What is the new American Dream?
The new American Dream is about place, and that brings people and communities together. The 20th Century American Dream tended to pull cities and towns apart.
The new American Dream will transform cities and towns in the 21st Century. To understand this revised take on American aspirations, we have to grasp a few features of the previous American Dream, which created the metropolitan regions that we know today.
That 20th Century American Dream provided a lifestyle and housing that three generations of Americans bought into. There were many good parts to it.
One insidious aspect of it, however, was a fine-grained separation by income. Andres Duany gave an influential lecture across the US from the late 1980s through the early 2000s. Below is one slide from that lecture. Duany would point to the housing pod in the upper central part of the slide and say that those people all paid at least $350,000 for their units; those who bought the pink-roofed houses paid $250,000 for their units, and the people who bought the quadriplexes in the upper left paid about $100,000 for their units (this was 20 years ago).
That’s how the American Dream was sold. Even after racial and ethnic exclusions were outlawed by the Fair Housing Act of 1968, this class-based separation by income remained — it was driven by the constant striving to get to the next-higher tier.
Below is the top tier of that version of the American Dream: The McMansion. Everything about the McMansion is designed to announce that its owner is in the top income tier. The status of the house has to be displayed from the front, because that is the only visible part of the McMansion. Although you can’t see them, the other elevations don’t matter and are usually dead flat.
Photo by Lee Sobel
The front of the McMansion has what is called “curb appeal,” an effect not unlike what the peacock achieves with its feathers. The tail feathers of the peacock have nothing to do with helping the individual bird survive – they are not necessary to fly, to shed rain, or for any practical purpose. They are for mating only.
The seven gables in the front of the McMansion are also for mating purposes. They mate the house to the buyer, and the buyers to their egos. The gables have no structural function.
Much of what you see above has no functional purpose: Certainly not the front lawn, which is not used for anything practical. The lawn, however, is a signifier of the income tier of the homeowner. As such, it is important to the 20th Century American Dream. But this arrangement works only if everybody agrees to use his or her land inefficiently. Hence zoning, which is not primarily about protection of health, safety, or welfare.
If somebody on this street were allowed to build, say, an apartment building on the enormous front lawn (complete with lamp posts in this case), it probably would not really endanger anyone. And yet, the lives of everybody in the vicinity would be turned upside down.
Below is what happens to transportation when you take the separation-by-pod scenario to its absurd conclusion.
Original source: Streetsblog
The two houses are 50 feet apart in the back, and seven miles apart by public right of way. That’s not efficient. People on the two streets to either side of the houses that are 7 miles apart by road have little or no contact with each other. So there is no community. Community is like sex: There has to be contact.
And there is also little or no possibility of creating a place, because everything is kept separate. Place is about bringing things together so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. It’s about diversity and culture and community; that is the new American Dream.
Park in Providence, Rhode Island. Courtesy of the Project for Public Spaces.
Recently I learned a new term, "place-based development," from James Tischler of the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA). The term is objective and nonjudgmental, and refers to any development or investment that generates a sense of place. Place-based development is objectively a better investment today, and it creates higher values. Place-based development can occur in cities, suburbs, or rural areas, but it works best in urban centers and mixed-use corridors.
Downtown Birmingham, Michigan. Photo by Michael Campbell.
Place-based development is not about the city versus the suburb. That is a storyline that many repeat, in books such as The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving. The author, Leigh Gallagher, did not literally mean the suburbs are over; nonetheless, the title and many other writings on this theme give the impression that the new American Dream is a zero-sum game in which cities win and suburbs lose.
In truth, many of the best opportunities for place-based development will arise in the suburbs.
In just two years, the suburban municipality of Lancaster, California, saw $273 million in economic benefit from a revitalization of its main street in 2010.
Tamara Leigh Photography
Place-based development correlates with Walk Score (walkscore.org), because Walk Score measures more than walkability — it measures the economic impact of place. Creation of a place brings people and communities together — which generates economic activity and raises the Walk Score.
And “sense of place” is real, too. It’s not just some nebulous, touch-feely idea. Sense of place is the emotional or psychological reaction to place, as shown in the following graphic, also from MSHDA.
The new American Dream is especially prevalent among the young and educated Americans, and that is powerful. Every community — suburb or city — wants to attract the young and educated, the so-called “creative class” or “entrepreneurial class.” Call them what you will, the urban preference of this group is one of the more powerful arguments for the new American Dream.
Suburbs are worried that they will lose the young and educated, and rightly so. Many suburbs will transform themselves to appeal to the new American Dream, and others will be left behind.
Screen shot of New York Times article
Alan Ehrenhalt wrote about something he calls The Great Inversion. That’s the new American Dream at work.
The old American Dream was driven by an incentive to use the land inefficiently. In the new American Dream, the incentive is enjoyment and participation in the economic benefits of place. The chief thing we need to understand is that to create place, a community must be brought together, and the land must be used more efficiently than it was when socioeconomic segregation reigned.
Source: Julie Campoli, Made for Walking.
Robert Steuteville is executive director and editor of Better! Cities & Towns, dedicated to communications, competence, and coalitions for better cities and towns.
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