The answer Canada may not want: lean in completely to American-style sprawl to get more housing

There is not enough developed land around Canadian cities for what Canadian buyers want:

The world’s second biggest country by landmass is effectively running out of space, and that has Canada on course for a reckoning. The dream of a detached home and a piece of land, which generations of Canadians have taken for granted, and which continues to entice new immigrants, may soon be out of reach in the places where people want to live. That could force an expansion of the idea of home to include condos and rentals, potentially transforming how the middle class does everything from raising families to saving for retirement…

In Canada, buying a home has long been seen as the surest path to middle class security. Canadians on average live in some of the biggest houses in the world, and post higher rates of homeownership than in the U.K., or France, or even the U.S. The pandemic has put an even bigger premium on backyards and extra space…

Still, developers don’t seem to be responding. Though construction started on a record number of new homes in Canada’s metro areas in March, the percentage that were single family-detached actually fell to 19% from 24% the previous year, according to government data. While this ratio improved in April, new home starts slowed that month overall…

It comes down to land. While Canada boasts a total area of about 10 million square kilometers (3.9 million square miles), roughly 40 times the area of the U.K., most Canadians are clustered in a handful of major cities not far from the U.S. border. That’s where the jobs are. And while the work-from-home era has expanded that radius for some, turning quiet farming communities and weekend-getaway spots into the hottest real estate markets in the country, the possibility of returning to the office even a few days a week has kept most workers from striking out too far afield.

The proposed solution in the article is more condos, apartments, and townhouses. These would have provide denser populations and expand the housing options. But, this is not what all Canadians want: like in the United States, the idea of a single-family home is both popular as an ideal and investment.

Here is a different answer from Canada’s southern neighbor: sprawl. More and more sprawl. The article says Canada is out of land; this is not quite true. Keep building suburban areas out from cities. Take advantage of the work from home days of COVID-19. Build on the interest of some Canadians to have their own home and land. Give in more to car culture. Go thirty, forty, fifty miles out like the biggest American cities. There will still be plenty of land in the middle of the country for farms and up north for open space.

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This may not be a welcomed answer. This all leads to more driving, more dependence on roads. It means less energy efficiency, perhaps particularly during cold winters. It might introduce the same problems that plague sprawling American metropolitan areas.

But, if Canadians do not adjust to living in smaller units in closer proximity, sprawl is one option. The emphasis on homeownership and vehicles is already there. It could be a different kind of sprawl, maybe denser than the American version or more community oriented. Perhaps some lessons could be learned from the mistakes made in the United States. At the least, it could relieve some housing pressure, provide jobs for builders and developers, and set up new subdivisions and future communities for decades to come.

Pushing to ban grass in Las Vegas

Americans like grass lawns. Las Vegas is not an environment where it is easy to grow grass. What has to give? The city of Las Vegas wants to ban ornamental grass:

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Las Vegas-area water officials have spent two decades trying to get people to replace thirsty greenery with desert plants, and now they’re asking the Nevada Legislature to outlaw roughly 40% of the turf that’s left…

They say this ornamental grass requires four times as much water as drought-tolerant landscaping like cactus and other succulents. By ripping it out, they estimate the region can reduce annual water consumption by roughly 15% and save about 14 gallons (53 liters) per person per day…

The proposal is part of a turf war waged since at least 2003, when the water authority banned developers from planting green front yards in new subdivisions. It also offers owners of older properties the region’s most generous rebate policies to tear out sod — up to $3 per square foot…

Last year was among the driest in the region’s history, when Las Vegas went a record 240 days without measurable rainfall. And the future flow of the Colorado River, which accounts for 90% of southern Nevada’s water, is in question.

