By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities
Have you noticed the a culture war against millions of U.S. residents who live in suburban and rural locations?
The war is waged by a small but influential group of city planners, and New Urbanism Think Tanks.
In their zest to design and build utopian cities, these urban elitists regularly bash the suburbs as undesirable ‘sprawl.’
The majority of urban planners seem to misunderstand non-city dwellers. In their minds, if you don’t live in a city, you must either be a poor schmuck or a selfish, ignorant, carbon-producing nuisance, bent on killing Planet Earth.
For example, check out Jeff Speck’s recent article in City Lab.
Speck is a certified urban planner, landscape architect, and the author of two books on ‘walkable’ cities. He’s a former presidential appointee of the National Endowment for the Arts, and a frequent presenter or consultant for the Urban Land Institute.
With all due respect, Jeff Speck is completely out of touch with mainstream Americans.
A Step-by-Step Guide for Fixing Badly Planned American Cities
An excerpt from Jeff Speck’s Walkable City Rules, a step-by-step guide to fixing America’s cities and towns.
JEFF SPECK @JeffSpeck AICP Oct 9, 2018
Here’s an excerpt from the article:
Rule 100: Don’t give up on sprawl
It’s where most Americans live.
In 1999, when Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and I were writing Suburban Nation, it seemed that stopping the spread of sprawl might actually be possible. Two decades later, it is difficult to harbor such illusions. Most of the subsidies and market perversities that drove the initial suburban outflux are still in place, and too many powerful organizations still benefit from our dependence on cars and roads.
Even though polls and price comparisons show that the auto zone is vastly overbuilt, the sprawl machine will continue to churn, sucking in farmland and fossil fuels and spitting out soulless subdivisions and ever more carbon. The data suggest it might kill us all before long. But while we’re still here, why can’t we just live in the kind of places we want?
This final question, and our collective failure to change the rules of the game, has led to a new mandate, less ambitious but still important: making the walkable lifestyle available to more of the people who want it but can’t find or afford it in their cities. As the sprawl bomb continues to slowly detonate, planners and activists can make the biggest difference by bringing more attainable housing to our city and town centers. But they can also have an impact by creating pockets of urbanism where the people already are: in the belly of the sprawl beast.
The statistics make it clear that the vast majority of people living in sprawl don’t want to be there: In a recent National Association of Realtors survey, only 10 percent of respondents want to live in single-use housing subdivisions. This means that perhaps a third of Americans are trapped in the suburbs involuntarily, most because they can’t afford real urbanism.
Most Americans prefer suburban and rural living
Frankly, as a child of small town suburbia, an adult who has lived for several years in a major city, and later returned back to the suburbs, I am personally offended by Speck’s disdain for non-city folk.
For some reason, urban planners like Speck can’t seem to grasp the fact that millions of Americans genuinely prefer to avoid big cities.
We hate the traffic, the parking headaches, the noisy and polluted environment, and, most of all, the cramped but expensive housing options.
Unlike city planners, we Americans don’t rely on results of home buyer surveys conducted by the National Association of Realtors.
After all, most of us aren’t interested in buying a house right now, if ever. NAR surveys don’t tell us where the general population prefers to live. The surveys only tell Realtors and industry professionals what people on the move — and investors — are most likely to buy.
Yet NAR surveys consistently reveal that more than 80% of home buyers want, and ultimately purchase, a single family detached home in the suburbs.
Sorry ULI, but this is not surprising.
How many of us really want to share walls and ceilings with our neighbors? And how many of us actually choose to live within walking distance to a trendy downtown, in exchange for having a private back yard with a shade tree or two?
Contrary to Speck’s belief that rural and suburban living is an unpleasant trap, most of America doesn’t see it that way.
Mixed-use is mixed up
The truth is, most of us, if we can afford it, will avoid living in a small apartment or condo perched on top of — or next door to — a neighborhood bar, a Chinese restaurant, a day care, or the local gym.
Likewise, few us want to live practically on top of the nearest commuter rail line. Unless, of course, we win the lottery. Then we can afford to live in the penthouse condo with state-of-the-art sound proof construction and sweeping views of the city.
