Why 'place' is the new American dream
The new American Dream will transform cities and towns in the 21st Century. To understand it, we have to grasp a few features of the previous American Dream, which created the metropolitan regions that we know today. That Dream is still operative — although it has faded a bit since the 2008 housing crash. A Pew study shows the country now evenly split between two visions of the good life.
There were many good parts to the 20th Century American Dream. It provided shelter for three generations of Americans. It delivered a house, a yard, and a car (later two or three cars) to most households. It also tended to separate society by income, reduce community connections through sprawl, and increase automobile and road costs.
The top tier of that American Dream was the McMansion. The front of the McMansion has what is called “curb appeal,” an effect not unlike what the peacock achieves with its feathers. The multiple gables, the big, little-used front lawn, the porch too shallow to sit in — all have little practical function.
Those are status symbols — as is the big, expensive car. You can’t walk anywhere from the McMansion. There’s nowhere to walk to. For the children who grew up in these areas, the shopping mall was the town square.
This generation went to college, where many experienced walkable neighborhoods with diversity, culture, and mixed-use main streets and downtowns. Most don’t want to return to the cul-de-sac.
Some say that cities are on the rise, and suburbs are declining. I don’t think it is that simple. Rather, the new dream is based on the idea of “Place.” When you go to a community with layers of history, with charm and character, where many people gather, you react emotionally and psychologically. That feeling, which everybody has experienced, is known as “sense of place.” That sense has value. After six or seven decades of sprawl, many people seek it. Whether they get it in a central city, small city, suburb, or small town doesn’t matter.
Recently I learned a new term, “place-based development,” from James Tischler of the Michigan State Housing Development Authority. The term 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.
Compared to the last half of the 20th Century, which was a disaster for cities, downtowns and urban neighborhoods will do better in the 21st Century. Nevertheless, 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.
Place-based development correlates with Walk Score (walkscore.org), because Walk Score measures more than walkability — it measures the economic impact of Place. Economic activity gravitates toward Place — which raises the Walk Score.
The new American Dream especially appeals to the young and educated, and that is significant for developers, investors, and planners alike. Every community — suburb or city — wants to attract this demographic, the so-called “creative class” or “entrepreneurial class.” Call them what you will, the urban preference of this group is a powerful argument for adopting the new American Dream.
Unless suburbs transform themselves to align with the new American Dream, they risk losing population in the young and educated demographic. The leaders in Northwest Arkansas, where Walmart is headquartered, are coming up with a strategy to deal with that reality (we report on that in the July-August print issue of Better Cities & Towns).
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.
Robert Steuteville is editor and executive director of Better Cities & Towns. This commentary appears in the July-August print issue.
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