There are multiple interesting components to this. Here are at least a few:

  1. I remember flying into Las Vegas a few years ago. The difference between the desert and the city and suburbs was remarkable. I do not remember too much grass outside of the very green golf courses that stood out. Even without much grass, the city in the desert is a different sight.
  2. As the article notes elsewhere, this sounds like efforts in California during their big drought. At the same time, the article also mentions how other locations like Phoenix and Salt Lake City are not interested in curbing the grass.
  3. More Americans than just people in Las Vegas might be rethinking the lawn. In addition to the need for watering, there is fertilizing, mowing, keeping out weeds and leaves, designing features, and more. Who has time and money for all of that?
  4. Las Vegas is a sprawling metro area and the single-family homes of American suburbs are often surrounded by green lawns. It is part of the package tied to kids playing and a green nature buffer around the private dwelling. Are the suburbs the same without these patches of grass?

Perhaps this becomes a model for communities, in the desert or not, across the United States.

Looking to “produce, preserve, and retrofit” American homes for the future

What will happen to American homes in the coming homes, particularly all the suburban tract homes and McMansions? One path forward is to provide resources to fix up and improve existing homes. According to plans from the White House:

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Build, preserve, and retrofit more than two million homes and commercial buildings, modernize our nation’s schools and child care facilities, and upgrade veterans’ hospitals and federal buildings. President Biden’s plan will create good jobs building, rehabilitating, and retrofitting affordable, accessible, energy efficient, and resilient housing, commercial buildings, schools, and child care facilities all over the country, while also vastly improving our nation’s federal facilities, especially those that serve veterans.

As housing ages, issues pop up. They need maintenance. Standards change regarding efficiency, local codes, and what residents desire. The community around houses and housing can change in terms of demographics and development, affecting the reputation of the neighborhood.

This plan emphasizes retrofitting homes, among other options. Energy efficiency is one reason as features like new windows, better furnaces and air conditioners, insulation, and more can cut down on energy use and utility bills. Retrofitting can also help maintain the appeal of homes; instead of falling into disrepair or failing to keep up with the times, retrofitting can spruce up houses that have been around for a while.

Some of this has been available through various means for a while. The concept does stand in contrast to another approach Americans have taken: just build new homes in sprawling suburbs or as teardowns and leave the older homes and their issues to others. Retrofitting single-family homes could be quite a project in the long-term with the emphasis on the United States on single-family homes in the suburbs. Does every suburban home require or deserve retrofitting at some point?

The later costs of sprawl

One writer suggests the sprawl of the Sun Belt leads to significant costs down the road:

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Over time, growth has reduced those advantages. Jobs and people moving to states like Texas and Georgia slowly bid up the price of land and labor. Ample spare capacity for land and transportation infrastructure — think six-lane highways — let sprawl be a growth outlet for decades, but over time congestion and distance from airports and job centers raised the cost of sprawl as well. The 2008 financial crisis arguably busted the sprawl model in the largest Sun Belt metros of Houston, Dallas and Atlanta, where until the onset of the pandemic single-family building permits had lapsed to 35% below the 2006 highs, despite those metros still having reputations for sprawl and fast growth…

What’s needed to maintain past growth momentum and meet the expectations of these new populations is a continued push up the value chain towards local economies based on knowledge work, with higher-paying jobs and college-educated workers. The specific services or investments needed to lure these types of jobs and workers will shift with the political winds — it might be a greater investment in schools and universal pre-K programs today, and transportation infrastructure tomorrow. It’s the same kind of policy arms race these communities have been accustomed to for decades, only with more services replacing low taxes as the policy lever.

For now, the most likely tweaks to the governance model will probably be incremental — stormwater improvements, sidewalk construction and other “complete streets” projects, modest increases to educational funding — simply because the votes aren’t there to raise taxes enough for the kind of revenue needed for bigger changes.

But these tensions aren’t going away. It’s eventually going to require larger investments than current leaders and older voters are willing to make. Ultimately, the choice for these communities is to spend the money needed to stay competitive in the new arms race, or lose out to places that will.

In the United States, growth is good. Communities need to grow to show that they are exciting, thriving places. New residents and businesses signal good things to come.

But, the piece quoted above notes the longer-term possibilities of such growth. What happens after the fast growth slows or ends? Is it sustainable? How do communities switch from fast growth to mature growth or stability? My own research in the Chicago suburbs suggests this is not necessarily an easy switch. When the land starts to or does run out, communities have to make important decisions. Should they grow through increased density and/or allow taller buildings? How much will it cost to maintain all of the existing infrastructure? How much redevelopment or teardowns will take place? Even during the high growth periods, the costs can increase – see battles within sprawl over the costs for new schools and who pays – let alone as the sprawling areas age.

