The real New (Sub)Urbanism in the United States: a 10 minute drive from daily needs

A quote from one family who moved from Chicago to the suburbs highlights what many Americans want in a community:

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“What I expect if I’m paying property taxes and the like is, within a 10-minute drive in my community I should be able to have access to most of what I need. Most, not everything. And that’s what we have here,” he said. “We got what we were looking for in terms of space to raise our family and more of a neighborhood feel.”

In their principles for communities, New Urbanists advocate for higher densities than present in many suburban locations, they emphasize walkability in that residents can access daily needs within a 15 minute walk, and they array residences around commercial and civic land uses. Whether in denser suburban downtowns or redeveloped mixed-use properties or “surban” locations, there is a different feel to these suburban locations. These communities do not need to be cities in terms of their population and density but they present a distinct difference from the low-density suburban sprawl found in many American locations.

In practice, the quote above highlights how some of the goals of New Urbanism are carried out in American suburbs. Americans want both private housing, typically in the form of single-family homes, and amenities within 10 minute drive. These amenities likely include schools, parks, grocery stores, and other shopping opportunities. Additionally, these homes should be in a neighborhood that offers safety and opportunities for children.

This is not what New Urbanists want. This current arrangement depends on driving and planning based around driving. A ten minute drive encourages lower densities as Americans can get roughly a few miles within that time span. Walking in service of accomplishing daily tasks is often not possible and walks become about exercise or getting out of the private house.

Nudging Americans to reorient their lives from a 10 minute drive to a 10 minute walk in suburban settings is a difficult task. While there are pockets where neighborhoods with a New Urbanist lifestyle operate, it is not the norm and driving is expected.

The ten fastest growing American communities are all suburbs, all in South or West

Growth in the United States continues to occur in suburbs in two regions of the country:

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The 2020 Census listed Meridian as one of the 10 fastest-growing large cities in the country. All the cities on the list grew at rates of more than 44 percent. They are all in the South and the West. And they are all suburbs…

Meridian and the nine other cities represent a trend, according to U.S. Census Bureau officials. As the country’s biggest cities grow and become increasingly unaffordable to many, their suburbs have ballooned, taking on their own identities…

The Phoenix and Dallas-Fort Worth metro areas have had suburbs on this list every decade, he said. “Sizable amounts of empty land for construction of housing” encourages this population growth, and that land is more commonly available in the West and South. Now, people are often going farther and farther from city centers to search for empty lots, especially in cities that have been growing for the past half-century, Perry said…

Meridian and suburbs like it, Perry said, are “a reminder that there are still some pockets of rapid population growth in certain areas of the country,” despite the past 10 years being the second slowest growing decade for the U.S. population. What the Census data makes clear is that many suburbs are taking on a life of their own.

This is a continuation of several longer trends. The population growth in the United States has generally shifted to the South and West and away from the Northeast and Midwest. Certain suburban communities continue to grow rapidly, driven by expanding metropolitan areas, a quest for cheaper land, and the celebration of sprawl and single-family homes. Many big cities are still growing but they are no longer the fastest-growing places.

At the same time, these ongoing patterns might be surprising for several reasons. First, the suburbs have endured critiques for decades yet the same pattern seems to keep repeating: small towns outside hot metro areas balloon in size and population over the course of several decades. As the article notes, this can bring a lot of change that is not universally liked by the residents there before sprawl or even some of the residents who join the sprawl. The rapidly-growing suburbs are no longer places like Naperville but the descriptions of what is happening are very similar. What have Americans learned in the seven-plus decades of postwar suburban growth?

Second, are these growth patterns sustainable in areas with water and other environmental concerns? Communities in the West are reconsidering growth amid water shortages. Is the land converted to subdivisions stable and have good drainage? Does the emphasis on driving contribute to smog and the use of land that was once more open?

Third, population increases are often accompanied by a gain in status. Larger communities are better-known, have more business activity, and become destinations. Will these rapidly-growing suburbs suddenly be put on the map (also suggesting that other places decrease in status)?

Put together, will there be cheap enough open land outside attractive cities for explosive suburban growth? Or, because there will always be some suburban land somewhere cheaper than properties in the most expensive markets, think New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, there might always be a market for sprawl.

