Friday, January 13, 2012

The Future of the Living Room

During the spring of 2011, I traveled with a companion to Nashville, Tennessee.  We had a free Sunday evening, so dined at a comfortable restaurant near Vanderbilt University.

As we ate, we watched the couple at a nearby table.  The couple was perhaps in their mid-70s and was dining with a group that evening.  Although the table was set for ten, they were the only two to have arrived and were obviously the hosts.  The wife had brought place cards and a seating plan, although she continued to rethink and revise the plan.  The husband, dressed in the southern gentleman spring uniform of brown slacks, tan blazer, and white shirt open at the collar, graciously assisted by moving the place cards as she continued to fuss with the seating.

Eventually, the guests began to arrive, with the husband greeting each at the front door of the restaurant and escorting them back to the table.

It was fun to watch the southern hospitality.  It was also fun to ponder the implications for new urbanism.   In new urbanism, at least under my definition, the sidewalk cafes, neighborhood restaurants, and nearby pubs within walking distance can serve as extended living areas for the residents.   One can live with less square footage in one’s home if one uses the neighborhood as an extended living room/dining room, especially when entertaining.

This use of public space for private entertaining has multiple benefits.  First, the resulting reduced size of individual residences can allow more homes to be accommodated in a building of the same mass, resulting in more support for nearby businesses.  Second, the act of entertaining in public places also supports business.  Lastly, spending more time in public places can result in life-affirming social contacts.  Please remember the Venetian gentleman.

Earlier this week, Tony referred to the possible changes possible changes in home sizes.  Here is another article that talks about shrinking living rooms.

There is a concept called perceptual cost that has application to this situation.  It argues that we’re more likely to spend money when the cost is part of a larger bill than when it is a stand-alone expenditure.  From a car perspective, a salesman can more easily market a $3,000 audio system when it’s tacked onto the cost of a new $40,000 car.  It’s a tougher sales job if the new car owner drove off the lot a month ago and has now returned to explore audio options.  Somehow, $3,000 added onto the car of a new car seems like less money than a stand-alone $3,000.

The same can apply to our residences.  Incurring a mortgage that costs an extra $200 every month for a larger unit that includes a living room and dining room may seem a more reasonable expenditure than spending $200 every few months to entertain friends at a nearby restaurant.  Even as I type this, I find myself at risk of being seduced by the larger mortgage.  But it’s truly less expensive to incur the occasional entertainment bill.  It’s a paradigm shift that, if made successfully, can be very helpful for our communities. 

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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