According to a new poll conducted by the National Association of Realtors, the majority of home buyers no longer want to live in conventional suburban neighborhoods. The poll found that 56 percent of American home buyers would choose a “smart growth” community (characterized by mixed-use development, multimodal transportation, walkability and a general downtown sort of vibe) over the single-use, car-centered suburban model that has dominated North American urban growth since the 1950s. An even larger majority — 77 percent — say they look for the pedestrian infrastructure long absent from suburbia such as wide sidewalks when shopping for a new home. Other findings: 59 percent would swap square footage for a shorter commute, 88 percent valued neighborhood quality over home size, and 50 percent wanted better public transit instead of more new roads.
Taken as a whole, this is a snapshot of a major long-term demographic and social shift, a fundamental reconfiguration of American priorities that sees America’s brightest future not in compartmentalized suburban sprawl but in mixed-use downtown livability. Combine these home buyer preferences with trends toward smaller families, fewer and later marriages, the bursting of the housing bubble and rising energy prices, and it’s not much of a stretch to suggest the suburban dream is over.
Here’s a final pair of vital stats on this trend: only 10 percent of the American housing market consists of units in mixed-use neighborhoods, while by one estimate there will be as many as 22 million excess large-lot homes on the market by 2025. The distance between those two stats is one of the great emerging business opportunities, and closing the gap between what Americans want and what they’ve got will be a huge innovation engine in the coming years.
In fact, it’s already led to what the Urban Land Institute is calling “a revolution” in grocery store development. Namely: after years of exodus and outsized square footage and big-boxing, grocery store chains are rediscovering the “small is beautiful” credo downtown. The New York Times reported last week on the infiltration of New York City by the German grocery giant Aldi, which is opening two stores just one-sixth the size of the average Walmart. The king of big-box retail, meanwhile, has itself promised to open hundreds of small-footprint “Walmart Express” grocery outlets in American downtowns over the next few years; the first, in Chicago, fills just 26,000 square feet, more than 100,000 square feet less than the Walmart norm. Another European import — Fresh and Easy, operated by Tesco of the U.K. — is opening several new outlets in cities across northern California in the coming months, all with floorspace of less than 12,000 square feet.
And few grocery stores of any type have received the free publicity that the “Social Safeway” in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., has, since it opened last summer. Though not as small as the European imports, the 71,000-square-foot grocery store is lauded for its LEED-certified design in a mixed-use building that meshes tightly with its urban neighbors. The Safeway store sits on the second floor above a parking lot hidden behind smaller retail storefronts, requires 40 percent fewer parking spots than the norm. (Another Safeway in D.C. has been integrated into a multi-use residential complex, sharing its footprint with almost 700 residential units.)
Perhaps the greatest space for innovation, though, will be in adapting these smart downtown innovations to the suburban periphery. Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson have dubbed this project Retrofitting Suburbia in their fascinating 2009 textbook on the subject. Opportunities abound from the six-lane boulevards to the big-box plaza — designer Steve Price of Urban Advantage has some delightful eye candy on his website simulating the transformation of sprawling blight into lush urban space.
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