Many goods come via truck, few want to encounter those trucks on a suburban road

Trucking is essential to the American economy. However, it is not desirable to encounter many trucks on local roads. Here is how one Chicago area county wants to address the issue:

Photo by Craig Adderley on Pexels.com

“The key is really getting trucks onto the interstate as safely and efficiently as possible,” said Patricia Mangano, senior transportation planner with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

As the county grows and the region continues to be an important national transportation hub, the study recommends strategies to minimize the negative impact of freight traffic to residents and the environment…

The report says that high volumes of truck traffic have led to safety and congestion concerns, especially in sensitive areas such as historic districts, neighborhoods or environmentally protected areas. The study notes western Will County’s natural and cultural assets, such as Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery and the Kankakee River, could be negatively affected by new development and traffic…

“We are the proverbial crossroads of America,” he said, noting residents just want to ensure they can get from work to home to their children’s activities without being caught in traffic.

In recent decades, Will County has become home to an increasing number of warehouses and intermodal facilities. This could be viewed as a positive for economic activity and growth which then leads to more tax revenues, jobs, and prestige.

Yet, certain industries do not necessarily mesh well with the suburban single-family home ideal. Trucks are related to a number of concerns residents have about all sorts of land uses: noise, traffic, lights, threats to the residential ideal they hope for.

I see the point of routing truck traffic along particular roads. This also has the effect of altering those roads. I can think of several major thoroughfares near here that are full of truck traffic during the day. Driving on these roads can be quite different than driving on other main roads. And because the way many suburban communities are laid out, there are often not good alternative routes since traffic in general is funneled from smaller residential streets to larger volume roads.

An impractical suggestion that might please suburban residents: have truck only roads that lead from industrial and commercial properties straight to highways. In many locations, this might work as warehouses and distribution centers are clustered together as are big box stores and shopping malls. On suburban roads without big trucks, suburbanites might occasionally find the opportunity to drive like people do in car commercials: on the open road.

Looking to global examples to address housing crunches in expensive cities

Housing is a very difficult issue to address at the national level. Can the United States look to examples abroad?

Photo by Mike on Pexels.com

Some suggest that Japan is the model to follow. There, rental prices have largely remained flat over the last 25 years, according to data from the country’s statistics bureau. The reason is that the government controls zoning nationally and is more open to development in the number of houses it allows to be built. Just over a third of Japanese citizens rent the homes they live in, protected by a 1991 law called the Act on Land and Building Leases, which makes it difficult for landlords to end leases or prevent a tenant from extending their rental contract…

So where else should we be looking, if not to Japan, for the model to fix the broken housing market in large parts of the west? One option is Singapore, where public housing is built in specially designed communities and sold to individuals with a 99-year lease below market value. Selling on that property is highly restricted to reduce profiteering, but it can happen after five years of ownership. Nearly four in five Singaporeans live in public-sector housing, according to official statistics. “Prices can never get beyond regular working families,” says Ronald. “They have this virtuous circle, and it makes it interesting to think about the role of regulating housing.”…

Until late January 2022, housing developments in Germany were subsidized by the government below market rates for the first five years after being built. “It means tens of thousands of units every year come onto the market, keeping rental prices lower and preventing scrambles to buy a property,” he says.

A similar model exists in Austria and Switzerland, where the split is roughly 55 to 45 percent (in favor of renting in Switzerland, and owning in Austria), compared to an average European home ownership rate of 70 percent. When you get to the Austrian capital, Vienna, the home ownership rate is just 7 percent.

All of these sound like they would require some fundamental changes to housing policy in the United States. This might include:

  1. A stronger national policy. This could be through programs available everywhere or guidelines that all states and municipalities have to follow.
  2. A stronger emphasis on renting.
  3. More government involvement in the construction of housing and/or longer-term government oversight of housing units.

None of these options would be particularly popular in the United States or easy to implement. Here are quick explanations why for each option above:

  1. A national policy would come at the expense of the power of more local governmental actors. With real estate being so much about location, could a national policy truly address all of the different situations? Americans expect to be able to control or at least provide input into the use of land around them.
  2. Homeownership is ingrained in American life as part of the attainment of the American Dream. This is ensconsed in zoning policy, supported by politicians and policies for decades, and Americans can be suspicious of renters compared to homeowners. Renting is more common in some areas compared to others but it is not seen as the ideal among Americans.
  3. Public housing has never been fully supported in the United States. The government’s active role in housing is often viewed as negative unless it is supporting homeownership.

