What's wrong with our neighborhoods?

Photo Dec 01, 12 33 46 PM.png

We here at CULTIVATE! Collaborative commonly refer to the current state of planning, building, and managing cities in this country as being unsustainable—in fiscal, environmental, and social terms. What I want to address here is the question of what we mean by socially unsustainable communities. 

The real answer is of course longer than any blog post you could read in one sitting. But in many ways, it centers around housing. In particular: the types we build (and, conspicuously, don’t build), the way we distribute them, and their level of integration into the rest of the community’s functions. 

So, what’s wrong with the housing and neighborhood situation in our communities? In short, most provide a severely narrow range of housing and neighborhood types, they’re often almost entirely auto-dependent, and they’re isolating more and more residents. 

Limited options: housing stock

Stroll through any neighborhood in your city that was built before World War II and you’ll find, well, lots of old houses in various states of upkeep. But more than likely, you’ll also find scattered among single-family houses a whole range of other housing types we rarely see built today: duplexes, fourplexes, bungalow courts, courtyard apartments, townhouses, and small multiplexes. 

Why all these different housing types? To put it simply, people differ in their housing needs, desires, and means.

A young couple with no kids doesn’t need (and can probably ill-afford) an entire two-story house. Empty-nesters and single individuals similarly have less need for space than, say, a family of six. Housing options like duplexes or fourplexes provide a more affordable and suitable (and still high-quality) option for many people. So housing options better reflected the diversity of life situations at an earlier point in our country’s development. (This isn’t to say that everyone was included in these more inclusive neighborhoods—the range of exclusionary practices that were used to deny opportunities to minorities have been well documented.)

  A fourplex in Dallas, TX. Taking up no more lot space than a single-family home, fourplexes provide affordable housing options for small families, couples, or individuals. Missing middle housing types, interspersed with single-family homes, increase the population density of a neighborhood (although not the perceived density) and can support more neighborhood businesses within walking distance. (Photo: Jordan Clark)

A fourplex in Dallas, TX. Taking up no more lot space than a single-family home, fourplexes provide affordable housing options for small families, couples, or individuals. Missing middle housing types, interspersed with single-family homes, increase the population density of a neighborhood (although not the perceived density) and can support more neighborhood businesses within walking distance. (Photo: Jordan Clark)

But if you take a tour of most neighborhoods built from the 1950s on, you’ll find that we’ve almost completely stopped building those types of housing listed above—the ones that fall between the two extremes of single-family homes and large apartment complexes. They’ve become so scarce that Dan Parolek has coined the term “missing middle housing” to describe them (and their absence). 

We like to imagine we live in a society where we have more choices than ever. Go visit a grocery store and you’ll find breakfast cereal in every flavor imaginable, in three different sizes, with and without marshmallows. But if you can’t afford a single-family home, or if it’s just way more than you need, your options are slim. In many communities, you have the “choice” between the many subdivisions of single-family homes, or the occasional large (often isolated) apartment complex. Lots of people have needs and lifestyles that are better suited to something in between the two. And all of us deserve quality housing that we can afford. We’ve oversaturated the market for those interested in single-family homes, which is good for those who need them, but we need to acknowledge that we’ve done so at the expense of a very large (and growing) portion of the population.

Limited options: neighborhood types

And that’s just the beginning. Because when it comes to having options, the problem is not just a lack housing types. It’s a much bigger issue that’s tied into the way our communities have developed, and segregated “uses,” for the better part of 70 years. For the past 70 years, we’ve also fundamentally altered the way our neighborhoods function, in most cases separating people from the places that make their community, well, a community.

If you return to those pre-war neighborhoods in your community (assuming you have them), you’ll find that in addition to a range of compatible housing types, there are often markets, restaurants, parks, schools, places of worship, and other types of locally-serving businesses and institutions all woven into the fabric of the neighborhood. This is because we don’t do all of our “living” in one place. These older neighborhoods are a reflection of the fact that daily life extends outside of the home. That the neighborhood is, in many ways, an extension of the home. That we want and need to make regular trips to the store, the cleaners, the park, and other gathering places. That our kids go to school every day. And that it just makes life easier to have all of these close by—which is to say, within walking distance. 

  The suburban experiment is an isolating one. (Photo: Stan Shebs, Wikimedia Commons)

The suburban experiment is an isolating one. (Photo: Stan Shebs, Wikimedia Commons)

But in today’s communities, most neighborhoods don’t look like this. (In reality, we’ve changed things up so much that even the word “neighborhood” is a confused term. Older neighborhoods gained their identity from what lies at the center—a park or a school, usually. Now, I more often hear people using the word “neighborhood” as a synonym for “subdivision.”) We started the grand experiment of taking all the elements that make up a neighborhood and separating them out from one another, and we just kept going with it. So we get “communities” where the houses go over here, and the restaurants go over there, and the (now much bigger) grocery stores and shopping centers go over there… on and on until nothing is close to anything else. (Additionally, larger and larger lot sizes mean more space between homes, which speeds up this trend of pushing things further apart.) Our kids go to school miles from where we live, so we need buses. We drive to the park so we can go for a walk.

People’s daily lives revolve around more than just the place where they lay their head at night. It really matters what you have access to nearby. When we deconstruct the neighborhood as we’ve done—pushing all the pieces apart—we also make much of the resulting housing stock far less suitable to many people. We tell them, “sure, you have options here, as long as you own a car, and are willing to spend a lot of time in it everyday.” 

