What I can access in a 10 minute drive from my suburban location

Following up on an earlier post this week on the desire some Americans have to live within 10 minutes drive from what they need on a daily basis, I briefly catalogued what I could access within ten minutes drive of my suburban residence. Ten minutes does not necessarily get my very far from my house given residential speed limits and the number of stop signs and traffic lights in my way. For most of these locations, I can access them by bicycle in about the same time (though I cannot carry as much).

Photo by UnknownNFT on Pexels.com

Here is a rough count of what is within 10 minutes:

Grocery stores: at least 5

Gas stations: at least 3

Fast food/fast casual restaurants: at least a dozen

Parks: at least 5 community parks, two forest preserves, one linear pathway

Schools: at least 4

Other shopping: one second-tier shopping area at a major intersection, multiple strip malls, lots of car repair and automotive parts places, etc.

Transportation: 1 commuter train station

Almost 10 minutes away (usually more like a 12-15 minute drive away): 1 suburban downtown with a public library, local stores and restaurants, civic buildings; 2 interstates; many more stores/schools/parks; multiple big box retailers

All of this within a residential part of suburbia with medium levels of suburban density. The people around me could walk or bike to many of these locations but many do not since a short drive is convenient and normal. I would guess many residents would say the quick driving access to so many amenities is a contributor to the high quality of life.

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:

Photo by Ricardo Esquivel on Pexels.com

“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.

If Americans moved less in 2020, the stories of people moving from places were specific to particular locations

One consistent pandemic story was that people fled urban neighborhoods for less dense locales. This narrative held for New York City and San Francisco, among other places. But, in light of mobility data from 2020 that showed just under 8.5% of Americans changed addresses, what really happened?

Photo by Helena Lopes on Pexels.com

Two recent stories help make sense of the patterns. Story number one:

“Millennials living in New York City do not make up the world,” joked Thomas Cooke, a demographic consultant in Connecticut. “My millennial daughter’s friends living in Williamsburg, dozens of them came home. It felt like the world had suddenly moved, but in reality, this is not surprising at all.”…

Demographic expert Andrew Beveridge used change-of-address data to show that while people moved out of New York, particularly in well-heeled neighborhoods, at the height of the pandemic, those neighborhoods recouped their numbers just months later. Regarding the nation as a whole, Beveridge said he’s not surprised migration declined.

Put together the attention New York City and millennials receive and that residents may have left for a while but not permanently, the population did not change dramatically.

Story number two:

Lake Forest has seen a dramatic uptick in the number of people relocating to the northern suburb during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’ve had over a thousand new families move to Lake Forest in the last 18 to 24 months,” said Mayor George Pandaleon.

He attributes the surge to four things: space, schools, safety and savings…

The mayor also noted the suburb’s real estate market was soft, meaning there was a large inventory that made it relatively easy for people to find a place to live.

This relatively small and wealthy suburb – around 20,000 residents, median household income of over $172,000 – grew as it had multiple factors in its favor.

Put these two stories together and other data and what do we have of the great COVID-19 migration of 2020? Here is my guess:

-The media and the public were very interested in what might happen because of COVID-19. It seems plausible that COVID-19 might prompt people to move given fears about transmission through the air.

-Certain people in certain locations could afford to move: those with resources to buy homes and those with flexible work arrangements. Those with fewer opportunities could not. The same residential segregation and uneven development present at normal times affected COVID times as well.

-Millennials seem to get a lot of news coverage as the next generation as well as one supposedly holding different values than previous generations.

All of this did not add up to significant mobility across the United States or across many groups in the United States.

Zillow sought pricing predictability in the supposedly predictable market of Phoenix

With Zillow stopping its iBuyer initiative, here are more details about how the Phoenix housing market was key to the plan:

Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

Tech firms chose the Phoenix area because of its preponderance of cookie-cutter homes. Unlike Boston or New York, the identikit streets make pricing properties easier. iBuyers’ market share in Phoenix grew from around 1 percent in 2015—when tech companies first entered the market—to 6 percent in 2018, says Tomasz Piskorski of Columbia Business School, who is also a member of the National Bureau of Economic Research. Piskorski believes iBuyers—Zillow included—have grown their share since, but are still involved in less than 10 percent of all transactions in the city…

Barton told analysts that the premise of Zillow’s iBuying business was being able to forecast the price of homes accurately three to six months in advance. That reflected the time to fix and sell homes Zillow had bought…

In Phoenix, the problem was particularly acute. Nine in 10 homes Zillow bought were put up for sale at a lower price than the company originally bought them, according to an October 2021 analysis by Insider. If each of those homes sold for Zillow’s asking price, the company would lose $6.3 million. “Put simply, our observed error rate has been far more volatile than we ever expected possible,” Barton admitted. “And makes us look far more like a leveraged housing trader than the market maker we set out to be.”…

To make the iBuying program profitable, however, Zillow believed its estimates had to be more precise, within just a few thousand dollars. Throw in the changes brought in by the pandemic, and the iBuying program was losing money. One such factor: In Phoenix and elsewhere, a shortage of contractors made it hard for Zillow to flip its homes as quickly as it hoped.