This does not mean that the housing landscape in the United States cannot change. The need for more housing and more affordable housing is acute. But, changes will likely take decades and sustained efforts.

Still a limited tiny house movement

What happened to tiny houses in recent years? Here is some discussion of the issues tiny houses face:

Photo by Adriaan Greyling on Pexels.com

“We’re still here,” says Kent Griswold, 63, who lives in Bend, Ore., and is the founder of the Tiny House Blog, which is believed to be one of the first blogs about tiny houses. “The movement hasn’t stopped growing, it’s just not in the public eye as much anymore.”…

Laubach says due to the pandemic, which has made people re-evaluate what is important, retirees, mature widows and single women are driving much of the demand today…

Griswold agrees, but says instead of just the novelty of people looking for tiny homes on wheels, which really drove the movement during the 2007-09 recession, people are looking at other ways to live small…

“Tiny homes on wheels or park models are thought of as RVs, but many jurisdictions are starting to think of them as Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). Still, the code problems can get frustrating for people,” says Laubach.

Arguably, the tiny house movement was not big to start with and the homes often appealed to particular people with resources.

COVID-19 and the housing affordability issues in many metropolitan regions would seem to be the conditions under which tiny houses would thrive. People want to get away from typical locations and they need cheaper spaces.

At the same time, more uncertain economic conditions might mean that people are less likely than ever to be lenient about zoning and codes. This limits where tiny houses are possible. This is, of course, a much broader issue: many communities want to protect single-family homes at all costs.

Does this mean something has to give in the future? Can people have really high property values, complain about the lack of affordable housing or housing options, and continue to restrict other housing options like tiny houses?

The tiny house movement might be small and it might work steadily but its ongoing presence is at least a reminder that other housing options are possible.

Purchase your home to live in it…and consider its long-term investment potential

In a story about how to buy a home amid a hot housing market, one expert offers this advice:

Photo by Kindel Media on Pexels.com

Herbert recommended a different way of thinking about the timing of buying a house, one that I found much more comforting. “You ought to be making this as a housing decision and not an investment decision,” he said. If you’re buying a house, he advised, it should be because you want to live in it for at least five years, and ideally many more – which also will mean that even if prices fluctuate, you have a better chance of your investment appreciating over time. “The longer you stay in the house, the [less] your timing in this particular house-price cycle [will] matter,” he said.

This quote interested me for two reasons. First, Herbert says this is about buying a house and staying long term. Sure, the housing market might be crazy right now but a buyer should be thinking about living in the space for a while. But, then the advice pivots a bit to noting how this long-term view can pay off financially. The particular financial circumstances at purchase will fade away if the price of the home increases.

That financial considerations matter as people consider home purchases is certainly true. At the same time, the shift from seeing a home as a place for long-term living to primarily a financial investment is on display here. There are features about homeownership that Americans tend to like – you own the property, there is often some outdoor space, it is more private, it is a marker of success, and so on – that transcend financial conditions. Houses are more than just the dollar signs attached to them…right?

Perhaps it would take an extended period of a cooler housing market and other positive economic stability for houses to not just be financial investments. Or, the costs of homeownership in many places are already at a point where homes can only be viewed as financial objects.

The arguments for and against banning zoning for only single-family homes

The single-family home is very important in the United States and this is enshrined in land use policy and zoning. Because of this, there is a move in multiple communities to ban single-family home zoning and this has prompted debate over the change:

Photo by David McBee on Pexels.com

Originally introduced in Berkeley, Calif., in 1916 as a means of preventing a black-owned dance hall from opening, single-family zoning became increasingly popular — though divorced from its explicitly racist origins — as more Amercans moved to sprawling suburban cities across the country. Today, many of the country’s major urban areas reserve 75 percent or more of their residential land exclusively for stand-alone, one-family homes.

Recently, lawmakers in blue states and cities have moved to roll back zoning rules in hopes of spurring more development. Minneapolis became the first major city to ban single-family zoning in 2019. That same year, Oregon passed a similar law statewide. Perhaps the most significant change came in California where the median home price is estimated to exceed $800,000. A new law that eliminates single-family zoning across the entire state went into effect on Jan. 1. None of these reforms make it illegal or even more difficult to build a stand-alone house, they simply remove barriers that prevent any other type of dwelling from being built.