Naperville: large suburb built through decades of suburban sprawl now wants to be a leader in sustainability

The Naperville City Council recently approved several plans from the report from a sustainability task force that made a number of recommendations:

Aerial view of Naperville, Illinois

Highlights include transitioning to clean and renewable energy, incentivizing energy efficiency, developing a plan for electric vehicle infrastructure, increasing public transportation use and recycling efforts, and focusing on the maintenance of natural resources.

Other objectives include a 4% annual reduction in waste, energy use and vehicle miles driven in conjunction with an increase in tree planting to help decrease greenhouse gases by 4% each year.

One of the recent steps taken by the city was hiring Ben Mjolsness as Naperville’s first sustainability coordinator. Mjolsness on Tuesday talked about the many options and incentives residents have with energy efficiency and recycling.

Councilman Patrick Kelly said he looked forward to showcasing Naperville as a front-runner in sustainability.

Many communities will be pursuing such plans in coming years. But, the particular context of Naperville is interesting to consider for multiple reasons:

  1. It is a large and wealthy suburb. It has the resources to pursue this.
  2. Naperville likes to be a leader among suburbs and this may help further this status in coming years.
  3. Sixty years ago or even forty years ago, Naperville was much smaller in population and had a smaller footprint in land use. Today, it has nearly 150,000 people and roughly 39 square miles of land with much of this involving single-family homes.

In one sense, the growth patterns that helped make the Naperville of today possible – explosive growth in the postwar era built around homes and driving – also make pursuing sustainability more difficult. Take the reducing the miles driven goal from above. Some residents of Naperville could do this but many are in subdivisions whose roads then feed to large arterial roads. This does not work as well for biking (and the weather in the area may not help). Additionally, the sprawl makes mass transit more difficult. In the past, Naperville has tried buses in the community but they do not get much use (even as the train stations are some of the busiest with commuters going toward Chicago). The best way for Naperville to achieve this goal may be to encourage local businesses to allow employees to work from home, thus limiting commuting needs.

Not mentioned in the news article above (it could be in the report) is the density of the community. One way to improve sustainability in the long run is to have denser housing, particularly near locations where other forms of transportation other than driving are possible. This could be in and around the downtown. It could be in different nodes around the community where there are jobs or where it would be possible to pursue transit-oriented development. As a bonus, denser housing might also provide more opportunities for affordable housing. Naperville has thought about these options in the past but they are not always popular given the single-family home character of the community.

As Naperville pursues sustainability, some actions will be relatively painless given what the community can do. Other conversations about long-term changes or how to address sprawl might take much longer for a consensus to emerge.

Halting new development out West due to lack of water

Drought conditions in Utah and other Western states means communities are rethinking development:

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So this spring, Oakley, about an hour’s drive east of Salt Lake City, imposed a construction moratorium on new homes that would connect to the town’s water system. It is one of the first towns in the United States to purposely stall growth for want of water in a new era of megadroughts. But it could be a harbinger of things to come in a hotter, drier West…

Yet cheap housing is even scarcer than water in much of Utah, whose population swelled by 18 percent from 2010 to 2020, making it the fastest-growing state. Cities across the West worry that cutting off development to conserve water will only worsen an affordability crisis that stretches from Colorado to California…

Developers in a dry stretch of desert sprawl between Phoenix and Tucson must prove they have access to 100 years’ of water to get approvals to build new homes. But extensive groundwater pumping — mostly for agriculture — has left the area with little water for future development.

Many developers see a need to find new sources of water. “Water will be and should be — as it relates to our arid Southwest — the limiting factor on growth,” said Spencer Kamps, the vice president of legislative affairs for the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona. “If you can’t secure water supply, obviously development shouldn’t happen.”

Critics of sprawl have discussed this for decades: new subdivisions and development in arid areas taps already precious water supplies. It is not just about drinking water; it includes the water used for lawns, agriculture, parks, and other uses that come with expanding populations.

As the article notes, numerous communities are trying to encourage homeowners and residents to use less water. Replace lawns. Limit watering. Use greywater. Some have argued that water in the United States is too cheap, encouraging more use.

But, simply having more people and business might be the problem. If drought conditions continue, it will be worth watching how development – often assumed to be necessary for a good community – is treated.

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.