Tag Archives: suburbia

Confessions from a Cul-de-Sac.

2 Jun My very own cul-de-sac.
My very own cul-de-sac.

My very own cul-de-sac.

Three months ago my family and I moved into our first home. Something about buying a house makes you feel like a real bonafide adult. And with that comes real adult decisions. We moved to Charlotte from Tampa in January and when my husband and I were deciding where in the city we wanted to live, we like many young families, fell into the trap that is holding back so many of our cities: providing our child with a good education.

Like so many other cities in America, in Charlotte you can find the public schools with the highest test scores in the suburbs. Decades and decades of socio-economic trends, not to mention racism and segregation, are the major cause of this divide – in fact, that could be a blog post all on its own. Of course many will tell you test scores are not everything, and they would be right. But when you’re new to a city, don’t know the schools, and plan to live in your house for a long time those test scores and rankings can put your mind (and your real estate agent’s) at ease.

I consider myself a true urbanist – completely devoted to the center city and its surrounding neighborhoods. It’s what I stand for and it’s what I work for every day. I was faced with the decision of living close to downtown with the schools in the neighborhoods I could afford some of the worst in Charlotte, but benefit from mixed-uses, sidewalks, beautiful street trees, urban parks, and cultural institutions – or – I could put education first, and move to where the best schools are, and suffer from a completely car-dependent built environment, zero walkability, and the single use of the single-family house.

I wrestled with this decision more than I  wrestled with any other decision of my life – that includes who I married, when and whether to have kids, what graduate degree to pursue, etc. This commitment and investment became so much more than just a house – it became a reflection of my identity.

Plaza Midwood: one of the historic neighborhoods adjacent to the center city. (Image Source: ui.uncc.edu)

Plaza Midwood: one of the historic neighborhoods adjacent to the center city. (Image Source: ui.uncc.edu)

There are brave urbanists out there who fight this forced expulsion to the suburbs and step out of the box to avoid the education decision.

  • Private School – For those who make the big bucks! With some schools reaching $20,000 a year for kindergarten this option is out of reach for many.
  • Home School – Me a teacher? It takes a very special person to be a teacher, especially a good one, and especially of your own children.
  • Take Over the PTA – Strength in numbers! In some neighborhoods like trendy Plaza Midwood, parents are making a pact. They’re enrolling their kids in the local elementary school and then committing to each other to transform the school through volunteering and leadership positions.
  • House Poor – expensive house, unaffordable lifestyle. Some will overextend themselves to buy a house in the most expensive neighborhood in the city to ensure their children are surrounded by the best peer group.
  • The Magnet Lottery – Cross your fingers and hope for the best! The technology, language and arts magnet schools accept children from all over the city, but they don’t accept every one. If you are one of the lucky ones prepare for the long bus ride, or the long commute.

The first and last strategies are probably the most popular, but for many people the risk and work of these options are unrealistic, or impractical. For my family number 1 was out (did I mention I am an urban designer? :) ). Number 2 and Number 3 take an enormous amount of time and preclude you from having a career. Number 3, 4, and 5 are all risky – and for a risk averse person, very scary, when making a large financial investment.

But most families choose the public schools in the ‘burbs because honestly – the ‘burbs ain’t that bad – yet. And even an urbanist, when up against the aforementioned challenges, I can get used to the large yard and the grocery store that has everything.

The truth is our cities are up against a challenge. To most people, even with a growing desire for walkable, urban places, the good suburbs (at least) are still pretty nice. For many young families the weekdays are completely consumed by school, work, soccer practice, getting dinner on the table and doing it all over again. They can head into the center city to get their fill for true urbanism, culture, and entertainment on the weekends and then return to the world of affordability and convenience. And that works for a lot of people.