Advocates for eliminating single-family zoning say it’s the most important step toward addressing the housing shortage, since any other programs to spur more development would be moot if there’s no land to legally build on. Supporters say eliminating what they often refer to exclusionary zoning would have wide-ranging benefits beyond just creating more housing stock, including reducing racial segregation and closing the racial wealth gap, boosting job opportunities in urban areas and reducing climate impacts created by suburban sprawl.

Many conservative opponents of these reforms, including former President Donald Trump, have portrayed them as a “war on the suburbs” that would bring big-city problems to quiet communities while doing little to address the underlying causes of the housing shortage. Some argue that financial incentives, not coercive new laws, are the best way to spur development.

A lot of pro-housing advocates also have doubts about how much of an impact zoning reforms on their own will make. They argue that most of the new laws are riddled with exceptions that limit their scope and few also address the long list of other ways that local governments can prevent dense housing from being built — like minimum lot sizes and parking requirements. Some on the left make the case that the only way to increase housing supply at the pace that’s necessary is through strict mandates that require cities to build a certain number of housing units and impose heavy financial penalties on those that don’t.

This would be a hard change to make and capitalize on in many communities. Housing policy in the United States is difficult to change and is rooted in a long history, cultural narratives about success, exclusionary practices, and local governments and other government actors. Yet, even discussion of such a change at least highlights the need in many places to think more about housing and how it could be more accessible to many.

As about any policy possibilities in the United States, I now wonder if what would work best in this situation is for several different kinds of communities across the country to ban single-family zoning and see what happens. What changes in the community? How do residents and newcomers experience it? How does it affect housing values? Does it significantly alter the character of the community? And if there are success stories – which could range from limited noticeable change (that it does not lead to negative outcomes or the end of the suburbs might be good enough) to positive outcomes – then other communities could observe and consider the option.

Suburban voters and the French presidential election

Residents of the American suburbs may hold the keys to major political outcomes. Is the same true in France?

Photo by Matt Hardy on Pexels.com

ON THE FRINGES of greater Paris, where urban concrete meets farmed fields, lies the suburb of Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt. Gently curved streets of two-storey houses, each with a parking space and garage, cover what were once apple and pear orchards. The narrow high street has just one café, and a “Cheesy Pizza” takeaway joint; but there is a drive-in Burger King on the outskirts. This is what the mayor, Nicolas Leleux, calls “the border of two universes”: city and countryside. It captures the worries and hopes of middle France, and exemplifies a crucial electoral battleground for April’s presidential poll.

Shy of extremes, the suburb tilts to the centre-right. In 2017 Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt preferred the centre-right presidential candidate, François Fillon, in the first round, but backed the centrist Emmanuel Macron against the nationalist Marine Le Pen in the second. In 2020 it replaced a centre-right mayor with Mr Leleux, a former navy submariner who belongs to Mr Macron’s party. Locals, in other words, may be torn at the presidential poll this time between a vote for Mr Macron, assuming he runs for re-election, and his centre-right rival, Valérie Pécresse. A well-known figure locally, she is the president of the Ile-de-France region, which encompasses the city of Paris itself and Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt, 17 kilometres (11 miles) away…

What comes into sharpest relief in Saint-Brice is the collision between the needs of daily life, notably the car, and the desire for a greener future. A place of quiet middle-of-the-road aspiration, it evokes what Mr Leleux calls the “French dream”. “People have left the city to come here, not to live in a tower block, but in a house with a little garden, with neighbours, and a place to barbecue.” Nearly 88% of households own at least one car. His task, he explains, is to reconcile that dream with the need to reduce car usage. Few can afford an electric vehicle. Mr Leleux is planning cycle lanes and building a bike shelter at the railway station, on a direct line to Paris. Yet on a cold day in January there are no cycles to be seen on the streets…

Fashionable Parisian talk of the ideal “15-minute city” is all very well, says Mr Leleux. The reality is that to buy a baguette in under 15 minutes without a car is not possible in much of suburbia. If anybody has learned this, it ought to be Mr Macron, who won a huge majority of the vote in big cities in 2017, but later faced months of gilets jaunes protests. For now, insists the mayor, locals credit the president nonetheless with having been a “good captain” in difficult times. In April, it is on the streets of middle France, not the parquet-floored salons of Paris or its tenements, that such a claim will be tested.

