Smaller Homes For America

According to a recent CNBC article by Cindy Perman, The Shrinking House: Downsizing the American Dream, Americans finally want smaller homes after a less than satisfying twenty year love affair with the out-of-the-box, cookie-cutter, house-that-every-architect-loves-to-hate McMansion.  In summary:

The median home size in America was near 2,300 square feet at the peak of the market in 2007, with many McMansions topping 10,000 square feet.  Today, the median home size has dropped to about 2,100 square feet and more than one-third of Americans say their ideal home size is actually under 2,000 square feet…”

From a sustainability perspective, (and others perhaps) seeing Americans realize the folly of wanting or buying a five bedroom, ten bathroom dwelling to house a family of three is uplifting.  As is the apparent reversal of our isolated, individualistic planning: Perman cites the latest fad of “smart growth” where developers focus on creating close-knit communities as opposed to sprawling housing sub-divisions.  She uses the community of Stapleton in Denver as an example:

“Here, their yards are tiny by design and no one has a pool — not even the million-dollar homes. Instead, they have an 80-acre shared park, aptly named Central Park, smaller “pocket parks” that become shared yards and three — soon to be four — public pools.”

The importance of a place like Stapleton lies not so much in its design or aesthetics (the single-family homes are still typical suburban homes, just smaller) but in its embodiment of a deep desire running through many American suburbanites to reconnect to their neighbors and to form some sort of community in a world that is rapidly dismantling them.  There are many people who still do not want to bother with the world around them, but a lot of people are also tired of living next to someone they never get to know, where every other human interaction is through a website or text message, or where people don’t even leave their homes to see a movie because they can watch them on a laptop.

It is possible that this has contributed to a sentiment that Americans are unused to sharing space or property, which has perhaps created varying degrees of self-containment and even selfishness.  Many of the comments on the CNBC article seem to stem from this viewpoint. And even with the positive outlook on housing espoused in the article, it not once mentions that a well-designed city already has what these new suburban community projects strive for.  Nowhere is the notion of continuous growth challenged – although this is CNBC, the survey is from the real estate search engine Trulia, and the industry magazine Builder is referenced, so one wouldn’t expect economic or infrastructure design theory to be of top priority here. Thus, despite the references to the growing unpopularity of sprawl nowhere is private car ownership addressed as the leading cause of sprawl.  Having a two car instead of a five car garage is great and relatively speaking “progressive,” but when little Billy, Sally, and Joey all hit sixteen that five car model suddenly sounds like a good idea.

Perhaps this new movement for suburban communities could be seen as one of many growing pains for a new, more sustainable and equitable American landscape.  One foot in the suburban past, one foot in the sustainable, urban future.  And maybe, with a little bit of imagination, in that future we can even call the suburban patterns we have imposed on the earth beautiful (at least when seen from the air).

Nevada suburb. Photograph by Cristoph Gielen

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