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Tag Archives: small towns

Suburbs may be getting cooler, but they will never, ever be as cool as the city

1 Dec

The suburbs may be getting cooler, but they will never, ever be as cool as the city.

You might assume they are based on real estate trends and survey results. Unfortunately, housing choices and urban vs. suburban development just aren’t that simple. If they were, urban planning would be a lot easier…and a lot less important.

[Previous Agenda story: Living in the city is cool, but are the suburbs cooler? I’m torn.]

Just because people are moving to the suburbs, it doesn’t mean they’re cool.

Guys, I’m here to tell you: I live in the suburbs and I think they’re boring as hell. I choose to live where I live because our Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools district has three A+ schools and if those districts change, we’ll still probably have all highly ranked schools.

I know there is an argument out there for neighborhood schools, charter schools, homeschools, etc. That is another article for another day – but when all is said and done there is no doubt that quality of schools (or perceived quality of schools) is driving the real estate market.

I also want to have a nice little tribe of kiddos – and they and my sanity need a little space. I am not alone. I have made the decision to sacrifice what I want for what I think is the most important for my children…because I can’t have it all.

If I could afford to live in the city and pay for my children to go to a school of my choosing I would stick my house on the market so fast your head would spin.

The uptick in sales in the suburbs post-2016 is a result of the economic recovery. All those millennials kept getting older, getting married, and having kids during the recession. Now that things are looking up, they have the ability to purchase property – and for the reason I just mentioned, a lot are headed further out of the city.

Rail Trail Southend

The Rail Trail in the Southend (Photo Credit: Alan Goodwin)

 

But not everyone has a choice in where they live.

Many people depend on the social support of their families and neighbors. They may live in the same neighborhood their whole lives and they need to stay there because their grandmother lives down the street and watches their children while they work the third shift or take night classes.

Moving is very expensive. Some people may never be able to afford to pack up their house and start over somewhere new. Finding another house they can afford while their house has been declining in value for decades might be impossible.

These are all very real scenarios that many Charlotteans face daily – and there are many more. We have to stop only thinking about the people who have choices and think about everyone in this city as it relates to housing.

Even if we could decipher the infinite reasons why people choose or have to live where they do (not necessarily where they want to), it is important to know that not all is fair in the war between city and suburbs.

An article in Chuck Marohn’s Strong Towns takes a deep dive into federal financing’s effect on the housing market, but in summary here are a few facts to know (stay with me – these are important):

  • Since 1934, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) have insured mortgages for 34 million homes, only 7.4 million were in multi-family buildings.
  • Federal program guidelines make loans for mixed-use buildings very difficult so most banks won’t make them. They also cap the amount of non-residential space within buildings because outdated research shows single-family developments are less risky than mixed-use development. This encourages developers to shy away from “riskier” urban projects.

Developers like to make money, which is no surprise to anyone. And in order to build a product to sell, you have to be able to easily get financing. If developers can only get financing to build single-family neighborhoods, that’s exactly what they’ll build. When a young family comes along who has scraped their pennies together for a down payment, they really don’t have a lot of choice in their housing type. With a much larger supply of single-family surburban homes, they are often more affordable. When you only have a choice between suburbia and suburbia…you choose suburbia.

Because there are less urban, mixed-use, and walkable places being built (and when they are they are limited and also become unaffordable), the financing systems in place are reinforced because people continue to buy in suburban neighborhoods, creating a false demand in the market.

Not all suburbs are as cool as Davidson and Matthews.

And as we consider whether suburbs are cool, it’s worth keeping in mind that Davidson and Matthews are not really suburbs.

They don’t suffer from a lack of connected streets, architectural character, a mix of uses close to one another, or wide tree-lined sidewalks like typical suburbs around Charlotte do.  They have historic downtowns built in a 1800s, WAY before suburban growth hit America hard in the 1960s-2000s.

And we just don’t build them like we used to. All the towns mentioned in the article (Matthews, Davidson, Fort Mill, Belmont, Mooresville, Huntersville, Rock Hill, Weddington and Waxhaw) were in existence way before the automobile was invented or Charlotte was anywhere near. Charlotte kept growing and just ate them right up.