It was the advent of widespread auto use that made this spread-out form of development possible. (Cool! New possibilities! We can build things further apart but it doesn’t matter because our magic buggies now take us there in a flash!) But now our land development pattern has made car ownership a requirement in most places. Far from providing us options, our housing mix and distribution, more often than not, has us in a chokehold.

Plenty of Americans can’t afford a car, so they are forced to spend hours to uncomfortably accomplish daily tasks that car owners don’t even think about. Plenty more Americans also can’t afford a car and still feel forced to own one, so they have to make painful sacrifices in other areas. Then there are all the folks who can’t drive—because they’re too young, or too old, or have a limiting condition. And beyond these reasons, lots more adults just don’t want the burden (and the liability) of having to own and use a car for everything.

We can’t keep building places around a 15-minute drive. Even though it’s invisible to many planners, housing developers, and elected officials, this isn’t the reality of how everyone is able to get around. To continue to develop this way, and to place housing in “neighborhoods” that are so far away from many people’s ability to carry out daily needs conveniently without a car, is to continue excluding people from full participation in our communities.

So here we are. We’ve transitioned from people-centric to car-centric communities, broken up our neighborhoods and scattered the pieces far apart, and given single-family home builders a near monopoly in the housing market. We’ve taken the historic centers of our neighborhoods—gathering places like neighborhood parks, schools, markets, restaurants, and so on, where we might have formed relationships just through repeated, informal interactions—pushed them to the periphery and expanded their size. We’ve become more anonymous users than neighborhood regulars. I don’t think it’s going to far to say that this hasn’t been a net positive for the level of community in our communities. 

Housing variety & complete neighborhoods

I know there’s a lot more to say about the specific ways our approach to housing and neighborhoods has done damage. (There’s a long history of racial exclusion that drove, and often still drives, housing policy in many communities—a topic for a future blog post.) But let’s now discuss some of what needs to be done to make housing in our communities more broadly inclusive.

First, we clearly need a greater diversity of quality housing types. Single-family homes fill a need, of course, but many communities already build more of them than necessary. We need to focus on building the entire spectrum of missing middle housing. It’s important that we have neighborhoods that have a broad mix of housing types so that folks at different stages of life and income levels can all find their place. My colleague Kevin is fond of asking the question, “Are there neighborhoods in your community where three generations of a family could reasonably find a place to live, all within walking distance of each other?” That’s a good starting point for addressing this issue. Of course, diversifying the housing stock alone won’t do the trick. It has to be done as a part of the broader neighborhood context.

  Jimmy's (Dallas, TX) is the sort of walkable neighborhood store that many of today's neighborhoods make impossible.

Jimmy's (Dallas, TX) is the sort of walkable neighborhood store that many of today's neighborhoods make impossible.

Which brings me to the second point. We need to return to the traditional understanding of what a neighborhood is. That is, the small area around us where we carry out the vast majority of our daily lives. (I understand that "traditional" is a term often fraught with insidious subtext—code for excluding people. I'm referring only to the walkable, integrated design of a place.)

A fully functional neighborhood is a complete neighborhood. That is to say, it provides residents safe and convenient access to goods and services they need on a regular basis. These include grocery stores, quality public schools, open spaces, recreational facilities, civic amenities, and frequent public transit for those trips outside the neighborhood. Complete neighborhoods are built at human scale, as opposed to being scaled for the car. This means they’re walkable and bikeable, built on an interconnected street network that meets the needs of people of all ages and abilities. In contrast to building around a 15-minute drive, complete neighborhoods have everything most residents need on a regular basis within a 15-minute walk. 

In the end, we can’t separate the question of housing from the question of land use. You need a place to live that you can afford and that provides you enough space. But your home really only meets your needs if it’s close enough to the places you need and want to go on a daily basis. And it’s time to stop pretending that “well, it’s close if you have a car” is a good enough answer.

How to get from here to there?

Of course, there are hurdles to get over if we’re to escape the status quo. One reason these complete neighborhoods are hard to find is that many cities have made them illegal through the zoning code. In most cities, the codes have gotten so complicated that hardly anyone understands them, and any new housing development goes in as a P.D. that requires extensive review and staff hours. We can begin by writing plans that prioritize complete neighborhoods, and follow that up by rewriting the codes and development processes that made such neighborhoods scarce in the first place. After all, isolating, expensive, unsustainable neighborhoods are exactly what most of our communities have been requiring. There's no reason we can't rewrite codes and development processes to start requiring complete neighborhoods instead.

Another reason for the shortage of missing middle housing is that there is a shortage of developers who know how to build them. To begin to fill this gap, we can cultivate locally-based small developers who are willing and able to start adding incrementally to our housing stock. They will need to find people skilled in a variety of trades, so this gives us the opportunity to set up training programs that give local residents the skills they need to find fulfilling work right in their community. 

(There's a lot more to cover here! We'll continue to address this issue in future blog posts, but if you're interested, I'd recommend heading over to Strong Towns and working through their ongoing discussion on housing.)


Jordan Clark is a proud part of CULTIVATE! Collaborative and VERDUNITY; a denizen of Dallas, TX; and more of a fan of NBA basketball than he usually likes to admit. Learn more about him (and the rest of the Collaborative) here. Follow Jordan on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn. Read other posts by Jordan.

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