Our Urban Challenge: Where To Live?

A poll by the National Association of Realtors earlier this spring showed that Americans’ attitudes about where to live may be changing. A few (cherry-picked) highlights:

  • Americans are three times more likely to say that the quality of life in their communities has gotten worse (35%) rather than better (12%) in the last three years. In 2004, the public was more optimistic: 25%, gotten better; 23%, gotten worse; 52%, stayed the same.
  • When selecting a community, nearly half of the public (47%) would prefer to live in a city (19%) or a suburban neighborhood with a mix of houses, shops, and businesses (28%). Another four in ten (40%) would prefer a rural area (22%) or a small town (18%). Only one in ten (12%) say they would prefer a suburban neighborhood with houses only.
  • After hearing detailed descriptions of two different types of communities, 56% of Americans select the smart growth community and 43% select the sprawl community. Smart growth choosers do so largely because of the convenience of being within walking distance to shops and restaurants (60%). Those who prefer the sprawl community are motivated mostly by desire to live in single-family homes on larger lots (70%).
  • In a forced choice question, being within walking distance of amenities is preferred by a majority of Americans. Nearly six in ten adults (58%) would prefer to live in a neighborhood with a mix of houses and stores and other businesses within an easy walk. Four in ten (40%) select a community with housing only, where residents need to drive to get to businesses.
  • Privacy from neighbors is the top consideration tested for Americans in deciding where to live (45%, very important; 42%, somewhat). Other top priorities include, high quality public schools (44%; 31%), commute time (36%; 42%), and sidewalks and places to walk (31%; 46%).
  • Living in a single-family, detached home is important to most Americans. Eight in ten (80%) would prefer to live in single-family, detached houses over other types of housing such as townhouses, condominiums, or apartments.
  • While majorities of Americans prioritize space and privacy, a lengthy commute can sway them to consider smaller houses and lots. Six in ten (59%) would choose a smaller house and lot if it meant a commute time of 20 minutes or less. Four in ten (39%) would stick with the larger houses even if their commute was 40 minutes or longer.
  • Two-thirds (66% very or somewhat important) see being within an easy walk of places in their community as an important factor in deciding where to live. Specifically, being within an easy walk of a grocery store (75%), pharmacy (65%), hospital (61%), and restaurants (60%) is important to at least six in ten Americans.
  • Americans see improving existing communities (57%) and building new developments within existing communities (32%) as much higher priorities than building new developments in the countryside (7%).
  • The public’s attitudes toward traffic solutions have remained consistent over the last seven years. Improving public transportation is viewed as the best answer to traffic congestion by half of the country (50%). Three in ten (30%) prefer building communities where fewer people need to drive long distances to work and shop. Far fewer want to see more roads (18%).
  • Those on both ends of the socio-economic scale tend to prefer smart growth communities while those in the middle are more drawn to sprawl-type communities.

There are many more bullet points in the executive summary. Some of them challenge what I am about to say. Be that as it may, the points I’ve listed above tell me that an idea that’s cooking in Springfield now is a good one.

Check out the Pocket Neighborhood for the Springfield Urban Core page on Facebook.

The idea is a to create a small, dense neighborhood of small (1,000 to 1,200 sq. ft.), energy-efficient homes (solar and geo-thermal) within an easy walk/bicycle ride of downtown, MSU, OTC, and Drury University. Unlike typical subdivisions, the homes would face a central commons and cars would be kept to the rear.

I’ve been thinking about doing the downtown loft thing. But this idea fascinates me even more. Some of the reasons are right there in the stats I quoted. Yes, I want walkable. Yes, I want dense. Yes, I want an easy, short, car-free commute. Yes, I want public transportation. But also yes, I still like the idea of having a single-family home. My desire to leave the one I’m living in has far more to so with my dislike of yard work and cutting grass than it does with the idea of living in a free-standing house.

So the pocket neighborhood offers me a potential to get everything I want. Yard care? The commons care should be handled by a service. I still get to sit on my porch and enjoy it rather than working on it.

This post, being a part of my Urban Challenges series, isn’t supposed to be about me. But I’m calling this to your attention in the context of this series because since the introduction of this idea a few short weeks ago, the FB group participants have identified a property, begun an initial plan, and approached the city about zoning and other planning issues.

So the ball is rolling on an interesting new urbanist experiment.

The desire to live on a large lot far from town remains strong in this area. It is a lifestyle heavily associated with the American Dream and a certain view of personal freedom. The Realtor study also associates it with a particular political point of view known to dominate this corner of Missouri. Projections by the Ozarks Transportation Organization (see slides 18-30) indicate that, unless something changes, the suburban communities and exurban towns around Springfield will double in size by 2030. Further, people will continue to push into the hinterlands by building more suburbs on rural greenfields.

It’s possible, however, that our current economic problems have already had a dampening effect on those projections. How long will taxpayers continue to be willing subsidize the roads and other infrastructure necessary to maintain wealthy people on large lots far from town?

Also check out:

Smart Growth & Conventional Suburban Development: Which Costs More?

Central City and Suburban Development: Who Benefits and Who Pays?

The Growth Ponzi Scheme, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4Part 5

Our Urban Challenge Series:

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