It sounds like the rapid sprawling growth of Phoenix in recent decades made it attractive for trying to estimate and predict prices. The story above highlights cookie-cutter subdivisions and homes – they are newer and similar to each other – and I imagine this is helpful for models compared to older cities where there is more variation within and across neighborhoods. Take that critics of suburban ticky-tacky houses and conformity!

But, when conditions change – COVID-19 hits which then changes the behavior of buyers and sellers, contractors and the building trades, and other actors in the housing industry – that uniformity in housing was not enough to easily profit.

As the end of the article suggests, the algorithms could be changed or improved and other institutional buyers are also interested. Is this just a matter of having more data and/or better modeling? Could it all work for these companies outside of really unusual times? Or, perhaps there really are US or housing markets around the globe that are more predictable than others?

If suburban areas and communities are the places where this really takes off, the historical patterns of people making money off what are often regarded as havens for families and the American Dream may continue. Sure, homeowners may profit as their housing values increase over time but the bigger actors including developers, lenders, and real estate tech companies may be the ones who really benefit.

Patterns among suburban voters in 2021 elections

With election results from Virginia, New Jersey, and other races coming in this week, a narrative about recent elections continue: suburban voters continue to sway elections. Here are the suburban patterns I have seen and heard observers discuss:

Photo by Altaf Shah on Pexels.com

-Enthusiasm among suburban Democrats was down in 2021 compared to 2020.

-Suburbanites were worried and/or angry about schools, whether that was for prolonged closures due to COVID-19 or concerns over curriculum and administrator control as opposed to parents.

-While Biden won over more suburban independent voters, enough tilted back to Republicans in these elections.

-This is a backlash involving race where white voters are exercising their influence.

As pundits, politicians, and academics sort out these multiple and possibly overlapping factors, this is a reminder of two things: (1) suburban voters continue to remain important in American elections (and both Democrats and Republicans are trying to appeal to them) and (2) the patterns and consequences of complex suburbia are not necessarily easy to predict.

Itasca the second suburb to reject an addiction treatment facility – where might it end up?

Last night, leaders of the suburb of Itasca unanimously voted against a proposal to convert a hotel to an addiction treatment facility:

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

After more than 35 public hearings devoted to the Haymarket project, the decision seemed almost anticlimactic. It took barely 15 minutes for board members to cast their vote. Haymarket President and CEO Dan Lustig said he wasn’t surprised by the board’s verdict.

Only Pruyn and Trustee Ellen Leahy explained their opposition, framing the decision in mostly fiscal terms. Both agreed with opponents that the scale of the proposed treatment center was too much for a town of less than 10,000 people to absorb. “A facility this large belongs at the county seat or affiliated with a hospital where appropriate emergency medical services can be provided,” Leahy said.

However, the same organization already tried to open the facility in the county seat:

From nearly the start, Haymarket faced an uphill battle in its second attempt at offering treatment services within DuPage to help combat the scourge of opioid addiction. The county last year reported 112 opioid overdoses, a record high.

Almost four years ago, Haymarket, a Chicago-based nonprofit provider, was denied a bid to start a 16-bed satellite program in Wheaton.

Neither of these decisions are unusual in that suburbs often prefer land uses that they feel will enhance the single-family home character of the community. Other land uses, whether industrial and commercial properties or religious buildings or less desirable properties, need to be sufficiently far from homeowners.

While such decisions may be common, the larger effect is problematic. What DuPage County community would permit this land use? When there is a need to address opioid use, where could struggling local residents and families turn?

If each suburb follows in a similar logic, this contributes to uneven development patterns. Communities with resources and organized political movements can regularly keep less desirable land uses away from them. Other communities may not be able to do the same thing or feel like they have to take advantage of any opportunity that comes their way.

Where will this treatment facility end up? At this point, any effort to locate in DuPage County may be doomed as local residents have developed multiple successful lines of argument against the facility.

(See earlier posts on this saga including suburban opposition to drug treatment facilities and a march against the facility in Itasca.)