Here are some more challenges that face our cities:

  • Many suburbs can still offer what the city offers including the best restaurants, coffee shops, and recreation facilities. While not walkable, these uses are still very convenient and plentiful, often a short drive away. In Charlotte some of the most trendy restaurants in urban neighborhoods (Amelie’s in NoDa and Midwood Smoke House in Plaza Midwood for example) are taking advantage of the untapped market of the ‘burbs.
  • The ever-popular lifestyle center is a development type that ultimately fools people into thinking they live in an urban environment. If you forget that you had to sit in traffic to drive there, walking down a wide, tree-lined sidewalk with outdoor café seating feels pretty nice. Entertainment and community events in a central open space can be reminiscent of small town America
  • Speaking of small towns – before there were suburbs there were true small towns. Even though they have been surrounded by the metropolitan sprawl, they have survived and are now benefiting from their adjacent population growth. Downtown Matthews and Davidson are Charlotte’s shining examples.
  • If you have to drive everywhere anyway, you might as well enjoy that big ‘ole yard. There is enough room for your pups to run around and that swing set. It can become a personal haven to relax after that stressful commute or provide the perfect setting for a cookout with your friends. Even though sacrificing a big lot is an easy one for people who understand the benefits of a walkable, urban environment – when you have it, it’s still pretty nice.
Community gathering space at Birkdale Village, a lifestyle center in Huntersville, NC (Image Source: citybeautiful21.com)

Community gathering space at Birkdale Village, a lifestyle center in Huntersville, NC (Image Source: citybeautiful21.com)

Historic Dowtown Davidson, NC (Image Source: housesincharlotte.com)

Historic Downtown Davidson, NC (Image Source: housesincharlotte.com)

And now for the kickers:

  • We live in a warped market. We’ve been building single-use, disconnected suburbs for a half a century in this country. Even with a documented increase in the desire for dense, walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods, lenders and developers still know that more affordable and less risky suburbs will sell. Since the new walkable neighborhoods that are built are so few and the demand is increasing, that leaves most of them unaffordable. This means that people still choose to purchase in the conventional suburb, fulfilling the fallacy for lenders and developers that people prefer suburbia.
  • Driving still isn’t expensive enough. There will come a day when the price of gas is just completely unaffordable and technology hasn’t made enough progress to provide us with alternative ways to fuel our car-driven culture. And when that happens, watch out! People will swarm back into the cities left and right. Until then, sticker shock at the pump isn’t shocking enough.

When it comes down to it, there is no doubt in my mind that everyone loves good places. And the best places are walkable, mixed-use, higher density with a unique identity that ties into their history and culture. But because of the factors above, these are harder to come by – planning exists in a political, financial, and social context that prohibits us from making changes in our cities fast enough.

If there is one thing we can do that will transform our cities faster than any other planning strategy, it’s fixing our urban schools. What a tall order! If we can navigate the socio-economic inequality and challenges that face us we will do more for our cities than any planning document or design will ever achieve. While planners and urban designers use the tools of redevelopment, economic development, and transit for catalysts of change, we are missing the one piece to the puzzle – improving education. And unfortunately we don’t have the ability to put that in our toolbox.

Putting urban schools on par with their counterparts in the ‘burbs will put cities and the suburbs on a much more level playing field. Neighborhoods long forgotten in the city will open up to new markets. Infill development taking advantage of existing infrastructure will make new development more affordable and obtainable by young, middle class families. And when that happens the choice for many, especially urbanists like me, will be easy.

Until then, you will often find me on I-485, repeating my mantra “I love my kid, I love my kid.” It makes the guilt stay at bay :)

The Legacy of Levittown.

15 Oct

After finishing Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights by David Kushner, I have spent the past week educating myself in the Levitt Brothers and their enormous contribution to housing, land use, and race relations in America.

