New Urbanist development in Seabrook WA

Are Suburbs Becoming Popular Again, with Smart Changes?

Is there a better design for the suburbs?

This post is inspired by the book The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving by Leigh Gallagher, 2014 (I have no affiliate links)

There is generally an agreed upon perception of the suburbs. Single family houses, single lots with uniform setbacks, driveways, cars, and lawnmowers. Room for storage. A little distance from the sounds of your neighbors.

But for many who thought their kids would be able to walk to school, or into town, the reality is that they can’t do so safely, or the distance is too great.

The suburbs of the 1950s, with close, small homes, have transformed since the 1980s. Bigger homes, bigger yards. Greater distance to commercial areas.

However, change is in the air and new approaches to the suburbs are keeping them attractive for younger generations.

In The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving, Leigh Gallagher centers the argument that America’s demographics are changing and more and more people don’t want to live in suburbs anymore – at least not without some changes.

At the time the book was written, 2014, there is a decreased demand for the traditional layout and initial selling points of suburban living.

Houses, in the primary growth years of suburbia, 1950-1970, were much smaller than they are now, with equally scaled yards. In the 1990s, houses and lot sizes grew, spacing people and things farther and farther apart. This meant that neighbors and friends grew more distant, commutes longer, quick trips to the store not so quick, people more isolated, and everything more reliant on cars.

In 2014, we were still reeling from the recession and housing crash. Consequently, some trends might have shifted by my reading it in 2023. For example, she writes of the glut of housing. That there is no shortage.

While today, we talk more of an affordable housing crisis and a supply shortage at any price.

Gallagher notes that in every decade since the invention of the automobile, the rate of suburban population growth has outpaced that of urban centers. However, in 2011 for the first time in 100 years, that trend reversed.

More new construction was taking place in the urban core and demand for large, single-family homes dropped. A good outcome of this is that developers have taken notice and are adapting designs to provide smaller housing.

ubiquitous new urban construction

How Housing Policy Expanded Homeownership and the Suburbs

The system of housing is well explored in the book, which provides a good timeline of government support that spurred suburban development, starting with the Federal Housing Administration’s (FHA) creation in 1934.

Its purpose was to stimulate lending after the great Depression to transform the way American’s borrowed money and paid for houses. It overwhelmingly favored single-family homes, and therefore also excluded most people of color due to exclusionary covenants in neighborhood developments.

See my housing timeline for a quick reference of major US housing and development policy.

The FHA ensured long term mortgages by backing bank loans. Previously, mortgages were short term, requiring larger down payments and balloon payments in five years, which many people couldn’t make, resulting in high foreclosure rates.

Through earlier tax laws of 1913, mortgage payments became tax deductions. This subsidy is still the biggest incentive for homeownership today. (An equivalent for renters is not available).

FHA loans gave rise to much of standard suburban zoning practices that we know today, including minimum lot size and building setbacks from the street and side yard.

In 1944, what is known as the GI Bill (or the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act) allowed for “zero percent down” mortgages to veterans. Houses were needed on the large scale. (See Building the Dream: A social history of housing in America, Gwendolyn Wright 1983 for a deeper discussion of the racism embedded in the bill).

“Housing starts jumped from 142,000 in 1944 to more than a million in 1946 to almost 2 million in 1950.” And thus began the largest growth of suburbia in America’s history, surpassing central city growth rates by 10 times.

The 1956 Federal Highways Act made commuting easier and opened up new frontiers for growth. Think of this as a federal subsidy for the suburbs and its residents.

Suburban growth continued simultaneously with far reaching disinvestment in cities, highlighting the contrast and fueling the flight.

As important, if not more detrimental was the systemic reinforcement through media of the suburban utopian image. Advertisements of the family at home, with their modern-day conveniences, TV shows depicting the perfect family in the suburbs, all reinforced the social pressure.

At the same time, the growth of suburbia supported an entire economy: construction, cars, appliances, furniture, housewares, fuel, lawnmowers – exactly at a time that the country needed it and people needed jobs. This is the American dream, as it was sold to everyone, the ideals of freedom, reinforced in the 50s and 60s as to make parents feel like failures if it was not achieved (see Wright 1983).

This is what I call the mid-century suburban propaganda machine. And the suburbs kept growing, as did the size of the house.

Changing Our Vision of Utopia

Seabrook, Wa New Urbanist community with commercial and residential buildings

Developers claim that the mid-century suburb has peaked. Gallagher argues that by 2014, nearly every developer was changing their approach to house design towards smaller, more multi use neighborhoods. Looking to “urbanize” the suburbs to make them more walkable. There is a desire for commercial centers that are easily accessible.

Many things have changed for us as a society. Our family size is smaller. Gas prices are higher. Environmental consciousness is increasingly important as people grapple with commutes. Cities have been reinvested in and are thriving. The middle class is no longer booming as it was in the 50s.

The suburbs are not dying, and Gallagher is quick to add evidence for this. From 2000 – 2010, the suburbs showed most of the household growth. And some believe this is because cities are now too expensive, while suburbs are cheaper, with growing poverty rates.

Suburban development represents as much as 95% of the housing market. There are still plenty of people who love the suburbs and appreciate the community they have there.

People want suburban development that is more compact, within walking distance or at least a short drive to some amenities like a small grocery store, coffee shop, or hardware store. These are the types of neighborhoods leading the pack in market demand. And through zoning changes, we have the ability to create more of them!

Currently, in many cities and towns, mixed use zoning, the kind that allows for small shops intermixed with or clustered in a neighborhood, is discouraged or doesn’t exist – making it impossible to develop these amenities in your suburb. Ask your town council about it!

Check out my previous post about sense of place and place attachment in the American landscape.

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