Paper suggesting Americans adopt sufficiency limits for the size of homes

A new study looks at what amount of space might be sufficient for American single-family homes:

Social scientists have extensively documented the strategies used over the past century to purposefully upsize the preferences of consumers in high-income countries (Collins 2000; Nickles 2002; Cohen 2003; Horowitz 2004; Clarke 2007; Jacobs 2015). These practices became increasingly prevalent during the years following World War II and have been revamped and augmented to encompass an ever-expanding array of products. The most notable example of this phenomenon – abetted by builders, architects, realtors, mortgage bankers, public-policy makers, and numerous others is housing which in particular has in the United States, Canada, and Australia approximately tripled in size in just a half-century. This process of residential upsizing is understandable as individuals and organizations were for the most part responding to prevalent social and economic incentives and investing a portion of the gains accruing from increasing productivity and rising incomes into more spacious accommodation. While the trend contributed to unambiguous improvements in standards of living, evidence is now emerging that the process of residential upsizing is not contributing to gains in “house satisfaction” (Bellet 2019).

However, the contemporary era, characterized by climate change, economic inequality, and deep social divisions, requires new priorities. Rather than looking to enlargement as a panacea for all manner of problems, the targets outlined in the Paris Agreement and the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development require high-income countries to pursue a sustainable consumption transition. The downscaling of home size, because of the substantial volumes of resources required to meet residential needs, will be a critical part of this undertaking. While the methodology to formulate a minimum social floor and a maximum biophysical ceiling is necessarily provisional, it provides a place from which to begin to consider this important issue.

And from a summary of the article:

In the U.S., average floor space per person would need to be reduced from 754 square feet to 215 square feet, which perhaps surprisingly, is roughly comparable to the amount of space available during the baby boom of the 1950s.

While Cohen acknowledges the myriad political, commercial and cultural challenges of imparting such a sufficiency ceiling on current housing practices, he highlights five examples that he asserts point to shifting sensibilities: the tiny-house movement in the United States; the niche market for substantially smaller houses and apartments in the Nordic countries; the construction of accessory dwelling units in west coast cities of North America; the growing popularity of micro-apartments in New York City and San Francisco; and the emergence of co-living/co-working facilities in Europe.

Four quick thoughts:

  1. There are a lot of factors pushing Americans toward bigger houses in recent decades. Pushing against these factors would require a lot of time and energy. For example, reducing consumption might help people think about smaller spaces.
  2. Given the local nature of building and real estate, I have a hard time imagining this happening top-down. On the other hand, I could imagine some locales adopting such guidelines and then it spreading to similar locations or even the whole country. At the least, it could be popular in expensive real estate markets – think Bay Area or Seattle – though it would be interesting to see how wealthier homeowners deal with such guidelines. Perhaps if it was instituted for a housing units going forward, there would still be a supply of big homes for those that want them.
  3. Related to #2, I would guess more Americans would be motivated to pursue smaller homes because of cost and lifestyle preferences, not because of environmentalism and realizing that single-family homes make significant contributions to carbon emissions and require a lot of resources.
  4. How much of this is dependent on building a better public realm? People might be more willing to give up private space if they saw attractive alternatives like coffee shops, libraries, and other public settings where they could live their lives. Americans do not have developed public living spaces or many do not have regular patterns of spending important hours away from their private homes.

Separate places for home and work – even when you are working from home

The geographic and social distancing of home and work is a feature of modern, urbanized society. And it even matters when working from home:

Where you actually set up shop is entirely up to you. Maybe you have a dedicated office space with a desktop and a view. Sounds nice. If you don’t, that’s also fine; I usually work on my laptop at a kitchen counter. The point here is to clearly define the part of your house where work happens. That makes it more likely that you’ll actually get things done when you’re there, but just as importantly might help you disconnect when you’re not. Remember that when you work from home you’re always at home—but you’re also always at work. At all costs, you should avoid turning your entire house or apartment into an amorphous space where you’re always on the clock but also kind of not. It’s no way to live. (Full-time remote workers take note: You can also write off a few hundred square feet of in-home office space on your tax return.)…

Every few days I spend at least a few hours at a coffee shop. It’s a change of scenery, a good excuse to get some fresh air, and provides a tiny bit of human interaction that Slack conversations and Zoom meetings do not. Should that no longer be feasible for coronavirus reasons, at the very least see if you can walk around the block a couple of times a day. There’s no water cooler when you work from home, no snack table, no meetings down the block. It’s easy to stay locked in position all day. Don’t do it! Sitting is terrible for your health, and mind-numbing when you’re staring at the same wall or window all day…

I think what I miss the most about working in an office is the commute (I realize this may sound unhinged). Yes, traffic is terrible and subways are crowded and the weather is unpredictable. But it seems nice to have a clear separation between when you’re at work and when you’re not, and some time to decompress in between. That doesn’t exist when you work from home. It’s all on the same continuum.

I don’t have a great solution for this. Quitting out of Slack—or whatever your workplace uses—is probably a good start. People are less likely to ping you if your circle’s not green. Or maybe find a gym class or extracurricular that you have to leave the house for at a certain time every day and let that be your stopping point? In some ways it’s like figuring out how to ditch your shadow.

