In a lecture Andres Duany gave for years, he presented the slide above to illustrate how development by housing pod leads to segregation by income. The price points of the three Florida housing subdivisions were — 20 years ago — $100,000 for quadriplexes in the upper left, $250,000 for single-family houses in the foreground, and $350,000 for the large single-family houses across the highway.
This system neatly sorts buyers by income into separate pods, depending on what they can afford. If someone attempted to build a few multifamily units in the exclusive single-family pod, the neighbors would rise up in arms. “Suburbia has created a great fear of anybody of lesser income,” Duany said.
He explained this “socially insidious” sifting as a product of design. Benjamin Ross, in his recent book Dead End, takes this analysis to a deeper level.
Ross’s theory holds that the vast US migration out of cities and into suburbs — and all of the policies that supported the migration — can be explained by a widespread view that the suburban way of life held higher status.
Nearly every detail of sprawl is a status marker, Ross notes — from the fine-grained separation of price points, to the segregation of rental apartments in remote pods, to the “lawyer foyers,” to the wide and mostly useless front lawns. The pervasive use of the automobile itself is — or was — a sign of status.
Suburban status grew and solidified as great social upheaval – civil rights, feminism, the toppling of the old white Anglo-Saxon elite — shook America up in the second half of the 20th Century. As many divisions in American culture were erased, new ones emerged in fine-grained physical detail in the suburbs.
“The suburbs have created this element of snobbism. If you live here,” Duany used to say, pointing to the most expensive housing pod, “you are better than anyone else.”
That explains the conservative reaction to New Urbanism. This trend was mainly focused on physical form — reestablishing placemaking and authentic neighborhoods, and enabling choice in transportation. Wittingly or not, new urbanists also undermined deeply engrained social hierarchies. The Nimby reaction to proposals for density and mixed-use has often been impervious to reason because the proposals threatened perceived social standing.
Why is this important?
Proponents of place-based development should be aware of the dynamics of social standing for two reasons: They remain the primary barrier to reform – and also the greatest opportunity.
So much has happened in the last 40-plus years — the fall and rise of cities, the tremendous emerging market for urban places, the penetration of bohemian counterculture into American life — that urbanism has moved to the center of a new normal. Transportation choice is now cooler than a three-car garage. A really good-looking and unique main street offers better bragging rights than a generic enclosed mall or power center.
The Pleasant Valley lifestyle still lures many Americans and it is still supported by exclusionary zoning and road subsidies. The technical fixes promoted by urbanists — among them form-based codes, better street design, finance reform, investment in transit — are critical to reform. Selling reform to the American public is a battle because the drive-only lifestyle is central to the self-worth of tens of millions of Americans — many of whom are affluent enough to hire lawyers.
Richard Florida has made a significant impact by promoting the so-called “Creative Class” that prefers walkable urban places. Suburban and urban civic leaders alike seek creative types that correlate with innovation, entrepreneurship, and economic activity. This argument turns the class-based preference for drive-only suburbs on its head. Now, if you want your town to get ahead, you need walkable design. Author Leigh Gallagher described a similar idea in her 2013 book The End of the Suburbs. The suburban American Dream of 60 years no longer rules. The emerging American Dream is urban.
The new dream. From Made for Walking by Julie Campoli, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy
In terms of the built environment, America has two competing dreams. One has the advantage of the status quo with all of the systems and policies that go with it. But the emerging one is arguably more powerful. It is better aligned with the market. It has better return on investment. It positions a community to succeed. It is the way of the future.
Everyone has a right to pursue — or hold on to — their own dream. But they don't have a right to exclusion, protection, or subsidy. These dreams can compete on a level playing field. Let the best dream win.
The old American Dream of keeping up with the Joneses built the suburbs. The new one could rebuild our cities, towns, and neighborhoods and revitalize the suburbs for our children.
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