a price.

I wonder if part of the appeal of the farm is the reassurance that the agricultural land will be protected from further development. Many a suburbanite has moved into a neighborhood with the expectation that the field/open space/park next door will remain that way only to find that several years later new homes are going up on that space. It would be interesting to see how exactly the farmland is guaranteed to be farmland in the legal documents.

I would guess these sorts of communities would attract the same kind of critiques that have dogged suburbs for decades: this is still a wasteful use of land with the emphasis on large single-family homes, the residents are not truly committed to agriculture but want the experience or boost to their property values that a nearby farm provides, and the nature the residents encounter through the farm is not the same as truly open space and the farm exists in a commodified form.


Living inside and outside Facebook and Google’s new developments

Online and physical realms will collide even more in new developments Facebook and Google are planning:

Willow Village will be wedged between the Menlo Park neighborhood of Belle Haven and the city of East Palo Alto, both heavily Hispanic communities that are among Silicon Valley’s poorest. Facebook is planning 1,500 apartments, and has agreed with Menlo Park to offer 225 of them at below-market rates. The most likely tenants of the full-price units are Facebook employees, who already receive a five-figure bonus if they live near the office.

The community will have eight acres of parks, plazas and bike-pedestrian paths open to the public. Facebook wants to revitalize the railway running alongside the property and will finish next year a pedestrian bridge over the expressway. The bridge will provide access to the trail that rings San Francisco Bay, a boon for birders and bikers…

Facebook is testing the proposition: Do people love tech companies so much they will live inside of them? When the project was announced last summer, critics dubbed it Facebookville or, in tribute to company co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, Zucktown

Google will build 5,000 homes on its property under an agreement brokered with Mountain View in December. Call it Alphabet City as a nod to Alphabet, Google’s corporate parent. The company said it was still figuring out its future as a landlord, and declined further comment.

Throw Apple in the mix – as this article does – and these tech companies are doing something unique in Silicon Valley: looking to develop campuses that are around-the-clock and provide housing for employees. Few companies would even think of such a plan and I could imagine many workers would have serious reservations regarding living in facilities provided by their company.

But, there is one distinguishing feature of these new developments that complicate this already-unique story: the particular geographic context in which these physical developments are located. This is an area that already has a tremendous level of inequality with limited affordable housing and some of the poorest and richest living near each other. Tech companies like these three have brought tremendous wealth and notoriety to the area and have also exacerbated issues. What responsibility do these large companies have to the local area? The article mentions Steve Jobs’ claim in front of a local government that a good company is only required to pay taxes.

I suspect physical developments from these companies would be treated differently elsewhere, particularly in places that are desperate for jobs or economic energy. The case of a Google development in Toronto will offer an interesting contrast in how local residents and officials respond. Or, we see what cities are willing to offer to Amazon for a large facility.

Additionally, the idea that corporate campuses or facilities should be open to or available to the public is an interesting one to consider. There are already numerous areas that are actually private spaces that function more like public spaces (think of shopping malls or some of the urban parks that Occupy Wall Street found out were actually private land). But, it is different to ask that an office building or housing for employees also be available to the public. I wonder if there is a company that will lead the way in this and tout the benefits of having employees and the public interact as well as share their corporate benefits with others.

Naperville at buildout to try to avoid complacency

What does a large wealthy suburb do with little available land to expand? The mayor of Naperville put forward some ideas:

As he gave his third State of the City address Monday before a Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce crowd of 580, Chirico talked about the decisions he thinks will create a successful future with balanced finances, a strong economy and a well-run city.

“Great communities just don’t happen by accident,” he said during a lunch at the Embassy Suites hotel. “Careful planning and thoughtful decisions made Naperville the city it is today.”…

Chirico also emphasized the idea of consistent optimization toward goals of providing financial stability, economic development, public safety and a high-performing government.

“We must fight complacency — and the status quo — all day every day,” he said. “Naperville is a leader. We always have been, and we always will be. It’s simply who we are.”

These are not necessarily easy tasks for multiple reasons:

  1. Population growth is often associated with vitality and success. With little open space, population growth will have to come through infill and higher densities. Are these desirable in a sprawling suburb?
  2. Economic activity is necessary. This requires more new businesses and jobs. Properties can be redeveloped – several are highlighted in this article – but is there net economic growth over time? Additionally, Naperville has to compete with new up-and-coming places.
  3. Infrastructure and existing services cost could increase as the community ages.
  4. Having a sense of community can be difficult in any larger community. Are there common events, experiences, and spaces that bring people together and spur acts of civic activity?
  5. Naperville is a leader in the sense that it grew quickly and developed into a wealthy community with a high quality of life. Will it always be a model because of its earlier experiences or can it be a leader as a suburban innovator as many American suburbs encounter new challenges?

I will be interested to see how this all turns out in a few decades.

Survey suggests women prefer suburbs more than men

A 2016 survey from mortgage company Lendinghome shows gender differences in which kind of places men and women would like to live:

According to Lendinghome, 54 percent of women want to live in the suburbs, while only 42 percent of men share that goal. Among women, 46 percent prefer established neighborhoods, while only 21 percent want an urban-like environment; for men those two options are nearly equally favored: 40 percent want an urban-like environment and 39 percent want an established neighborhood. One good thing about living in Chicago is that you can find neighborhoods that fit both criteria, said Julie Kim, realty agent with Century 21 in Lincolnwood. “One neighborhood I love showing to couples with this dilemma is Sauganash, which is still part of Chicago but gives that nice suburban pleasantville type of feel,” she said.

