A foundational idea in American life is that single-family homes should be located near other single-family homes and away from other land uses, including denser residential units. While this might sometimes be sidelined to the more areas of planning and zoning, I would argue this is much bigger than just allocating physical space: it interacts with significant social, political, and cultural forces and has sizable effects on daily life. I will first describe how we got here before highlighting two examples I saw this week and then noting several important outcomes.
From at least the mid-1800s, Americans developed ideas about having separate single-family homes among nature. Scholar John Archer examines the idea of “the cottage in the woods” from its roots in English villa houses and into a rapidly urbanizing American landscape. As cities and then suburbs developed, the single-family home became a hallmark of suburban communities where residents had escaped hectic and dangerous urban life. As zoning developed in the early 1900s, it evolved to protect single-family homes from other nearby land uses that might threaten it. Many American leaders and organizations promoted homeownership. Suburban communities and residential neighborhoods became refuges for whiter and wealthier residents who then worked to keep others out. This all helped contribute to residential pockets separate from other land uses and protected by local zoning and land use policies.
This historical legacy and ongoing reality plays out consistently in certain areas. Two examples I ran across in just the last few days:
- Affordable housing in the suburbs. Can denser housing that is cheaper be anywhere near single-family homes? This particular project in the Chicago suburbs drew typical complains from nearby homeowners; noise, traffic, change in character for the neighborhood. The developer came back with changes to try to fit in better with the nearby homes but there are still concerns. This makes sense given the American logic of homes and space but this logic is not organic or inherent to the housing itself; it is created.
- Why do apartments have to be located on busier streets in American communities? This may have negative effects on the apartment residents and serves to maintain the distance between denser housing and single-family homes. Again, this makes sense given the established American logic but it is possible – and indeed done elsewhere – that you can have quieter residential streets lined with apartments.
Why does this all matter? This separation of housing serves to continue race/ethnicity and class divides, contributing to residential segregation. This changes social patterns as people in different neighborhoods may be less likely to interact, utilize the same civic (such as schools) and private services, and engage politically. Ultimately, it can both shape and be shaped cleavages in society. Location helps determine life chances and Americans start with the premise that homes should be separate.