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before--and after--sprawl

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The picture above is of downtown Belfast, Maine, a.k.a. my American dream. My family and I live about a mile from this spot. The post office is just out of the frame to the right. I can walk there and back in less than 30 minutes, so dropping off a package makes a good afternoon work break. My kids can walk or longboard into town for a pizza or to drop off a library book. The high school is half a mile further, off to the left, so it's a medium walk or a short bike ride from the house. My wife and I like to walk into town for dinner and a movie. Lots of tourists come here in the summer just to stroll around and enjoy these same simple pleasures. So why don't we build towns like this anymore?

The New Urbanists have been asking--and answering--that question for long enough now that we have a pretty clear idea of how we abandoned the Belfast model in favor of Sprawlville, but we've been frustratingly slow to turn away from that dead end. So I seize on any sign that we are indeed moving toward healthier, more enjoyable new neighborhoods.

In short, builders are recognizing that buyers (and renters, too!) value the neighborhood as much as — if not more than — the house. And what they want from that neighborhood might not be McMansions and four-car garages after all. Resale value may not in fact trump all else. Young and old, whether they’re in the city or the suburbs, want to walk to places like restaurants and shops. (And let’s stop talking about the integration of things like cafes, public transit and bike racks as “urbanizing” an area, which only reinforces the divide between two entities that are divided enough already.)

People have begun to wake up to the fact that the more time spent in the car means poorer health and less time with their families — and they’re seeking shorter commutes. They’re interested in smaller homes that are easier to maintain (and less expensive to heat and cool). Young millennials and older baby boomers are also showing less and less interest in car ownership and a corresponding greater interest in public transit, walking and biking.

Valuing one's neighborhood more than one's house is a powerful concept, and one that may rattle those of us in the business of designing and building houses. But I think it's going to be increasingly important in understanding not only how clients want to live, but also the options we are able to provide them. --b.d.s.

 

 
 

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