Here’s the inconvenient truth about ‘mixed-use’, association-governed communities, so loved by urban planners: residential and commercial property owners are forced to share expenses for common ownership, even though they hold incompatible interests.
Homeowners aren’t that interested in subsidizing the costs of business owners. And business owners are even less interested in subsidizing residential maintenance costs of homeowners. Good luck finding a mixed use property owners’ association that manages to strike a fair balance.
Where to find neighborhoods with soul
I have to agree with Speck on one point. Millions of Americans live in ‘soulless’ suburban and rural subdivisions. But they’re not soulless because of their locations.
The soul has been sucked out of many ‘modern’ subdivisions because, for more than four decades, developers and home builders have teamed up with small towns and counties to create hundreds of thousands of cookie-cutter homes in common interest developments.
And, of course, the vast majority of these new, very un-urban communities are burdened by covenant-restricted properties, and ruled by homeowners’ associations.
Put simply, it’s the CC&Rs and the HOAs that have replaced the soul of our neighborhoods. So I agree with Speck that ‘market perversities’ perpetuate most housing subdivision built since the 1970s.
Who are the ‘powerful organizations’ behind common ownership and HOA-ville? Real estate developers, community association professionals, and vendors that serve these contrived subdivisions.
But in some parts of the U.S., it’s still possible to enjoy suburban and rural life in an older single family home. Best of all, homeowner rights aren’t limited by dozens of deed restrictions, and neighborhoods are free from HOA-rule.
It’s in these vintage neighborhoods, villages, and small towns that you’ll find true communities with a soul.
What we love about suburban and rural living
What’s not to love?
We have private outdoor spaces for children to play and for pets to run free. There’s space to plant vegetable gardens, fruit trees, perennials, and native shrubs.
Our streets are safer and we have less smog than crowded cities. Mature, leafy trees line our streets.
For us, ‘walkability’ means that we can walk or bike on the shoulder of many of our side streets, rural roads, or nearby trails, without dodging dangerous auto and truck traffic.
We can sleep more peacefully at night, free from noise and light pollution of the big city.
Our homes and neighborhoods are vibrant with cookouts in the summer. In the winter, children build snowmen outside.
We are free to decorate our homes for the holidays and paint our front doors red. We can even leave our empty garbage cans on the curb until the day after trash pick up.
What a concept!
We can park our SUVs and pickup trucks in our driveways or on the street in front of our homes. And those larger vehicles serve a purpose. We use them to haul children, pets, sports and camping gear, fishing boats, and a month’s worth of groceries to store in our pantries.
Some of us have RVs that allow us to travel all over the country. We don’t need to spend a fortune on those city and suburban hotels that developers and real estate investors love to build.
Suburban and Rural living is less isolated than it used to be
Finally, Speck apparently hasn’t noticed that life in our suburbs and rural communities keeps evolving, with or without reviving Main Street.
We now have more work from home opportunities. Many of our neighbors are independent contractors, sales professionals, freelancers, or entrepreneurs. Our work doesn’t necessarily require the long, daily commute to a factory or office.
Many more of us work for neighborhood hospitals, health clinics, town or county governments, or public and private schools. Again, no need to drive to and from a distant city every day.
Many of us who are retired are done with commuting anyway.
We can now shop online. Retailers offer home delivery of everything imaginable, from groceries to power tools to pet food. We bank online, and we can visit the doctor or urgent care center right in our neighborhood.
Small grocers, ice cream shops, Dollar Stores, Delis, Cafes, and hardware stores are replacing abandoned retail storefronts. We no longer have to drive to the city to take care of 90% of our basic needs.
We meet our neighbors at local farm markets, town festivals, church or school events, all of them close to home.
Change is happening, and perhaps not as fast as we’d all like. But the trends are noticeable. In our soul-filled suburban and rural neighborhoods, we’re not feeling ‘trapped’ or isolated.
That said, if urban planners like Speck truly want to eliminate traffic jams and long commutes, here’s a suggestion.
Develop plans to spread economic opportunities to suburban and rural zones, instead of limiting them to city centers.