These tips hint at problems connected to the home-work divide Americans regularly encounter. A few examples from the paragraphs above:

  1. Creating a clear boundary between home and work is often seen as desirable or needed. This is harder to do when the same physical spaces do double duty.
  2. The need for interaction with coworkers or others is hard when working from home or even just with a clear work-home divide. There is a need for third places (and the coffee shop suggestion is a common, if problematic, solution). And with declining community life elsewhere, feeling disconnected from work might be a big loss.
  3. The Internet and other means that make it easier to connect to work or other workers from afar also threatens to pull people into never-ending work.
  4. Physical spaces actually matter for productivity, social interaction, and well-being. Simply being untethered from an office and the spaces there does not automatically lead to better outcomes. Single-family homes (or apartments, condos, townhomes, etc.) in the United States often emphasize private family space which may or may not be conducive to the kinds of work people do today.

All together, I am not convinced that people working from home or away from the office solves many of the problem of contemporary work places and social life. There are deeper issues at stake including how we design places (within buildings and across land uses), how we think about home and work (and additional places), and community and social life and what we desire for them to be.

Can Starbucks be a third place when its drive-through is so full?

Starbucks aspires to be a third place, a setting where people of different backgrounds can gather in between home and work. Coffee shops, and restaurants more broadly, can play this role as people need to eat and drink and such activity is often tied to social interaction.

In my morning commute, I pass a Starbucks in front of a strip mall and right next to a busy suburban road. The drive-through line is always very full. The size of the line is particularly noticeable in this location because once the Starbucks line has more than eight cars, it spills over into the roadway through the shopping center and can block traffic.

The inside of this location is attractive. A month ago, I spent a morning working there. The store had dark walls and what looked like a tin ceiling plus a variety of seating options (tables, upholstered chairs, work counters). A steady flow of people came in and out and there were at least a few others like me hunkered down for several hours doing work. From my working location inside, all morning I could see the steady flow of people going through the drive-through.

Can a coffee shop or any restaurant so dependent on drive-through traffic for business (think McDonald’s) truly be a gathering spot, a social space, a third place? Perhaps the issue is much bigger than Starbucks:

1. Businesses do need to make money. Starbucks has encountered this problem before with people and visitors who might restrict or limit sales. Not having a drive-through is a bold statement but might not be financially viable (or might not generate the kind of revenue Starbucks desires).

2. The suburbs require driving (and many Americans seem to like it this way). Starbucks locations in denser settings do not have drive-throughs and perhaps they can better function as third places.

3. American fast food combines the ability to drive and getting food quickly. Without a drive-through, Starbucks is both missing out on business and putting itself into a different category of place.

4. Americans in general may not like third places given their preferences for single-family homes and private dwellings alongside their devotion to work. Any business or restaurant trying to fight against this may not make much progress. Even if people come to Starbucks or similar locations, how many engage with the people around them as opposed to focusing on their own work or interacting with a companion who came with them or who met they there? Public spaces where people come together are rare.

Maybe Starbucks can only be a third place in a certain kind of location with denser populations and less reliance on cars. Or, perhaps Starbucks can never really be a third place in a society dominated by driving and quick food.

Is Starbucks really a “third place”?

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz likes to claim his stores operate as “third places,” a term coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg. But, do they really fill this role?

Now that so many street corners seem to have a Starbucks, has the international chain truly become that “place on the corner” where people connect? In fact, Oldenburg dismisses the Starbucks coffee shop as an “imitation”, debilitated by the company’s pursuit of that other quintessentially American obsession, security, and the sterile, predictable environment it produces. “With its overriding concern for safety,” Oldenburg told Bryant Simon, author of Everything But the Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks, “it can’t achieve the kind of connections I had in mind.”

Walk into a Starbucks today, and you may not notice much connection going on: some customers come in chatty groups, but many others arrive in search of nothing more than a place to open their laptops and get some work done; in effect, using Starbucks not as a third but a second place — their workplace. Most simply grab their coffee and go, never pausing to avail themselves of the chairs and couches provided, while others prefer to keep human interaction to an absolute minimum by using the drive-through window, a resoundingly un-urban feature Starbucks introduced in 1994.

Starbucks’ ongoing retooling and experimentation suggests that Schultz, for all he talks about his company’s resurrection of the “third place”, has yet to hear a sufficient amount of political banter and schoolchildren’s chatter in his stores. Starbucks’ enormous scale and need to service the American demand for frictionless convenience contradicts its mission to replicate the appeal of continental coffee-house culture: how much of a neighbourhood-rooted venue for chance encounter can you provide when you have to run thousands and thousands of them, making sure they all do more-or-less the same thing?

Maybe you could make a case either way. In favor, coffee shops serve as third places in numerous cultures and their presence almost everywhere means Americans have a common place outside their private homes and workplaces to get together. Yet, Starbucks present a common “McDonaldized” experience (it may be coffee but it is still fast food and often dependent on a car-driven society) that is primarily controlled by corporate interests. Perhaps only in a society that is so privatized (emphasis on single-family homes, cars, moving away from urban problems, individualism, etc.) could a chain coffee store even make the case that it is about community.

