Future Neighborhoods Will Likely be Compact, Greener, and Friendlier
Z. Peter Lazar
American home and neighborhood designs change constantly. If you put yourself randomly in a 20th century neighborhood, chances are that you could tell the decade it was built, even after the avocado-green siding is replaced. We may be in for an even bigger than normal shift in the next decade. How will a 2015 neighborhood be different than a 2007 subdivision? Here are some recent trends:
Movement to smaller, greener and more livable homes
New homes are undoubtedly getting smaller. According to the National Association of Home Builders, the average size of a house under construction fell 7.3 percent in the July-September quarter of 2008. A January 2009 survey of builders reported that 90 percent are building smaller homes.
Until recently, homebuilders focused on grand houses that maximize square footage and feature high-end upgrades. Today, builders are more likely to highlight how their homes save money and energy. As people value operating costs more, they start thinking more about these things, said Roger Voisinet, noted EcoBroker and President of Cvilleproperties.com. People are choosing solar and more energy-efficient heating and cooling.
More attention is being paid to the quality of space rather than the quantity of space. Time after time people leave the basement unfinished and put their money into good trim and quality elsewhere in the house. said Voisinet. People are also getting more creative with spaces. He cited Belmont Lofts, which are popular condos in downtown Charlottesville where moveable, Shoji screen walls allow smaller rooms to be transformed into larger living spaces.
Economic fears are impacting design, suggests author and architectural psychologist Sally Fretwell. People are now more simplistic in design and in building material. People are probably less showy, said Fretwell, who also owns a paint store in Richmond, Virginia. Cost is more of a factor but by being more thoughtful, home purchasers focus on the details. People are looking at things differently. Said Fretwell, They are a lot more creative. Thats wonderful.
Migration to new urban centers with common greens and ready-built community
Besides moving into smaller homes, Americans are moving to communities with denser housing and village aspects that evoke neighborhoods of our great-grandparents.
Arthur C. Nelson, a leading housing expert who has studied housing trends for 20 years, expects that migration to denser living will bring sweeping changes to American society. According to Nelson, Surveys indicate a growing preference for urban living. Roughly half of all households want the opportunity to live in neighborhoods and communities with higher density housing, a mix of housing types and household income levels, sidewalks, proximity to stores and restaurants, accessibility to transit options and other “smart growth” features associated with well-designed urban areas.
Nelson predicts that there will be a surplus of between 3 million and 22 million homes on large lots (built on one-sixth of an acre or more) by 2025. He and other experts foresee these big homes in the exurbs eroding in value, with many of them being subdivided into multiple units.
Lifestyle has influenced people as much as economics in the growing taste for clustered, walkable neighborhoods. In an October 10, 2008 New York Times article, Kathleen Gerson, a professor of sociology at New York University describes the sense of well-being from being able to walk around and recognize your neighbors or even shopkeepers. Gerson said this sense of well-being is second only to being able to provide food and shelter for the family. We know from studies that in close-knit urban communities, where private space is not as plentiful, public space becomes more central, she said. Indeed, many families said they did not spend a lot of time at home. There are always trade-offs in these choices. Families are resilient and find ways to adapt to whatever their circumstances.
The community-oriented changes in where people choose to live coincides with new research on psychological studies of happiness. According to the Handbook of Psychology, by Irving Weiner and Donald Freedheim, the strongest predictor of happiness [is] social connectedness. People who are relatively alone in the world are much less happy than people who have close connections with others. All other objective predictors of happiness, including money, education, health, and place of residence, are only weakly correlated with happiness.
What might a neighborhood of 2015 look like?
A recent Chicago Tribune article summarizes the eight great real estate trends of 2009:
Increase in attached housing
More rental units
New urban centers with homes close to shops and restaurants
Common green spaces for outdoor enjoyment of homeowners.
Creating Community – where the developer provides social features beyond land, bricks and mortar.
Online marketing of homes
So, what might a Year 2015 neighborhood look like? There will probably be many variations of neighborhoods that adopt the above trends.
Cohousing as a Case Study
One kind of modern neighborhood is cohousing, which is mostly unknown in the U.S. but which constitutes 25% of new development in Denmark. Cohousing is a pedestrian-oriented neighborhood where single family and attached homes surround a common green. Homes are smaller and closer together than the typical 2007 house, but space is efficiently used and homeowners enjoy a large clubhouse, shared gardens, a large playground, and other common amenities. Often a cohousing neighborhood is located near an urban center further promoting walkability and neighborliness. Marketing of the homes is typically online or through word-of-mouth. Private spaces and backyards are a standard feature of cohousing. Solar, geothermal and other green features are also very common. But markedly different than typical housing developments, there are social aspects built-in. Neighbors have the option of taking part in potlucks and common meals and also working together on common tasks (such as landscaping and decision-making). In summary, cohousing is one example of where people buy houses not so much based on raw home size but more based on improving their social and private lifestyle as well as reducing their carbon footprint. Proponents of cohousing refer to it as yesterdays neighborhood today, as a shorthand for describing a community where neighbors know one another and have fun together.
More to Life Than Square Footage
The weaker economy and worries over energy costs may have spurred homebuilders to make smaller, clustered and more energy-efficient homes; however, a broader national mood towards simplicity, and a richer lifestyle is likely to drive further change. As they further realize there is more to life than square footage, people will change their tastes. Clustered housing around green spaces will not only alter the landscape but will foster neighborliness and improve the way people live and relate to one another.
Mr. Lazar is active in the cohousing movement (www.cohousing.org), giving talks and writing articles on the subject. He is a member of Blue Ridge Cohousing (www.blueridgecohousing.org), which is working to build a 26 home cohousing neighborhood in Crozet, Virginia. Peter, his wife, and their two daughters, aged 4 and 7, live in Shadowlake Village Cohousing in Blacksburg, Virginia.
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