By David Kushner

The Levitt family were a team of three men: Abraham (father), and William and Alfred (sons.) Historian Kenneth Jackson described them as,”The family that had the greatest impact on postwar housing in the United States…who ultimately built more than 180,000 houses and turned a cottage industry into a major manufacturing process.” Veterans returning from World War II met an enormous shortage of affordable housing. Having served in the military himself, Bill encouraged Abraham and Alfred to invest in over 4000 acres on Long Island and use innovative building techniques to meet the housing needs of veterans. They built the first Levittown in New York in 1947, the second in Pennsylvania in 1952, and two more in New Jersey and Puerto Rico. Alfred designed homes that could be built on an “assembly line” as such. Pieces of the home would be delivered to the site and over two dozen construction teams would move from house to house, doing just one task (ex: installing windows, painting walls, etc.) This allowed the Levitts to build 30 houses a day, and sell them for very affordable prices. William marketed these towns not just for their attractively priced homes, but for their strength in community. With the FTA subsidizing mortgages, Levittown in New York and Pennsylvania, were extremely popular and offered a “lifestyle” to young families. As seen in the video below, this was revolutionary home building:

The “legacy of Levittown” is huge. In addition to the innovative construction techniques that builders are challenged to match today, these developments were America’s first suburbs – William Levitt has been coined as the “Father of Suburbia.” The Levitts developed a construction/marketing machine that saw a massive consumption of countryside, quickly. They sold a lifestyle where commuting 40 miles one way was not only acceptable, but desirable. In a way, the Levitts helped build the foundation of suburban sprawl that we have today.

construction of Levittown

The delivery of housing materials to the building site waiting for construction. (Source:University of Illinois at Chicago)

Perhaps the Levitt’s legacy that is not as well-known, and certainly not celebrated, is racism in the housing industry. While racial segregation in housing was not unknown during this time, the Levitts put in place a restrictive covenant that only allowed houses in Levittown to be rented or sold to a member of the Caucasian race. He believed that higher property values were related directly to the developments being all-white. Unfortunately, so did the people who bought the houses. They all used that defense in preserving the restrictive covenant, even when the federal government enforced integration with cases like Brown vs. the Board of Education. David Kushner’s book, Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights, details the Myers Family who bought their house Levittown, PA, despite the restrictive covenant, from a man desperate to sell. The result was months of violence against not only the Myers, but their next door neighbors, the Wechslers, a Jewish, equal rights activist couple. The case, especially after involvement from the KKK, gained international recognition. The endurance of Daisy Myers and her family against non-stop threats and violence, coined her the “Rosa Parks of the North.” Below is a condensed summary of a documentary made at the time, chronicling this civil rights struggle. Definitely pick up David Kushner’s book to get a personal account of the story, it truly is fascinating.

My book club had the great pleasure of speaking with the author, David Kushner, via Skype. When I asked him what the urban planning legacy of Levittown is, in addition to the obvious, he suggested the innovative design of architect Alfred Levitt. While Levittown, PA offered 6 different house models for purchase, Levittown, NY only provided two. However, they were designed in a way that allowed personalization and extension over time. Alfred recognized that his clients would be looking for the most affordable home immediately after the war and offering only two models would achieve this. He also realized that over time, those people would become more financially secure and would want a larger house. By designing the models in a way that could be easily adaptable, people with emotional ties to Levittown could remain, strengthening the community, and the identity of the town would evolve, adding to the place’s character. David Kushner was right –  this is revolutionary in it’s own right.

Levittown two model houses

The two house models offered in Levittown NY: the colonial and the ranch. (Image: University of Illinois in Chicago)

The result is that now, Levittown, PA remains almost identical to its 1950s self. Homes were not adaptable, and in combination with what is perhaps little regional growth, the town has not evolved to offer the lifestyle required of contemporary living. Property values did drop, not because of racial integration, but because the town’s lack of ability to remain relevant. It has also suffered from crime, and even acquired the reputation of being the “meth-lab of America.”