More broadly, what happens to sprawling suburbs decades after the sprawl has ended? We can now look back at numerous postwar suburbs and see what happened. The Levittowns always draw some attention for the ways they changed and are still the same. Many of these suburbs are over a half century old (though others are newer). These communities revolve around single-family homes and driving, among other things, and this might continue for decades. Or, it might not if conditions and ideologies change.

In a land of driving, both a bifurcated housing market and car buying market

Americans like to drive and have structured much of daily life around driving. This means many people need a reliable car to get to a decent job, which then enables them to buy a decent home in a place they want to live. But, what if both the house and car buying markets do not provide a lot of good options at lower prices? From the auto industry:

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Yet that increase was nothing next to what happened in the used market. The average price of a used vehicle surged nearly 14% — roughly 10 times the rate of inflation — to over $23,000. It was among the fastest such increases in decades, said Ivan Drury, a senior manager of insights for Edmunds.com.

The main reason for the exploding prices is a simple one of economics: Too few vehicles available for sale during the pandemic and too many buyers. The price hikes come at a terrible time for buyers, many of whom are struggling financially or looking for vehicles to avoid public transit or ride hailing because the virus. And dealers and analysts say the elevated prices could endure or rise even further for months or years, with new vehicle inventories tight and fewer trade-ins coming onto dealers’ lots…

Charlie Chesbrough, senior economist for Cox Automotive, predicted a tight used-vehicle market with high prices for several more years…

In recent years, automakers had set the stage for higher prices by scrubbing many lower-priced new vehicles that had only thin profit margins. Starting five years ago, Ford, GM and Fiat Chrysler (now Stellantis) stopped selling many sedans and hatchbacks in the United States. Likewise, Honda and Toyota have canceled U.S. sales of lower-priced subcompacts. Their SUV replacements have higher sticker prices.

On the housing side, builders and developers have devoted less attention to starter homes. It can be difficult for some workers to find housing near where they work. The ideal of the suburban single-family home is not attainable for all.

On the driving side, cars are not cheap to operate and maintain. Moving to the suburbs and many American communities requires a commitment to driving to work. A reliable car at a reasonable price could go a long ways to keeping transportation costs down and freeing up household money for other items.

These issues require longer-term planning and attention: how can people with fewer resources still obtain decent housing and decent transportation options? COVID-19 may have exacerbated these issues but the article about the auto industry suggests these trends were already underway; car prices were on the upswing. Trying to tackle density issues or providing more mass transit are difficult to address in many communities and regions. A conversion to electric cars in the next decade or two sounds good but imposes new costs on drivers.

In the meantime, those with resources can likely pick up better options for both cars and homes. These choices can then have positive cascading effects on future spending and outcomes.

Addressing the many less-than-3-mile trips in suburban settings

One of the authors of a new book on retrofitting suburbs highlights the number of short trips in suburban settings:

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Right now, 46 percent of trips from predominantly single-family-home suburban neighborhoods are three miles or less. Which would be perfectly fine for a bike ride, a scooter ride, or a walk in many of those trips, if there was adequate infrastructure to make that a safe choice. That would have enormous impact.

This is a problem that New Urbanist designs hope to solve by placing necessary goods and services within a fifteen minute walk from residences. This means that housing is within slightly less than a mile from important destinations.

Even at this shorter distance, how many Americans would rather drive? Factor in different circumstances – weather, the purpose of the trip (buying groceries?), who is involved in the walk (a solitary pedestrian versus a family with small kids), and the American preference for driving in the suburbs – and this may just seem to be too far.

Stretching the radius from just less than a mile to three miles then is a significant change. A bicycle or scooter would certainly help. Local mass transit would help. But, this would require a lot of infrastructure. Helping pedestrians feel safe instead of unwanted guests alongside busy roads. Safer options for bicyclists. Denser land use. Planning that helps strategically place needed services and buildings where non-drivers can access them. A commitment to a slower-paced life where getting somewhere is part of the fun rather than an impediment to consumption.

