January 20, 2011

Ascertainable Fact: Sprawl Neither Demanded nor Profitable

Not demanded:

(From the WSJ. Italics mine. Bolding mine. Underline mine.)
Much of this week’s National Association of Home Builders conference has dwelled on the housing needs of an aging baby boomer population. But their children actually represent an even larger demographic. An estimated 80 million people comprise the category known as “Gen Y,” youth born roughly between 1980 and the early 2000s. The boomers, meanwhile, boast 76 million. (And, uh, we're gonna outlive them.)
Gen Y housing preferences are the subject of at least two panels at this week’s convention. A key finding: They want to walk everywhere. Surveys show that 13% carpool to work, while 7% walk, said Melina Duggal, a principal with Orlando-based real estate adviser RCLCO. A whopping 88% want to be in an urban setting, but since cities themselves can be so expensive, places with shopping, dining and transit such as Bethesda and Arlington in the Washington suburbs will do just fine.

Count me in that 88%, obvi. I'm wracking my brain for a peer to (anonymously) trot out as a counterexample, but I can't.

Not Profitable:

Transportation for America breaks down a report indicating that these Gen-Y preferences (density, infill, transit-links, walkability) have big economic bonuses:

In Dallas, Texas, for instance, downtown retail sales rose 33 percent the year after the new light rail system began operation. Portland, Oregon attracted $3.5 billion in private investment after just $100 million in streetcar funding. In Sarasota, Florida, downtown development costs clocked in at just half the cost of new development in the suburbs and generated four times the revenue in tax receipts.
Denver, Colorado perhaps best exemplifies the market for new approaches to growth and transit. Home values for Denver residents within a half-mile radius of the Southeast light rail line increased by 18 percent just as home values in the remainder of Denver declined by 18 percent, between 2006 and 2008. Nationwide, one study found that every one-point increase in a home’s “walk score” — a measure of how accessible the area is by foot — corresponded with a $700 to $3,000 increase in property value.


  1. This is all very good and fine, but don't forget that some people's priorities change when they have things like babies... It's fairly easy for spry young bucks like you and I to live in dense, urban areas and ride public transportation and walk to the supermarket and all that NOW..... but what about doing that when you've got two kids and a dog? Or when your job is in the suburbs instead of downtown, which is so often the case these days? Suddenly a yard and a car (not to mention a lot more square-footage for your buck) are looking a little bit more attractive........ My parents are a good example of this... my mom grew up in very urban SF, and both of them lived in Manhattan for a while, then in urban MPLS..... but when my dad got a new job in the 'burbs and with me and my sister on the horizon, their urban digs were just not going to cut it anymore.

    This is not to say that raising a family in a dense urban setting can't work or is wrong or whatever--just that suburbia does have a understandable (to me) appeal to a certain set of people with a certain set of priorities.

    This is also not to say that there is nothing wrong with most of suburbia today..... but I don't have to tell you that.

    What I do mean to say is that urban areas are desirable to some, and suburban (and rural) areas to others, and our preferences may shift once, twice, or however many times depending on various circumstances in our lives.... I have to believe there is a way to make it ALL work sustainably and in a gracefully integrated fashion.

    So I can't exactly say that I am a counterexample, but in 20 years, I dunno, maybe I'll be singing a different song. ummm PEACE

  2. My parents moved out to the 'burbs when I was 5: better schools, more space. Done.

    I would be curious to inspect the data behind Gen Y's professed desire for urban walkability--it could be a cohort effect where everyone is in the same boat for now (named "USS Young N Spry") and will eventually experience the demographic trend of our forebears (jumping to "USS Our Progeny Are Expensive and More Space Would Be Nice".)

    What remains to be seen is whether there will be a true generational break, which is what the data purports to claim. And it might; I'm optimistic. My grandparents (AKA parents of boomers) were birthing babies right around the same time the GI Bill made a suburban house a can't-miss offer. And I think cities are currently hitting a veritable renaissance compared to the Le Corbu-happy Urban Renewal/eminent domain abused/freeway addled (Bronx Expwy, Embarcadero Fwy, et al)/white flight vacated/crack epidemic affected urban landscape of the 60s-80s.

    This is painting with a broad brush, but there is an argument to be made that the urban spaces of our future will be different and better, and hopefully more compatible with families, than in the past. For now though, it's true that the high costs of housing and iffy public schools rule out many would-be urban parents (who, let's let the record show, nonetheless maintain the privilege of choosing where to live, which is certainly a privilege not shared by all).

    "What I do mean to say is that urban areas are desirable to some, and suburban (and rural) areas to others, and our preferences may shift once, twice, or however many times depending on various circumstances in our lives. ... I have to believe there is a way to make it ALL work sustainably and in a gracefully integrated fashion."


    Suburban development in existence isn't going anywhere, and it will continue to grow just as surely as urban development will, too. I do think we face an imperative to do suburbs differently, as well as start re-routing the various $$ incentives to build and inhabit sprawl toward mixed-use, TODs, infill development, urban housing, etc.

    There's a lot more (xinfinity more) to unpack here, but my brain is just about fried at this hour of the night. 2Bcontinued.