Levittown, NY, however, transformed over time and remains a healthy suburb. No doubt it’s proximity to Manhattan is responsible in part, but it is impossible not to attribute some of its success to Alfred’s design. As he had imagined, practically none of the original model homes can be found in the town of 6,000 houses. They have all been adapted, not demolished, over time. The fact remains, that while now Levittown, PA only offers 6 types of houses, Levittown, NY offers an infinite number.

Suburban development in America has definitely happened in waves. White flight, followed by returning vets and the contemporary suburbs we have today. They do not share the same physical characteristics: Levittown was built on a connected street network and modern development is organized around disconnected cul-de-sacs. In addition, houses in Levittown were modest in size, while McMansions today sprawl across large lots. Even though this great book was primarily based on the civil rights struggle in Levittown, as I read, I kept looking for those correlations between suburbs through time.

As soon as David Kushner stated that the greatest urban planning legacy of Levittown was Alfred Levitt’s allowance for personalization, I realized that this was the connection I had been searching for. It appears that through the evolution of suburbia, we’ve actually designed it in progressively more destructive ways. Most recently, property values in modern suburban developments have been the least able to sustain the economic recession, in comparison to urban neighborhoods.

One characteristic that modern suburbia most has in common with the Levitt’s less successful town in Pennsylvania, is it’s lack of personalization. Personalization is important to the physical, economic, and social sustainability of a place, as I detail in this earlier post: Holy HOA. The ability for people to personalize their own house, can cause them to not only be more committed to maintaining their property, but feel more emotionally connected to their neighborhood and neighbors. It can also enliven the public realm, and be one of the most influential factors in contributing to a neighborhood’s character. When we’re in Chinatown we know it, when we’re in New Orleans’ French Quarter, we know it. When we’re in the Manhattan’s Lower East Side we know it. Residents here have a personality, and they show it. Today, when we’re in a gated community off a belt loop interstate, we could be anywhere in America. And when you’re standing on a street corner in Levittown, PA, you could be on any street corner in the town. Anonymity = unimportant. This is not an unreal correlation to make.

Houses in Levittown NY

Houses that have been personalized over time in Levittown, NY

Therefore, in light of Levittown, NY’s climb to a town of pride and Levittown, PA’s descent to mediocrity, as well as their seemingly similar physical characteristics and social, historical context, it is not unreasonable to attribute the difference in their success on the ability, or lack thereof, of properties to evolve.

It’s ironic that after decades of similar suburban development, we fail to make the correlation between their design and the effects that they have on society. Today in the most recent developments, where cost of production and sale price is as important as it was to post-war growth, customers still pick their house out of a pattern book. Lack of personalization is still one of the biggest plagues of sprawl.

There is no doubt that the Levitt Family received credit where credit is due in their influence on American housebuilding. While this is mostly painted in a positive light I am devastated at the little publicity of the racism that served as the foundation for their all-white communities. The same week as I was finishing up David Kushner’s book on Levittown, I watched Bill O’Reilly defend his hometown as the product of American entrepreneurship at it’s finest. He put the Levitts on the pedestal where they seem to remain in the media long after their passing.

After reading, Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights, it’s hard to look past the misery that the Levitts created for two brave families, and an entire race. As an urban planner, it’s hard to look past the propagation of urban sprawl and unsustainable growth, that set a norm for development in our country for decades. But instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, I propose we try to find the positive in the Levitt’s contributions. It seems ironic that the brother that took the least credit for his family’s success, Alfred Levitt, is the man whose vision is the most relevant to the urban design challenges we face today.

Erin’s Google+

8 Apr

Erin Chantry:

Love this candid reflection of a city dweller now living in the suburbs. It goes to show that our built environment dictates more than just our actions…it also affects how we think.