The focus in this analysis is on cars as a divisive political issue. Can suburbanites afford electric cars? If they cannot, what does this mean for suburban life? I could imagine a similar question in the United States with numerous manufacturers moving to electric vehicles

But, I wonder if the electric car is just a symptom of deeper differences based on how the car factors into the fabric of suburban life. In the United States, I have argued that homes, cars, and a way of life are all connected in suburbia. It is not just that a new kind of car is expensive; any disruption to driving changes suburban life. Cars help enable larger yards, private space, and separated land uses. People want amenities to be within a 15 minute drive and this significantly widens their travel radius compared to walking.

Perhaps the other possible suburban disruption on this scale would be to threaten single-family homes and yards. I put the single-family home as the #1 feature of suburbs that Americans love. (Cars and driving is at #5.) Yet, it is hard to imagine suburbs today without homes and cars together.

In the meantime, I will keep an eye out for more analysis from France to see if the suburbs matter in elections in the same way as they have mattered in recent American election cycles.

Making clear where HGTV shows are filmed

Some HGTV shows are very clear about where they are located. As two examples, Chip and Joanna Gaines are based in Waco and have built a local empire through Fixer Upper while House Hunters shows multiple shots of the local community and region.

Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

But, other shows say less about their filming location. One such show is Love It or List It. While this is old news to regular viewers, this article discusses the switch in filming locations:

Like Renovation Island, Love It or List It actually began as a Canadian series, and filming took place in Ontario. Despite where it was shot, the home renovation series became a popular franchise on HGTV in the United States. As such, in 2014, after filming in Ontario for six years, hosts Hilary Farr and David Visentin, along with the crew, picked up and headed to North Carolina to start fresh in a new city…

And, if in doing so you find that you love the area as much as the homes being showcased, know that you can experience it for yourself by booking a trip to the Tar Heel state — specifically the Triangle and greater Raleigh-Durham area.

One could argue this does not matter: the real show involves Hilary, David, and the interior of individual properties. The show tends to provide a few aerial views of the properties in question and there might be some discussion of the location of the home in relation to workplaces or destinations. Does it matter if the homes are in Ontario or in North Carolina? Most of the action and filming takes place inside.

On the other hand, the community context matters a lot. Even if the show focuses on individual properties, the place matters for at least a few reasons:

  1. House architecture and style depends on what happens in particular places. The design of homes in North Carolina is quite different from Ontario. Different builders and developers operate in each place.
  2. Different logics apply in different places regarding where people want to locate. Do people in older Toronto and suburban neighborhoods see locations in the same way as Americans in sprawling contexts? Maybe, maybe not.
  3. What looks like normal life differs by place. In years of showing the same kinds of places on a TV show, do viewers accept it as how life works? Any TV show can project stability with consistent characters and story lines. But, see enough single-family homes in tree-lined neighborhoods only accessible by cars – and this is the primary dwelling on HGTV – and it can appear to be the default.

While not all HGTV shows ignore the community or region, I would be interested in more of their shows seriously incorporating place into their narratives about homes.

Adjusting housing for single-person households?

With the increase of single-person households in the United States, it raises questions about housing:

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

The difficulties of living alone tend to lie more on a societal level, outside the realm of personal decision making. For one thing, having a partner makes big and small expenditures much more affordable, whether it’s a down payment on a house, rent, day care, utility bills, or other overhead costs of daily life. One recent study estimated that, for a couple, living separately is about 28 percent more expensive than living together.

These efficiencies are an inherent feature of sharing costs with other people, but the barriers to living alone, for those who want to, would be much lower if housing (and health care, and education) weren’t so expensive. Moreover, the types of housing that are most commonly available for one person typically privilege privacy over togetherness, but the two don’t need to be mutually exclusive. DePaulo has studied communities where single residents have their own spaces, but also plentiful shared areas with “the possibility of running into other people.” If you need to, say, move heavy furniture or get a ride somewhere in an emergency, your neighbors are easy to reach. More such options would make solo life easier.

With the rise in housing prices, the barrier to entering the housing market keeps increasing. A single-person household has fewer potential resources to draw upon.

Additionally, a good portion of housing is geared toward families or larger households. While some locations have plenty of smaller units – think studios to two bedroom units – other locations have larger residences. For example, suburbs are often full of single-family homes with 3+ bedrooms and more square feet.

