This article by Christopher Leinberger in the Atlantic is getting a fair bit of attention in the blogosphere. In it, Leinberger identifies some interesting and in some ways encouraging trends in housing preferences. With the rising foreclosure rates that are running in lockstep with the subprime mortgage market fallout in the US, some suburbs are becoming empty, dangerous and unpopular places, rather much as predicted (perhaps even with a bit of barely concealed glee) by Howard Kunstler among others.
Opinions are mixed on Leinberger's claim that the suburbs cannot be retooled and saved in an age where fewer of us are willing to undertake (or can afford) long commutes to work for the benefit of a big yard full of grass and a great room the size of an airport hangar. I'm more optimistic that if more mixed use can be built into a 'burb, especially considering the changing connection between home and workplace identified by James Bow, and especially if we can find ways to do useful things in these big tracts of space like, for example growing food, they may survive, but in vastly different form.
What interested me the most about the article was the assertion that our preferences are changing. More of us want to live in walkable communities with worthwhile destinations than ever before. That's a funny way to put it. Who doesn't want to live in such a community? More accurate would be to say that more of us are willing to forego what the suburbs do offer (large if usually inelegant houses on big lots with much privacy, the illusion that one is living the life of the country squire) in exchange for smaller dwellings, elbow to cheek contact with lots of other people, and amenities, destinations and attractions.
So what has changed? Though fuel costs have risen, I don't think that accounts for the shift. Fashion? Remarketing of the image of success? It would be great to think that those kinds of forces are responsible for what I see as a healthy development in preference. I wonder if any part of it comes from some deeply subsconscious rising sense of anxiety about the future. There's so much uncertainty about what will happen to us if we don't find a way to rise to the challenges of dwindling energy, a ravaged environment that perhaps we are responding with a kind of "circle the wagons" response in housing preference.
In my lab, we're just starting some studies of housing preference using virtual reality. The idea is to present potential homeowners with simulations of different types of houses -- a typical North American suburban spread, a nice Frank Lloyd Wright house, and a beautiful Sarah Susanka "not so big" house. We predict that people will feel more comfortable and less stressed in the Wright and Susanka houses, an effect that we expect to be able to measure. But there's an interesting question here: will people actually prefer the house that makes them feel the best? The icon of success for a long time has been the power square footage upscale executive home in the suburbs. Can not possessing the icon make us miserable even though what get substituted might be better for our bodies and minds?