Americans spend more at restaurants than at grocery stores; use restaurants in new ways

Spending data from the Census shows that for the first time Americans spent more at restaurants than on buying food at grocery stores:

More than two decades ago, Americans spent $162 in groceries for every $100 they spent in restaurants. But this past January, they spent nearly equal amounts of money in both places: $50.475 billion in restaurants and bars, and $50.466 billion in grocery stores.

There are several social changes behind this:

Perry attributes the numbers to dropping gas prices, which have left many people with more disposable income. But it’s unlikely that a single factor is to thank for the trend. “I think it’s a combination of a recovering economy and changing eating habits,” he said, extrapolating that “the millennial generation [may be] more likely to eat out than cook at home.” Perry also noted that dining in restaurants simply isn’t the once-in-a-blue-moon event it used to be…

Martha Hoover, the founder of sprawling Indianapolis restaurant empire Patachou, goes one step further: Restaurants have earned a role in society that is equal to “work” or “home.”…

“We’ve seen a huge shift in San Francisco,” she told Yahoo Food. “I’ve seen people who treat restaurants like they do in New York City: as their kitchens.” Weinberg attributes the change to people working longer hours, leaving them with little time to prepare their own meals. Grocery shopping, too, can be a pricey proposition if one develops a predilection for organic and local fare.

In other words, home and family life has changed alongside different economic options. We might also see restaurants more as “third places” between work and home where people can socialize and pay for their meals in a comfortable in between space.

Chicago second in nation, fifth in world for Starbucks

Chicago is a world leader in Starbucks, even if it is sometimes insecure about its place on the world stage:

Chicago is home to 164 Starbucks, ranking the city second in the United State behind New York City–and fifth in the world, according to Starbucks store data compiled by Chris Meller.

There are 64 locations in an area bounded by DesPlaines, Oak Street, Congress Parkway and Navy Pier. That’s 40 percent of the city’s total…

At O’Hare International Airport alone, there are 17 Starbucks locations, including spots in baggage claims, terminal concourses, food courts and near gates.

The South Side has only nine stores south of 33rd Street. There are no Starbucks on the West Side–at least none west of Ashland.

The common factors behind the Chicago locations seem to be the wealth and number of tourists in different locations. In other words, Starbucks tends to locate where there are more people with more money to spend on coffee. This may be a little different than the vision the store promotes for serving as a “third place” – these third places are for certain kinds of neighborhoods.

American bars too loud, cafes too quiet for civil conversation and political dissent

A writer argues that civil conversation, let alone talk that might lead to political action and revolution, is not possible in American bars and cafes:

A noise gap has developed in American public life, and it’s a problem. The bars—at least those frequented by people under 40, who historically drive bottom-up political movements—have gotten louder. How loud? In 2012, the New York Times found that bars in that city regularly reached decibel levels so dangerously high that they violated federal workplace safety standards.

All that noise makes it hard to conduct a meaningful conversation, which is actually the idea. Bars have gotten louder at least in part in response to research showing that louder music encourages patrons to talk less and drink more. By rendering conversation obsolete, the loud atmosphere also nudges people towards imbibing past the point where intelligent conversation is possible. It’s not easy to find a large, crowded bar in an American city where conversation isn’t drowned out by music or a sports telecast. In fact, the Saloon, On U St. in Washington, D.C., has made its name by refusing to play loud music and forcing patrons to stay in their seats, making conversation possible.

The cafés, meanwhile, have gotten quieter. For centuries, coffee was used as a conversation stimulant. But in the present-day U.S., it functions primarily as productivity booster. Coffee long ago penetrated the workplace, and now cafés themselves have become workplaces—not just for eccentric writers and artists, but for knowledge workers of all stripes, who are often plugged into headphones that are plugged into laptops.

In 2011, a Gizmodo writer found it rude that people were talking near him at a café and tweeted, “Etiquette question: Now that coffee shops are basically office spaces, do you have to be quiet when you’re in them?” At the Bean in Manhattan’s East Village, as in several other other New York coffee houses, management has instituted a laptop-free zone. A few tables tucked in a corner of the shop, the Bean’s computer-free zone may as well be a memorial to the late, great café atmosphere.

This sounds like the sociological argument for better third places where average citizens can gather and converse. The primary argument there has been that there are not enough of these spaces. This new argument suggests having these third places isn’t enough; just their existence doesn’t guarantee public conversation but they need to meet certain conditions.

I suppose that could also fit a Marxist perspective: people use these spaces in such a way to follow their own interests (whether the customer wants to be left alone or the proprietor is pushing more product) and are blinded by the lack of civil discourse in which they are participating. In other words, the drinks, alcoholic, caffeinated, or sugary, and their intended uses, whether entertainment or work, are distracting people from the true issues at hand.

Does all this mean that we need a movement for better third places or public spaces (like public squares where some recent global revolutions have started or some argument that business owners who provide such private spaces will get more business) first before agitating against larger structures can begin?