Finally, housing in the United States is often tied to ideas of familial bliss. Those same private suburban homes are meant to enhance family life. Residences provide private spaces for nuclear families. They may have outdoor space for kids to play in and adults to use. Homes are a symbol of success and can provide a good long-term return on investment. Can a single person still enjoy and benefit from a house? Yes, but this may not be the typical image of life in a single-family home.

New publication – More than 300 Teardowns Later: Patterns in Architecture and Location among Teardowns in Naperville, Illinois, 2008-2017

I recently published an article in the Journal of Urban Design (online first) analyzing several hundred teardowns in Naperville, Illinois. Here is the abstract (and several of the pictures I took for the study depicting recent teardowns):

Analyzing before and after images of 349 teardowns between 2008 and 2017 in the wealthy and sprawling suburb of Naperville, Illinois, shows patterns in aesthetic choices and their fit in older neighbourhoods. First, the teardowns are significantly larger and have different features including larger garages and more windows. Second, over 60% of the teardowns feature Victorian styling. Third, the teardowns are often next to other teardowns in desirable neighbourhoods near the suburb’s vibrant downtown. These visual findings show how teardowns that add to the housing stock often imitate common architectural styles yet exhibit disparate features compared to older neighbouring homes.

This project had several starting points.

First, I started studying the phenomenon of McMansions back in graduate school and eventually published a study looking at how the term was used in the New York Times and the Dallas Morning News. The idea of a McMansion has multiple dimensions – size, relative size, poor architecture and design, and a symbol for other issues including sprawl and conspicuous consumption – and the word can be used differently across locations.

Second, I started studying Naperville in graduate school as part of a larger project examining suburban growth and development. I published some of this research in two places: (1) examining consequential character moments in different suburbs, including Naperville, and (2) analyzing the surprising population growth in Naperville that helped take it from a small suburb to a thriving boomburb. Naperville is a unique suburban community with lots of teardown activity in recent decades.

Third, I am broadly interested in housing. This is particularly important for suburbs where owning and protecting single-family homes – and all that comes with it – are primary goals. Additionally, residential segregation based on housing is a powerful force in American society.

All three of these streams helped lead to this project. And there is a lot more that could be done in this area as teardowns affect numerous neighborhoods and communities in the United States.

The importance and consequences of separating single-family homes from other land uses in the United States

A foundational idea in American life is that single-family homes should be located near other single-family homes and away from other land uses, including denser residential units. While this might sometimes be sidelined to the more areas of planning and zoning, I would argue this is much bigger than just allocating physical space: it interacts with significant social, political, and cultural forces and has sizable effects on daily life. I will first describe how we got here before highlighting two examples I saw this week and then noting several important outcomes.

Photo by David McBee on Pexels.com

From at least the mid-1800s, Americans developed ideas about having separate single-family homes among nature. Scholar John Archer examines the idea of “the cottage in the woods” from its roots in English villa houses and into a rapidly urbanizing American landscape. As cities and then suburbs developed, the single-family home became a hallmark of suburban communities where residents had escaped hectic and dangerous urban life. As zoning developed in the early 1900s, it evolved to protect single-family homes from other nearby land uses that might threaten it. Many American leaders and organizations promoted homeownership. Suburban communities and residential neighborhoods became refuges for whiter and wealthier residents who then worked to keep others out. This all helped contribute to residential pockets separate from other land uses and protected by local zoning and land use policies.

This historical legacy and ongoing reality plays out consistently in certain areas. Two examples I ran across in just the last few days:

  1. Affordable housing in the suburbs. Can denser housing that is cheaper be anywhere near single-family homes? This particular project in the Chicago suburbs drew typical complains from nearby homeowners; noise, traffic, change in character for the neighborhood. The developer came back with changes to try to fit in better with the nearby homes but there are still concerns. This makes sense given the American logic of homes and space but this logic is not organic or inherent to the housing itself; it is created.
  2. Why do apartments have to be located on busier streets in American communities? This may have negative effects on the apartment residents and serves to maintain the distance between denser housing and single-family homes. Again, this makes sense given the established American logic but it is possible – and indeed done elsewhere – that you can have quieter residential streets lined with apartments.

Why does this all matter? This separation of housing serves to continue race/ethnicity and class divides, contributing to residential segregation. This changes social patterns as people in different neighborhoods may be less likely to interact, utilize the same civic (such as schools) and private services, and engage politically. Ultimately, it can both shape and be shaped cleavages in society. Location helps determine life chances and Americans start with the premise that homes should be separate.