The Option of Urbanism: Investing in a New American Dream

Christopher Leinberger

Chris LeinbergerThe following is excerpted from Chapter 7, "Unintended Consequences of Walkable Urbanism" from The Option of Urbanism: Investing in a New American Dream, by Christopher Leinberger. Copyright © 2007 by Island Press. Excerpted by permission of Island Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


Arthur C. Nelson of Virginia Tech forecasted that owners of between 1 million (optimistic assumptions) and 22 million (probable) large-lot single-family homes in existence in 2000 will have a hard time finding buyers by 2025, due to changing demographics and development patterns outlined in this book. Yet for now, drivable suburban development continues to be built due to legal codes, subsidies, financial standards, and developer know-how. Hundreds of thousands of McMansions have been built on large drivable sub-urban lots since 2000, and exurban population growth beyond the metropolitan fringe has been growing twice as fast as overall metropolitan growth.8 As a result, the number of obsolete drivable sub-urban housing units on the fringe in 2025 may be even greater than Nelson is projecting. So what will happen with the millions of obsolete houses? 

Learning lessons from our experiences during the 1960s through the 1980s, when the country shifted from walkable urbanism to drivable sub-urban development, there is certainly a high probability that large-lot single-family homes on the fringe might be broken up into apartments or condominiums or sold at bargain-basement prices to lower income families. This is not what homeowner associations, neighborhood groups, municipalities, and school districts on the fringe would want to see, so there would be considerable resistance. There was opposition to "block busting" in the 1960s as well, the practice of scaring generally white homeowners with the advice "sell now before more colored families move into the neighborhood." The resistance in the early twenty-first century to this kind of change will probably be even more substantial and well organized, due in part to the politically organized nature of the places where these houses are located. The owners of these fringe houses will take a substantial financial loss, just as those engaging in white flight from the cities did in the 1960s. 

Option of UrbanismBut there are other problems with the scenario of large homes being sold to lower income families or broken up into apartments. The first concerns the cost of energy. Let's assume that a gasoline-powered vehicle is the probable way to get to this housing in the near and midterm future and that the price of oil will continue to increase faster than inflation, due to both lower production (caused by declining supplies, dislocation due to terrorism, or manipulation by supplier nations) and higher worldwide demand. This will mean that lower income families occupying these then lower cost houses will have large gasoline bills. And the new tenants will have to heat huge houses that are "outstanding in their fields"-exposed on all sides to the weather, unlike more efficient apartments and townhouses in more urban settings. 

Another problem is that today's homes, even high-end McMansions, are cheaply built in comparison to those grand houses and townhouses that were broken up into apartments half a century ago. Hollow doors and wall board are less durable than solid oak doors and lath and plaster walls. Many McMansions have been built with artifi cial components that do not have a proven track record of long life, such as plywood floors using glues that dry out over time and roofs that are built to last no more than ten years. The ultimate proof of the higher quality of the older grand houses and townhouses is that even after being broken up into rental apartments for thirty-sixty years-a very hard use of a property- many of these houses are being reconverted into single-family homes. These restored houses often use the same flooring, walls, doors, banisters, and slate roofs that were installed originally, sometimes 100 years earlier. Current construction standards are much lower, and it is doubtful the recently built houses will survive as long. 

The country will be fundamentally restructuring how it constructs the built environment over the next few decades, trying to catch up with the pent-up demand for walkable urbanism. It appears that when the music stops, many families and investors on the fringe will be left without a market-viable seat. This change will become obvious when land prices as a percentage of the selling price for drivable sub-urban housing begin to flatten out and decline while walkable urban land continues to rise as a percentage of the house value. There will be fiscal pain on the metropolitan fringe for municipal and school district budgets, and maybe even bankruptcies, as a result of the pendulum swinging back toward walkable urbanism. Adjustments of this magnitude are never easy.

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The here drawn scenario of dying suburbia will faster take place than any federal or provincial, not to mention municipality, can deal with. This isn't just an adjustment, this is a complete redefinition of suburbia, which will again divide a society, this time by the question who can afford to move out. Many won't be able to join the re-urbanization train, and will be forced to stay and fight crime and the absence of authorities. The well studied and documented phenomena of "shrinking cities" gives us here an idea - and hope - how this "non-cities" (suburbia) could change. Due the lack of private and public control (zoning bylaws, land usage, private housing codex), we will see a more creative and productive use of land. Once those "Brownfields" (term for abandoned or underused urban/industrial land) has been cleared and cleaned, small scale and intensive agriculture will be the future. It will provide those who stay with an income and the urban center with more food security. This redesigning process - ideally according to Permaculture principles - needs to be done by the community itself.
Sounds to good to be true? Maybe. But there are many examples out there where this kind of change happens. And the step number one is: taking RESPONSIBILITY for the place you live.

Written in August 2008

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