Communities moving to limit gas leaf blowers but leaving the leaves alone all together might be a hard sell

The movement to limit gas-powered leaf blowers appears to be picking up steam:

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

More than 100 cities across the country have already passed regulations to ban or restrict gas-powered leaf blowers. For people committed to their manicured lawns, the good news is that powerful electric and battery-operated leaf blowers now exist, and they are quieter and greener and healthier than gasoline-powered blowers. Their market share is also growing rapidly; electric equipment now represents roughly 44 percent of lawn-care machinery sales.

But, would this movement extend to not doing anything about fallen leaves?

But the trouble with leaf blowers isn’t only their pollution-spewing health consequences. It’s also the damage they do to biodiversity. Fallen leaves provide protection for overwintering insects and the egg sacs of others. Leaf blowers, whether electric or gasoline-powered, dislodge the leaf litter that is so essential to insect life — the insect life that in turn is so essential to birds and other wildlife.

The ideal fertilizer and mulch can’t be found in your local garden center. They are available at no cost in the form of a tree’s own leaves. The best thing to do with fallen leaves is to mulch them with a lawn mower if your lawn consists of entirely of unvariegated turf grass (which it should not, given that turf grass requires immense amounts of water and poison to maintain). Our yard is a mixture of grasses and clovers and wildflowers, so we can safely let our leaves lie. If a high wind carries them away, it’s hard not to wail, “Wait! I was saving those!

And the leaves that fall across every inch of this wild half acre of suburbia are so much prettier than any unnaturally green lawn beaten into submission by stench-spewing machinery. All those golden sugar maple leaves hold onto the light, and for weeks it looks as though our whole yard is on fire, even in the rain. Who could be troubled by a blanket made of light? A blanket keeping all the little creatures safe from the cold?

A world without leaf blowers and/or all of the pieces of lawn equipment that sit within many suburban garages and sheds is hard to imagine. Suburbanites and lawn keepers in America can be very fastidious about what needs to be done: the lawn should be well-seeded, green, manicured, weed-free, and leaf-free. The lawn may even be “a window into your soul.” Simply leaving the leaves on the lawn…this would appear negligent, lazy, unkempt.

The argument above suggests the leaves are better for the lawn, creatures, and the environment more broadly. Perhaps this is the way to sell it: your lawn will be healthier if you leave the leaves. But, if the goal is a better relationship with nature, does this also mean other forms of lawn care should be undone as well? Once the leaves stay, what else about American lawn practices should be jettisoned?

The bigger question may not be about gas powered machines but about what a better suburban or single-family home relationship with nature might look like. Amid all of the sprawling land use and driving, how could the open space in individual lots better serve nature? Less emphasis on well-maintained grass could limit water use and provide more habitat space. Whether Americans could find this acceptable in appearance, for property values, and in connection to nature, is another matter.

The problem of loud noises in suburbia

Reading this story of Cold War air raid sirens going off in Sacramento reminded me of one problem that comes up consistently in suburbia: loud noises.

Photo by Pressmaster on Pexels.com

Suburbs are supposed to be quiet. Residents buy a home and yard with the idea that they can shut out the busy noise of the world or city and enjoy peace. Cities are noisy with sounds of traffic, emergency sirens, voices, and activity. Suburbs offer access to those cities but without all of that soundscape.

From my experiences in the suburbs and reading social media in the suburbs, here are some of the noises, known and unknown, that lead suburbanites to wonder or fume:

  1. A loud barking dog or animal somewhere. Sometimes this dog is not unknown but the loud animal from an unknown source is not what people want to hear.
  2. A loud bang or pop. If it is fireworks, this could be okay if it is part of a community celebration and it is less okay if it is some resident enjoying loud sounds and lights. Suburbanites speculate whether the noise could be gunshots or vehicle noises.
  3. Vehicle noises and/or crashes. A vehicle or motorcycle with a loud engine or muffler sounds much louder in the nighttime hours. A car crash might be mistaken for something else.
  4. Extra-loud music from a vehicle or residential unit. Many communities have ordinances about sound. Having too-loud music can be viewed as disturbing the peace.

Children’s noise is more acceptable, whether coming from a park – the sound of a ball game or kids playing in the neighborhood – or a school. Suburbs, after all, are about raising children. Nature noises are fine, including rain and thunderstorms. Suburbs are supposed to help residents get closer to nature.

How these concerns about noise get adjudicated probably varies. The number of people willing to go to social media to ask and/or complain about noise might be the outworking of “moral minimalism” in the suburbs. Many probably hope the noise simply goes away and does not intrude much on their private lives.

Arlington Heights and many other suburbs: looking for downtown redevelopment and independence from the big city

With the possibility of a Chicago Bears stadium in the suburb of Arlington Heights, Illinois, the Chicago Tribune profile of the community highlights changes in the suburb:

More than 150 years ago, the 19th-century farming community’s prosperity was inextricably tied to its proximity to the railroad line, which served as a trading hub bolstering the town’s agrarian economy. By the 1920s, the community would become home to professionals boarding commuter trains headed to and from the city.

