Monday, April 23, 2007

Is Sprawl What the People Want?

Last week on there was a three day series of excerpts from University of Pennsylvania real estate professor, Witold Rybczynski's new book, Last Harvest: How a Cornfield Became New Daleville.

Rybczynski spent four and a half years observing the progress of New Daleville, a residential subdivision designed in a "neotraditional" style that builds houses close together on smaller-than-usual lots in order to foster a stronger sense of community or as some believe to fit in more homes to make a larger profit. He witnessed every stage of development, from the purchase of a large tract of land in rural Pennsylvania through meetings with local community leaders to get planning approval, to the moment when a family moves into one of the first completed units. In the book he explains how land gets developed in the era of the new urbanism and pro- and anti-growth debates, and why so many Americans choose to live in suburbs despite often lengthy commutes.

In the first excerpt Rybczynski discusses, Why do we live in houses, anyway? According to Rybczynski, there is a preference for a single family detached home. He backs up his assertion with the fact that four out of five new housing units built in the U.S. are single-family homes. This desire for an single-family home expands beyond the U.S., to Europe, Africa, and Asia for those who can afford it.

The second excerpt explains how Americans fell in and out of love with the ranch house. In chronicling the rise and fall of the ranch house, Rybczynski makes some generalizations about home buyers and the housing industry. Since houses are the largest investments that most families make, most homeowners tend to be conservative to avoid unnecessary risk. Also, housing has always been governed by a simple rule, as people become richer, they spend more money on their homes. Spending more money has usually meant making the home bigger. In recent decades, buyers wanted larger houses, but California's widely copied Proposition 13, which required developers to pay for their own infrastructure, made land much more expensive. The builders' solution was to return to two-story houses, which don't need such large lots, and are cheaper to build. Today, more than half of all new houses have two stories, and it's goodbye to the ranch and split-level home.

The series ends with a slide show that follows the step-by-step evolution of New Daleville, Pennsylvania, from a rural cornfield to subdivision. Rybczynski contends that rural growth is driven less by home buyers' desire for open space but rather by the movement of jobs to the periphery of metropolitan areas and by high property values in traditional inner suburbs. The latter are largely the result of the obstacles placed in the way of development. Suburban communities effectively slow growth and raise land prices through restrictive zoning and lengthy permitting processes. Unfortunately this further contributes to sprawl and residential greenfield developments like New Daleville.