Why Good Neighborhoods went Extinct

July 23, 2020

I followed my dad’s finger, pointing through the windshield towards the second house in from the corner. “There it is, that’s the one I grew up in” he said as we drove through his old neighborhood. His childhood home hadn’t been painted in a generation and the front porch was sagging to the point of being unsafe. The surrounding houses were in similar shape or worse.

It brought tears to me eyes to consider all the families that once called these streets home. To think of all the lives these streets shaped and all the memories they created. The fathers, back from the war, happy to have a quiet place to raise their kids. The mothers, all close to one another, sharing the workload of keeping a neighborhood strong. These were streets filled with life. Parents who must have been as proud as can be to raise their children there. This neighborhood had shaped the lives of the people that would later shape the country. These were the streets my father roamed as a child and where he practiced throwing baseballs every day until darkness sent him home. This place provided a tremendous sense of community, it was walkable, it was easy to get to all the downtown shops, kids had autonomy and went about freely, parents trusted neighbors and everyone had a shared sense of belonging and pride.

My childhood home was five miles away on another planet. Mine was not a neighborhood, but cluster of houses built in a cornfield. To think, just our house alone, sat on more land than what  made up my father’s entire block. It doesn’t make me feel great to consider what that means. So here is what that looks like. His block was home to around 25 houses- that’s 25 families all sharing one square of land, roughly 2.5 acres in size. So within a mile of my father’s house, there were roughly 6,400 other homes and families. My childhood home had closer to one house per acre. So in one square mile, there would be roughly 640 other houses. Here is how that translates to everyday life.

  • Less people in close proximity. We had fewer kids to play with, fewer families to get to know, fewer people to depend on, we had a very limited sense of community.

  • No walkable schools. With our houses so spread out, walking to school was not realistic. This meant our school systems was required to purchase and maintain busses, which are expensive and diverts money from educating.

  • Loss of autonomy for kids. We couldn’t walk to school, to the store or to all of friends houses. Our independence was limited by the fact that we had to get rides to everything.

  • No playing in the street. Because we were so spread out, everyone had to own a car and  streets had to be built much larger to handle the capacity. Drivers have farther to travel and they don’t want to wait, so they go fast on these wider roads. So the place where everyone used to play together, was too dangerous to play. We had some parks in town, but they were too far away to walk to, so we could only visit when our parents could drive us.

It’s not to say I didn’t have a wonderful childhood, because I did, but I also realize, that growing up in sprawl is incredibly limiting and I decided to not make that same choice for my children. Beyond how it impacts kids, I think about the other effects it has on our communities.

  • Subdivisions are bad for local business. Sprawl is big and expensive and requires stores that are large, with vast parking. Most small businesses can’t afford this, so national chains get all the benefit. This takes tens of millions of dollars out of most communities every year.

  • It’s dangerous. Driving so much puts everyone at risk.

  • It’s expensive for families. Families have to own a car or two (or more!) to survive and that will cost $8,000+/per car annually.

  • It’s expensive for cities. Local budgets get stressed taking care of all the roads, which is money that could go towards more valuable services and projects.

  • It’s ugly. We are being shaped by places that aren’t attractive and it comes at a cost.

  • It makes us fat. Having to drive to everything reduces the amount we use our bodies and we probably should use them.

  • It is horrible for the environment. We have to burn so much more fuel to go about our lives and we have to tear down all the trees to make way for these places.

This is just a short list of the problems that come with spreading so far out. So why do we keep doing it? Why do we continue to build in a manner that seems to be making so many issues worse? Why have we not built a decent neighborhood in nearly 100 years?

As always, I circled back to economics to try and understand these problems. I don’t find fault for people for choosing to buy in subdivisions, this is literally the only kind of housing being built in most places. I wish developers didn’t develop this sort of housing and I wish builders didn’t build this sort of housing, but there is profit in it, a lot of profit, so in a capitalistic system, this is what you are going to get. Developers focus on this product, because it affords them the most profit. Consumers buy it, because it is often the most affordable, and generally what is most available. So where is the gatekeeper here? Who is at fault for this situation? Where does the problem lie?

The issue rests in the hands of local government. This is something municipalities need to control. Just because people want to build something and just because people will buy that thing, doesn’t mean it should be what local government allows. We will always have black markets willing to supply what people want, no matter how bad it might be for them, but government plays the role of trying to limit this activity for the well-being of its citizens. Subdivisions are no different. Cul-de-sacs are simply not good for cities for all the reasons listed above, so cities should take the chance to not allow them. Cities have the power to control what gets built and should make the decision to do what benefits them most. It is.in fact, possible to build neighborhoods like we did in the 20’s.

Greed is often behind so many of our missteps, but we don’t have to cater to greed. Just because this is what a developer wants, or what a builder wants, does not mean that this is what we should do. Cities should cater to residents not developers. Local government should do what’s best for its people and best for its bottom line, not what’s best for big money.

National builders are not interested in what is best for residents and their concern isn’t with the communities in which they build. Like national chains, their motivation is profit, and this is diametrically opposed to a community’s best interest.

Traditional neighborhoods have gone extinct, but only by choice. We don’t have to resurrect a mosquito in amber to fix this issue. We only have to re-evaluate our priorities and legislate appropriately. I can promise you that people will still build and people will still buy. City leaders should prioritize the needs of residents over the wants of developers. The shape of every place is up to the people that call it home. Let’s shape those places in a manner that makes our lives better.

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