Despite many of those residents working at home these days as a result of the pandemic, the Union Pacific Northwest line dissecting the village of 77,000 residents is still viewed as an economic engine. But Arlington Heights is no longer beholden to the fortunes of Chicago, making the prospect of a Bears stadium in town interesting, yet not essential…

Embracing change has been a recipe for success for the revitalization of downtown Arlington Heights, which like central business districts across the U.S., was languishing in the 1970s and ’80s after mom and pop businesses were devastated by shopping malls and big-box stores, said Charles Witherington-Perkins, the village’s director of planning and community development…

To build the Arlington Heights of today, crafting a new downtown master plan was only the first step. In order to execute the vision, officials needed to loosen building height and density restrictions — stringent regulations that were making it impossible to create an economically and aesthetically vibrant downtown, Witherington-Perkins said…

The contingent of new residents arriving in Arlington Heights — many of whom were commuters attracted to the complex’s proximity to the Metra station — ushered in a surge of downtown residential and retail development that has served as a model for neighboring communities along the Metra line.

Take out the name of Arlington Heights and a few other regional details, and this story might be told for dozens of suburbs in the Chicago region as well as dozens more outside of older American big cities. Here are a few of the common features:

  1. A founding before mass suburbanization. Communities were small, farming was a primary industry, and the railroad was very important for the initial mass of people at that spot.
  2. Mass suburbanization of the twentieth century brought many residents and changes.
  3. Revitalizing suburban downtowns became a priority in the last four decades as competition from shopping malls and strip malls moved business activity away.
  4. This revitalization included adding residential units in denser structures.
  5. As noted elsewhere in this article, these choices about downtown redevelopment often involved choosing more expensive housing units rather than affordable housing. Even when cases went to court (as one did in Arlington Heights), relatively few affordable housing units were created in these denser suburban areas. This leaves Arlington Heights as wealthy and whiter.
  6. This theoretically means the community is more independent from Chicago with its own ecosystem of residential and commercial life downtown and in the suburb.

Does all of this add up to a new state-of-the-art stadium with a multi-billion dollar price tag being constructed in the suburb? That may be a separate issue given how few stadiums are in even large metropolitan areas and the sizable available property at play here.

Is Arlington Heights now truly independent of Chicago and self-sufficient? I would prefer to consider metropolitan regions as a whole as the fate of particular suburbs are connected both to the health of the big city and the suburbs. While a Bears stadium in Arlington Heights will be discussed as a win for the suburb (mostly – as the article notes, some residents oppose it) and a loss for the city of Chicago, the team and the benefits that come with it are still in the region.

Yet, it is worth noting that how the changing suburb understands itself is important. No longer a small farming community, Arlington Heights likely views itself as ambitious and making choices today to help secure its future success. A denser downtown provides a different experience than a bedroom suburb strictly made up of single-family homes. A Bears stadium would put them on the map in a way that few other nearby suburbs could equal. What Arlington Heights is and will be depends on choices made and responses from all of the actors involved.

Can a “great novel” be set in the Chicago suburbs?

A new book from author Jonathan Franzen chronicles of lives of a family in the Chicago suburbs:

Q: Your novels are often set in the Midwest, but why set a trilogy in suburban Chicago?

A: I wanted it near a major metropolitan area in the Midwest. I wanted it big because my recollection of the early 1970s is strongest ‘73 onward. I was in suburban St. Louis and the stuff that was happening in suburban St. Louis was probably happening a year or two earlier in Chicago. For that reason, the book begins in late 1971. I could be more assured of getting the cultural references and spirit right. But also, gosh, the Midwest just recurs in my work, right? I was born in suburban Chicago, I knew Chicago starting from the mid-70s on. Both of my brothers moved to Chicago, and with a novel, it’s nice to feel like you know the streets in a place. It’s that extra research you don’t have to do.

This leads to two related questions:

  1. Can a great cultural work be set in the American suburbs of the postwar era? Can the space that is often criticized for sprawl, conformity, exclusion, and dullness serve as a compelling setting?
  2. Are the suburbs of a city like Chicago, set in the Midwest, a kind of shorthand for central or normal America?

Of course, the simpler answer may be what is above: Franzen is familiar with the Chicago suburbs and its ways of life. But, the questions above still stand: are there great cultural works set in the suburbs? In a country where a majority of the residents live in the suburbs, I would suggest those experiences have not necessarily translated into critically acclaimed or very popular cultural works.

See this earlier post on different kinds of cultural works involving the suburbs.