It may be surprising to hear that so little has changed in the homebuilding industry since the recession, especially in Las Vegas, one of the epicenters of the housing bust. After all, low gas prices aside, surveys suggest that both Boomers and younger generations are interested in living in more urban places where they don’t have to spend so much time in the car getting to and from work. They also don’t mind smaller homes, especially if they’re close to public transit or retail or restaurants. And studies have shown that sprawl has negative health impacts: People who live in far-out suburbs walk less, eat more, and exercise less than those who live in urban environments.
Urban planners and “smart growth” advocates argue that builders should eschew the practice of buying empty land further and further out and building on it, and should instead build more compact, walkable communities near public transit, rehabbing existing land to fit new projects. Doing so is important for the environment, they say, and will save valuable resources and money in the long run…
“Exposing” sustainable development might seem laughable, but it points to a growing divide about how different people think Americans want to live in the future. Do they want to continue to live in spread-out, single-family homes with lawns and garages and spare bedrooms? Or do they want smaller, compact houses where they can easily hop on a train or walk to the coffee shop, without even needing a garage, or a car to park in it?…
Other areas may continue to eschew ‘smart growth,’ and just as America is divided politically, it could become a more divided country in the way its residents live. People in cities such as Washington D.C., Boston, and Seattle, will want more walkable developments, while consumers in what Leinberger calls “the laggards,” including Phoenix, Dallas, and Las Vegas, will continue to live in sprawling suburbs.
But it’s also possible that Boomers and Millennials in the laggard cities will come around. After all, even in Las Vegas and Atlanta, some builders are starting to shift their mentality. Zappos founder Tony Hsieh has poured $350 million into downtown Las Vegas, creating a shopping center built from shipping containers, mixed-use residential development, and a host of walkable amenities like a donut shop and a bookstore. And in Atlanta, a developer is in the midst of converting a former Sears building near downtown to a mixed-use community of apartments, restaurants, and retail.
Three major sets of actors are involved here and it is not clear to me that they all will want smart growth:
1. Politicians. All sorts of zoning policies, tax structures, and other things would have to change to adjust to smart growth. If politicians did want more smart growth, they could adjust policies accordingly. However, they do answer (at least nominally) to voters. While some may talk about this as a free market issue, municipal policies always help dictate housing options.
2. Builders/developers. The short answer is that building larger homes right now offers more profit. Denser projects invite headaches like opposition to redevelopment, bureaucratic red tape, and possible selling smaller units or spaces.
3. Consumers. Would they buy denser, smaller housing if this is what builders provided? Maybe but don’t discount the long-standing American commitments to the single-family home in the suburbs. Many Americans like their private spaces and may not be terribly interested in public spaces or sacrificing for the community. Tastes don’t change overnight though new policies and housing choices could steer people in particular directions.
All together, it would take time, coordinated efforts, and decisions from key actors to truly push smart growth policies. Even then, it is not inevitable that Americans would accept this as the desired outcome, even if it has certain positive outcomes.