Live smaller, work closer, shed excess

  • Multigenerational households

    Multigenerational households

    US population living in multigenerational family households, 1940-2008, in millions

    Courtesy of ULI report, "What's Next." Source: Pew Research Center analysis of US Census data.

  • Space per employee

    Space per employee

    Chart shows the decline in space per employee in all US industries since 1985.

    Courtesy of ULI report, "What's Next." Source: Jones Lang LaSalle

  • Shrinking houses

    Shrinking houses

    The average number of square feet in new single-family houses is projected to continue a decline that's been occurring since 2008.

    Chart courtesy of ULI report, "What's Next." Sources: US Census, National Association of Home Builders.

Philip Langdon
Better! Cities & Towns

Imagine this:

• A nation in which more people have to make do with less space.

• A country in which limited pay levels and diminished housing values impel people to live in smaller dwelling units or to share a large home with several other individuals.

• Demand for construction of no more than 1 million new homes per year—down from more than 2 million in the best years of the past decade.

• Demand for 300,000 additional rental units per year, triple the number produced in 2010.

• A growing concentration of apartments at transit stations and near suburban town centers, "gradually turning single-use commercial strips into mixed-use corridors."

All of those are part of the future laid out in a 115-page Urban Land Institute report, "What's Next: Real Estate in the New Economy." As ULI's researchers see it, the American economy is going to be constrained for several more years. At the same time, young people, unable to afford single-family houses, will continue shifting toward lively urban and suburban settings where they have plenty of opportunities for socializing close by. 

The result is a country that will feel financially constricted but that will be lively and more efficient. It will be a smart-growth-trending nation.

ULI's report is packed with charts and tables explaining demographic, financial, technological, and environmental trends that, taken together, will do much to shape urban planning, urban design, and development practices. 

Here are some of the report's most salient points:

Average compensation in the United States had been leveling off or sliding even before the recession....Diminished home values have broken many family nest eggs. That isn't going to change during this decade, which means that affordability—always a key element in housing markets—is taking on a whole new meaning as developers reach for ways to make attractive homes within the means of financially constrained buyers....

To save money, more of us must either live in larger households or in smaller units. Looking on the brighter side, the American family has a chance to reconnect, and what's wrong with that?....

Multifamily developers reemerge from hibernation and start building again. Six million new renter households may be formed between 2008 and 2015....

Apartment projects concentrate at mass transit stations and near suburban town centers....Community planners and local governments have the opportunity to work with developers in fashioning more multi-use town center concepts around existing shopping malls and office nodes.

These projects can meet intensifying demand for live-work environments which involve less car dependency and feature walkable neighborhoods, features which are very attractive to the increasing share of single-person households who make "living solo" a way of life. In turn, more compact development—involving high- and mid-rise buildings as well as townhouses—bolster continuing urbanizing trends in many suburban locations....

Overwhelmingly, bright-light urban environments attract the exploding number of career-building, Boomer offspring known as Generation Y. After rooming in college dorms, these 20-somethings on tight budgets prefer places to congregate with friends—in parks, bar scenes, restaurant clusters, and building common areas—and can tolerate smaller living spaces. Priced out of many in-town neighborhoods, this generation willingly settles for less pricey digs in urbanizing commercial nodes along transit routes convenient to center-city jobs.

All of those trends should be familiar to readers who have been following our own reporting on the findings and predictions of Christopher Leinberger, Arthur "Chris" Nelson, and others. Despite serious economic challenges, including those posed by global competition—and in some cases because of them—the US has an opportunity to build in a more compact, connected, and environmentally sound manner. Of course, continuation of these trends depends to some extent on crime rates not rising and on other aspects of urban quality of life not deteriorating. 

Retail and employment

We may well see less retail constuction in the past, but that may not be entirely a bad thing. "More and more retail box formats are evolving into urban streetscape formats [good, from a new urbanist/smart growth perspective] and gravitating to fortress malls [not so good] and shopping centers at the heart of suburban nodes," ULI says.

Meanwhile, employers are engaged in a long-term process of reducing the volume of space per worker. One chart shows that the average space per US employee (in all industries, presumably including manufacturing, which requires substantial floor areas) has dropped from about 400 square feet in 1985 to less than 250 in 2011 and is likely to reach 150 square feet per employee in 2020. Those trends may complicate the task of designing and building mixed-use places.

Or perhaps they won't. Smaller workspaces may actually be easier to fit in with housing, retail, restaurants, culture, and entertainment. 

In any event, some of the changes presented in the report are the kind that new urbanists and smart growth proponents favor. "Google, Facebook, and Twitter," ULI points out, "all moved to more urban locations, seeing the stimulus-rich, urbane aura young people want." The virtues of walkable, mixed-use locales are increasingly being recognized.