Friday, May 25, 2012

Big Enough to Live, Small Enough to be Walkable

In my last post, I wrote about condominium/apartment sizes in the densest cores of urban districts.  I argued that smaller units provide a dual benefit.  They allow more residences for the same building mass.  And they encourage the residents to use the streets and public places as their living rooms.  The challenge for the development community is to provide homes that meet these dual goals while also finding market acceptance.

Immediately outside of densest core, it can be argued that there is a band between the multi-story residential buildings in the core and traditional single-family homes.  Dan Parolek describes this area as middle housing and challenges the development community to better fill the need.  (Those in Petaluma may recognize Parolek’s name.  He’s the principal architect on the Petaluma Station Area Planning effort about which I’ve previously written.)  Many of Ross Chapin’s projects, about whom I wrote in my last post, also fall into middle housing.

As one moves outward from the core into the single-family areas that remain within walking distance of retail opportunities, the scale changes, but the game remains the same.  Providing successful projects that are sufficiently dense to function as walkable communities.  In a single-family area, the key density measure becomes lot size rather than home size, but the two are sufficiently linked that home size can be used as a proxy for density.

There are interesting conversations going on about the size of single-family homes.  MSN Real Estate reports that consumers are increasing looking for smaller homes, shorter commutes, and walkable neighborhoods.  Andrew Sullivan describes data that shows that homes may have started becoming smaller, at least a couple of years ago.

More recently however, home sizes may have started creeping back up.  Lew Sichelman of the Urban Land Institute reports on the most recent data.   Lloyd Alter and Brad Plumer look at the data and speculate that home size increases are something of a demographic illusion.  As the economy continues to make a ponderously slow recovery from the deep recession, the only new home buyers in the market are those who are moving upwards from smaller homes.  The absence of first-time buyers results in a different demographic composition of new home buyers, which invalidates any comparison between home sizes today and a decade ago.

My belief is that the expressed desire for smaller and more walkable homes is legitimate.  I know that my insights are anecdotal and that I’ve put myself in a place where I hear from folks with an urban bent, but even after I try to correct for those factor, I still think that I’m talking with more and more people who see the value in an urban lifestyle.  However, the housing industry, which encompasses developers, builders, and lenders, is used to building big homes and will be slow to change.  A paradigm shift is beginning.  Indeed, remarkable progress has been made in the last decade.  But much more remains to be done.  And perhaps some of the reason that home sizes haven’t begun falling is because the paradigm shift is moving too slowly.

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Before closing, I have administrative notes.

Today marks the end of the first six months of this blog.  It’s been a great experience.  I’ve enjoyed having the motivation to do research on subjects I find meaningful and to sharpen my thinking by having to it commit to paper.  (Or to the digital equivalent thereof.)  And I thrilled that so many people have found this blog and returned to it multiple times.  I would like to grow the readership further, but am pleased by every one of the readers.

I have a backlog of ideas that can keep me busy for years.  However, I also have other aspects of my life which could use more attention.  I’m committed to the thrice-weekly publishing schedule.  But if someone is interested in taking a recurring responsibility for some of the posts, even if only perhaps the Wednesday post every other week, I’d like to discuss the possibility.  You know how to contact me.

In other news, please remember that our monthly Petaluma Urbanist Chat is scheduled for Wednesday, June 13.  We convene at the Aqus Café at 5:30pm.  All are welcome to join us for a casual conversation about the subjects covered in this blog.

Lastly, I previously made an offer to send email reminders when a new blog post is published.  A few folks have accepted my offer.  More are certainly welcome.  Please email me with your email address to be included.  What you’ll receive is a copy of the announcement that I post to Twitter, which includes a link to the new post.

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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