The suburban resistance to housing density

One thing is integral to the American Dream: Buying a home. It may not necessarily be the right financial choice for a given family or circumstance, but it’s hard to feel like one has truly arrived, truly become a grownup, unless one has bought a home. ‘Buying’ is a figurative term in the era of the 30 year mortgage, of course, when the bank owns your house for quite a long time, but still. Owning a home is the aspirational goal, right along with the picket fence in the front yard, the 2.5 children playing on the swingset, and the dog sitting on the back porch.

But lo, what light through yonder picket breaks? One of the areas of particularly heavy development in the United States is in suburban communities, which have perfected the cliche soulless development of cardboard box house after cardboard box house arrayed in what’s meant to be a ‘charming’ map of twisty, tangled streets. These homes are built and sold cheaply to those aspiring to the American dream, and they’re situated in regions reasonably close to transit so people can get into the city, and work; bedroom communities. Many are built on the trampled remains of once rural areas.

Cities are desperately trying to build dense, which means up and out, and single family dwellings are really starting to disappear in urban environments because they just don’t make sense. The footprints taken up by a row of houses could be used much more effectively by a development that includes multiple stories and an array of apartments. There’s a notion that apartment living is somehow failing at life, something that only people just out of school do, that apartment buildings are trashy and not fit for serious grownups. Condos are much more acceptable, though I’m honestly unclear on the physical difference between an apartment and a condo. A flat sounds bohemian, so that’s allowed, but an apartment, well. Surely you could do better.

So there’s this ideal of the single family home, sitting all alone on its isolated lot, surrounded by a grassy lawn and some tasteful landscaping, and that’s really hammered home in media, pop culture, and socialisation across the United States. Become a successful American and buy a home, but a real house, not a share in some other person’s building where you’ll have to hear people through your walls and hear the sound of traffic outside. What you need is a suburban home, close enough to the city to get to work, but close enough to the country to feel ‘rural,’ especially with a nice greenbelt to trick you into thinking you’re conserving habitat and living close to nature.

This is a problem. As the population of the nation grows and as cities bulge out, they’re bottlenecking at suburbs. They can’t develop quickly enough to meet their needs within city limits, even with developers vying for permits. There’s not enough land, the permit process is complicated, developing often requires displacing people, and there are a host of problems that push people out in a ripple effect into surrounding communities, those that blur into a series of interconnected cities with no clear border, and then finally into the suburbs. The suburbs represent a fantastic area for development, because they have lots of land for putting in high rises. And hey, thanks to their position on transit hubs, they’re suited for city workers who need to be able to commute reliably—the myth that you can’t live in the suburbs without a car really doesn’t hold water.

Yet, suburbs are heavily resistant to development. Many were specifically incorporated to put down severe limits on housing density, and to mandate in their city plans that lots be a certain size, homes be under a certain size. All of these moves were designed to maintain the ‘charming’ and ‘rustic’ appearance of plastic cities that sprang up largely overnight. They were designed to protect the McMansion and the boring split level, to keep wealthy people happily isolated from the terrors of urban life and the degradation of the American Dream represented by high rise apartments and people, people everywhere being diverse and calling their community home.

Consequently, development falters at suburbs, and then pushes even further out. Infrastructure is strained even further as transit and services need to reach further out to serve people who cannot live closer. People commute over an hour to get to work on transit when they could have much shorter trips if they could just live in densely developed suburban communities 20 minutes down the train track. Yet, these communities don’t want to be ‘urbanised,’ so they’re insistently clinging to their outdated city plans and their beliefs that they should be spared development.

If suburbs can’t reform from the inside, perhaps it’s time for the state to step in. California in particular is facing a housing crisis and this has become, fundamentally, a serious issue for the state’s economy, with far-reaching implications for economic growth and development, but also for things like public health, culture, and other factors. While cities theoretically incorporate to shake free of county and state influence, maybe we need to rethink this approach and ask ourselves if it’s time for the state to develop some teeth and go after suburbs, forcing them to sit down and tolerate the high rises they hate and the dense development they can’t stand, because it’s more ecologically friendly, and more economically friendly, than their little fantasy world.

Image: Thatched House, Longstock, Hampshire, Neil Howard, Flickr