It is maybe that last piece that I think may be the hardest to address. Retrofitting will be attractive in some places due to particular needs and dissatisfaction with sprawl. Indeed, “surban” settings will help some suburbs stand out from others. But, if it only happens in pieces across suburbia, it will be hard to address the bigger question: do Americans object to having their lives are designed around cars? They may not be happy with it but this is different than explicitly making individual or collective choices to try a different way of life. As of now, the American Dream still typically involves cars and vehicles and it may take a long time before alternative modes of transportation are viewed as desirable.

From quaint suburban neighborhood to sprawl imposed on the land in ten minutes

A recent suburban drive showed me the variety in the built suburban landscape – all within ten minutes. Here is the first residential neighborhood I drove through, right near a downtown:

Tree-lined streets, older homes, walkable, pleasant sidewalks for pedestrians, a two lane road.

But, as I continued down this road, I soon found myself in a different suburban landscape:

Green space on one side, houses on the other side within subdivisions, fewer trees, a wider arterial road with a higher speed limit, power lines on one side.

The local context matters in this case: the first picture is near the downtown of a suburb where the land was first settled in the 1830s and the community was incorporated several decades later. In contrast, the second picture is land more in between suburbs where homes and subdivisions were constructed later. They are good illustrations of the different waves of suburban settlement as discussed by Dolores Hayden in Building Suburbia.

Though these are very different settings, they are now all grouped together as “suburbs.” They may even exist within the same suburban municipality; some suburbs are all sprawl, some are all denser areas, many have a combination of both. The interests of the homeowners in one setting may not match those in the other.

Infectious diseases in urban and suburban life

Americans already have a predilection for suburban life; might a global pandemic push even more people out of cities and to the edges of metropolitan regions? One take regarding safety in suburban life:

As maps like this show, major metropolitan areas are bearing the brunt of the Covid-19 infections spreading across North America. And that makes sense: Though there’s no way to know for sure how the virus arrived, it almost certainly came by way of an international flight to a major airport (or several of them). But while infectious disease spreads faster where people are more densely clustered — hence the strategy of social distancing to contain the coronavirus — that doesn’t necessarily make suburban or rural areas safer, health experts say…

That is not to say that cities aren’t Petri dishes — they are. Relative to rural areas, urban centers do provide stronger chains of viral transmission, with higher rates of contact and larger numbers of infection-prone people. And historically, urbanites paid a price for this vulnerability…

Modern transportation networks have made the population shield that rural areas once provided much more porous. Now that humans and freight can travel from, say, Hong Kong to Los Angeles in less than 13 hours — and arrive by vehicle to somewhere sparsely populated hours after that — outbreaks can happen just about anywhere. New pathogens tend to arrive sooner in global hubs, but that doesn’t mean they can’t quickly reach rural locales and proliferate from there, says Benjamin Dalziel, a professor of mathematics at Oregon State University who studies population dynamics…

But while the CDC recommends decreasing social contact to limit the spread of the virus, that’s just as doable in a downtown apartment as a countryside manor. Says Viboud: “If you’re staying at home and limiting outside contact, you’d achieve the same purpose.”

Three thoughts come to mind:

  1. This highlights the connectedness of cities and suburbs today, even if there is significant physical distance separating communities. The rate at which people travel around the world, to other regions, and throughout regions is high compared to all of human history and is relatively easy to do. Cities and suburbs are not separate places; they are parts of interdependent regions that are highly connected to other places.
  2. Safety and health was a part of creating the suburbs in the United States but it is hard to know how this might matter in the future. Given all the reasons people now settle in the suburbs, would avoiding communicable diseases be a top factor? I would think not, particularly compared to factors like housing prices or amenities (schools, quality of life, etc.), or demographics.
  3. If particular places are not that much safer, does the sprawl of American life then limit the response to any illness? Imagine the Chicago region with dozens of hospitals that need to be equipped spread throughout the region as opposed to that same number of people packed into a smaller area where it is easier to get supplies and people to medical facilities. Or, the need to supply grocery stores throughout a huge region.