Lendinghome summarized the findings this way in May 2017:

Some couples may also struggle with different housing preferences based on gender and location. The data shows that women prefer traditional, cozy homes (48 percent) in the suburbs (54 percent), while men are more open to modern homes (48 percent) in urban-like settings (40 percent). Additionally, survey respondents from the West opted for city living (31 percent) more than those from the Midwest (8 percent).

Here is some speculation on why these differences might exist. The suburbs are often touted as the place that is better for kids because there is more space, the schools are better, and neighborhoods are safer. Since women are still often more responsible for the care of children, perhaps they prefer the suburbs because of their children. Additionally, many Americans see cities as less safe and women may feel this even more as they do not desire having to look out for their safety on a daily basis in the city.

In contrast, men have less responsibility for childcare or don’t think about this as much as being in their future and cities then offer more excitement. If they do think of the suburban life, some may see it as a trap: going to work for long periods bookended by significant commutes, having to keep up a yard, a lack of neighborhood activity, and a life revolving around the nuclear family with little chance for getting away.

I would guess that the preference for a suburban life goes up for both men and women with children but is lower both before couples have children and after those kids leave the house or become adults.


Cars, homes, and the American way of life

Can comparative data about owning cars and homeownership in the United States help us think about how the two together help define a unique American way of life?

The data across countries suggest Americans are world leaders in owning vehicles and not so high on the list of homeownership. Few countries have more vehicles than us but over forty have higher percentages of homeownership. Yet, put these two features of life together – driving and owning a home – and they create something fairly unique in the United States.

To start, it is not just that Americans have a lot of vehicles: daily life and spaces are structured around these vehicles. For most Americans, getting to the places that are required for daily life – work, food, school, recreation – requires a vehicle. This is seen as normal and we have adapted in unique ways to this including developing fast food and big box stores (both could not exist in the same way unless people have their own vehicles, and often large ones at that, to operate). It does not have to be this way and indeed many other industrialized countries are not as dependent on vehicles for these daily activities.

As for homes, the availability of cars plus a desire to have a private single-family homes means that Americans are pretty spread out. This way of life reaches its apex in the American suburbs, which range from denser communities where driving involves shorter distances to places on the metropolitan edges where significant driving is needed for every major activity. This suburban form already existed to some degree before cars with the help of trains and streetcars. But, the availability of cars to the public in the 1920s really helped boost suburbanization as did subsequent decisions by different bodies of governments and others to promote an automobile-based society.

Critics of this way of life are plentiful even as we are nearing one hundred years of this arrangement. For more than a third of the existence of the United States, the goal of many is to own a vehicle and a home. To change this would require significant adjustments in a variety of areas. Imagine an America with smaller car companies (think of everything from the economic ripples to what commercials would replace auto ads on TV) or fewer fast food restaurants or no new sprawling suburban developments. We can see the resiliency of car and home narrative still: even as fewer than two-thirds of Americans own their dwelling (with more recent drops after the fallout of the housing bubble plus rising housing costs in certain places), it is still the goal of majority of residents (including younger Americans) and is said to be worth aspiring to. When the economy picks up, it seems Americans return to purchasing cars and homes.

Either cars or homeownership separately may not be enough to mark a unique American lifestyle. Put them together and they shape an entire society of over 300 million people.

Understanding homeownership in the United States through comparative data

Homeownership, like owning a car, is often viewed as a key feature of American life. Here is some comparative data on homeownership across countries:


Several thoughts:

  1. The United States is nowhere near the top of this list. It is #42.
  2. There are a number of less wealthy countries that have significant higher rates of homeownership than the United States.
  3. And this is even with a federal government that subsidizes homeownership and a strong cultural ideology (examples here and here) promoting homeownership in the United States.
  4. This is a reminder that fewer than two-thirds of Americans own their dwelling. Even if it may be a goal of many Americans, not everyone has the resources or opportunities to reach that goal. And the differences in access to homeownership across groups can be stark.
  5. Comparing rates of homeownership may not tell the whole story of what kinds of homes are owned or the size of these homes. Famously, the United States has the largest new homes in the world. So perhaps Americans do not just want to own a home; they want a certain kind of home – a sizable single-family home in the suburbs –  that meets their standards.

Understanding car ownership in the United States through comparative data

Americans like cars. Just how much they do is easier to see with two sets of comparative data (first image, second image).


1510B35-vehicles per person finland andorra

Several things to note:

  1. The United States is toward the top of the list with a number of notable smaller countries. Other large countries tend to be further down the list (except for Italy).
  2. It is interesting that the number of vehicles per person is so high in many countries that have smaller populations and a smaller land area. In the United States, cars often seem necessary because it is a big country and the population is spread out. (This would be interesting to measure exactly: before the widespread popularity of cars, was the dispersion of the American population significantly different from other countries? This would help get at whether the car caused greater American sprawl or Americans had already spread out and it only accelerated with the availability of cars.)
  3. Having higher levels of wealth seems to be at least slightly connected to higher rates of car ownership. However, this is not necessarily a strong relationship. In other words, different wealthy countries have different approaches to vehicles. Compared to the United States, the other G7 members are far down the list.