Originally posted on :

I admit it.  I used to judge people that lived in the suburbs.  Who wouldn’t?  I was a twenty something living in Chicago.  I had no kids, no car and no utilities coupled with cheap rent and a resilient liver.  My biggest worry was catching the next train or if my music was too loud.  I could walk out the front door of my apartment building to endless opportunities for entertainment, food and friends.  When I thought about the suburbs, I would shiver as the theme song from Weeds would start coursing through my veins.  It was all very vanilla.  And that was not the flavor I was seeking as a twenty something.  And yet, despite all of my judgment, I moved to the suburbs.  

 When I compare the city to the suburbs, there are pros and cons to both.  But what gets me the most (and makes me…

View original 583 more words

17 Feb

Erin Chantry:

Check out the Ink and Compass blog for some interesting facts on how Americans’ housing desires have started to shift. However, in my opinion, not fast enough. Can someone tell me who those people are who would extend their daily commute by 40 minutes? But for those 75% who want walkability, 60% who want mixed-uses, and the 88% who crave a sense of community, the design of the physical environment must start meeting their needs.

Originally posted on Ink & Compass:

I’ve heard it said, and have often repeated, that one can get used to living in a smaller house (or condo or apartment), but you never get used to a long commute. After decades of continued car-dependent sprawl, maybe we’re all finally cluing in. Or maybe not.

According to the 2011 Community Preference Survey that outlines what Americans look for when deciding where to live:

Six in ten (59%) would choose a smallerhouse and lot if it meant a commute time of 20 minutes or less. Four in ten (39%) would stick with the larger houses even if their commute was 40 minutes or longer

OK, so we’re not exactly all on the same page here.

A couple other interesting factoids from the survey:

1) We want to walk.  More than three quarters of Americans consider having sidewalks and places to  walk one of their top priorities.

2) In fact…

View original 156 more words

The 1959 Warning of Sprawl.

30 Dec

Community Growth Crisis and Challenge – The Urban Land Institute and the National Association of Home Builders (1959)

Original Article: http://www.theatlanticcities.com/housing/2011/12/warning-urban-sprawl-1959/824/

When I came across this video via the article above I was so interested to know that the issue that I am most passionate about in my career was on the radar in 1959. The negative effects of urban sprawl are so horrifying to me I had assumed that it hadn’t been recognized as a problem before the 1960s and 70s when the worst of it was built. To know that it could have been prevented was a little disheartening to say the least. Another surprise were the origins of zoning. What from first impressions has always seemed like a rational way of dealing with land use (ie: we don’t want toxic factories next to schools), actually was also a statement in social class. In order to keep lower classes and poorer people out of their neighborhoods they raised the minimum plot land area to raise property prices. Of course I shouldn’t be surprised. Class warfare has played a major part in our land and population patterns for centuries – “White Flight” being one of the most influential occurrences in modern history.

The ULI’s 1959 proposed solutions to urban sprawl were actually quite enlightened. The Planned Unit Development, or masterplan, as we would call it ensured a certain level of mixed-use, mixture of housing types and densities. Despite the video’s condemnation of the Victorian townhouse, one of my favorite elements of the city, the reinvention of this housing type to encourage high densities and beautiful streetscapes was refreshing. Also, the suggestions of loop and circular streets supported the use of perimeter blocks, one of the most sustainable urban elements.

The ULI also proposed some pretty horrifying suggestions, including the Cluster Method, which is no more than a glorified cul-de-sac. We know now that this method of planning prohibits pedestrian activity and a connection with a neighborhood’s surrounding context. This encourages the use of the car and single-use development, which is one of the major problems urban sprawl has left us with. At least with the Cluster Method proposition, a higher density was taken into consideration. Another suggestion of separating car and pedestrian traffic, we know now, can lead to an unsafe and less active public realm. In time this can weaken the community and social inclusion.

The ULI concludes with a challenge to American planners, developers, builders, and the “American Community”…did we live up to it? I would argue not, but after the turn of the century we certainly have realized the mistakes of our past and have moved forward with solutions that far outshine the “before-their-time” thinking of some in 1959. As we move into 2012, I look forward to moving the ideas of our time ahead. See you in the new year!

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