Even in a country of sprawl and limited public life, there are plenty of places where people come in contact with many others

Watching reactions to the coronavirus in recent weeks presents a paradox connected to American social life and addressing contagious diseases: the country has pushed sprawl and private homes for decades and public life and community life is said to be in decline; yet, there are numerous spaces, public and private, where Americans regularly come together. And under the threat of disease, shutting down locations and/or quarantining large numbers of people would change social life dramatically even in an individualized, spread out society.

A few examples illustrate this well. One essential private space is the grocery store. Even in the age of the Internet deliveries and eating out, many Americans need to acquire food and other supplies for daily life. The experience of going to Walmart or another grocery chain is not necessarily a public experience – direct interaction with people there is likely limited – but the number of people who can cycle through a major store on a daily basis is high. Another semi-private space is churches. By choice, Americans attend religious services at a higher rate than most industrialized countries. Once there is a congregation of one hundred people or more, this brings together people who participate in a wide range of activities and go to a wide number of places.

An example of public spaces that would change dramatically are mass transit lines and transportation hubs. In a country where relatively few people take mass transit on a daily basis, there are a good number of Americans dependent on buses, trains, and subways and people who use multiple forms on a regular basis. Plus, the United States has relatively busy airports. A second example involves schools. Americans tend to think education is the secret to success and getting ahead and students from preschool to post-graduate settings gather in buildings to attend class and do related activities. For these students, school is about learning and social life, classrooms and lunchrooms, eating areas, and play or recreation areas. Schools and colleges can draw people from a broad set of backgrounds and locations.

Our public life may not be at the same level as it is in Italy; instead of sidewalk cafes, Americans can go through the drive-through of Starbucks. Perhaps this means it will be relatively easy for some Americans to quarantine or keep their social distance: many live in their private homes and have limited social interactions anyhow. At the same time, significant public health measures would change social life in ways that are noticeable and that some might miss. Indeed, could a national reminder of the social ties Americans do have lead to a revival in social interactions in times of more stability?

Fox Business defines a McMansion, misses teardowns and broader social patterns

McMansions are still alive and well – or at least in public conversation – if news sources are still trying to define them. Here is a recent definition on the Fox Business web site:

McMansion is a term that refers to a large house — typically in a suburban neighborhood — that looks like every other house in the neighborhood. The style was popularized during the 1980s and 1990s.

Their structures typically follows a similar pattern, as noted by Curbed, including a central core with a multistory entryway, a side wing and a garage wing.

According to real estate website Trulia, they tend to range between 3,000 and 5,000 square feet, or 1.5 to 2.5 times larger than the median-sized new home in 2000…

The word is a play on McDonalds items, indicating the homes are generic and mass-produced.

The definition above cites a Curbed article but it should really point to the author of that piece, Kate Wagner, creator of McMansion Hell. From the beginning of that piece, here is Wagner’s one sentence definition:

The typical McMansion follows a formula: It’s large, cheaply constructed, and architecturally sloppy.

These definitions do indeed get at two traits of McMansions: their size, larger than normal, and their architecture and construction, generally poor quality and mass produced. But, I argue the definitions are missing two important traits:

  1. Some McMansions are teardowns, large homes on relatively small lots within neighborhoods with smaller homes. Here, the absolute size is less important than comparative size. And these kinds of homes could appear in urban, suburban, and more rural settings.
  2. McMansions are connected to broader issues or concerns about American society, including sprawl and excessive consumption. This means that a lot of homes that might not technically fit the definition of a McMansion or might not appear on McMansion Hell could be part of broader patterns of McMansion like homes.

McMansion is a broadly used term but does not necessarily mean or refer to the same thing when different actors use the term. Big house? Yes. But, not the biggest houses and big might be relative. Problematic architecture and construction? Yes. But, not the only homes that might suffer from this (depending on who is examining the homes) and connected to larger American issues.