While they may be suburban by location, they are not suburban in character.

Matthews

Downtown Matthews, North Carolina (Photo Credit: Charlotte Agenda)

The suburbs might blend into a mega-city over time.

Time will tell, but I do think it’s very likely that Charlotte will continue to grow into a metropolitan area with a series of smaller cities with commuting and housing markets overlapped.

I believe it is human nature to get off our butt and walk outside, enjoy the breeze on a fall day, and be around other people and community. The traditional suburbs do not offer that, and that is why we have seen an increase in walkable activity centers like Ballantyne, Blakeney, Baxter Village, and Birkdale.

Because the centers of these activity centers exhibit the same characteristics of the city, they are also becoming more unaffordable and are experiencing their own scale of sprawl.

As we speak, our transit system is being redesigned to think about how to more directly connect these hubs of population and employment to each other directly without having to connect to Uptown. The network of smaller “towns” already exists, and as our Charlotte continues to see the growth of more than 50 people moving here daily, walkable activity centers will continue to be popular.

Stonecrest

Stonecrest Activity Center (Photo Credit: Stonecrest at Piper Glen on Facebook)

The argument of suburbia vs. city never has been and never will be simple.

I think we can all agree that no matter where we live, we all want a choice — which we really don’t have right now. Whether our hand is being forced by the disproportionate quality of schools in our public school system, the type of house we can afford, or if we can afford to move at all, we can all agree the sharing of diverse cultural resources and experiences that the city offers will always be cool.

This article was originally published on the Charlotte Agenda.

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Mayberry: Is Small Town America a Myth?

14 Jul

It’s true that the American icon of Mayberry was well before my time, but as a native North Carolinian it certainly has been indoctrinated into my personal culture and maybe even identity. Fictional Mayberry, North Carolina was in almost every American’s living room for nearly a decade, and many more years after through syndication. Even as a young child, I knew the whistling theme tune. In my house The Andy Griffith Show was revered, and in my own mind, I made the assumption that what had made it so special had to some extent been lost in pop culture. On July 3rd, Andy Griffith passed away, and I questioned myself: has Mayberry been lost?

In the wake of Andy Griffith’s death I came across the BBC article, Is the ideal of small-town America a myth?. Author, Rob Dreher believes that Mayberry has always been a myth and therefore it was impossible for it to have been lost. While this fictional world often led to idealised story lines I am sure, after hearing stories of my parents and grandparents’ generations growing up in the South, I find it hard to believe that places like Mayberry never existed, or perhaps, I am happier living in denial that perhaps it can’t be recreated. But Andy Griffith said himself, even though it was based on his own experiences in North Carolina, that Mayberry was a myth.

What shocked me most about the BBC article was, “We are instructed to spite Mayberry as a kind of ironic inoculation against the supposed unreality of a traditional, square way of life. You can’t go back to Mayberry, they say, by which they mean forget it, small-town and rural life is over, and was a lie in the first place.” I’ve never been told or sensed in American culture that we are instructed to spite small-town America, in fact, with movements like New Urbanism, etc., I think as a planner I am instructed to feel just the opposite. One could argue that whether it is through television, country music, or an urban planning movement, the community and culture that goes along with small towns is revered and should be recreated.

As a bit of research I asked my father about how he felt watching The Andy Griffith Show when it first aired in the 1960s and what it meant to him. His first comment was, “it represented the way I wished it was.” He commented that Andy Taylor (Andy Griffith’s character), represented a rational and quiet calmness that was a breath of fresh air in the midst of the Equal Rights Movement. It seems that even in during the 1960s, one of America’s most challenging times, small town culture might have already been lost. While my father lamented the fact that Mayberry represented a lost culture where everyone tried to help everyone else, he did say that the physical urban character was a very accurate depiction of what it was like to live in a small, agricultural, American town. The Main Street served as the center of the town, and most residents walked everywhere, and children rode their bikes. Even when The Andy Griffith Show was aired, the urban form of small towns hadn’t yet been lost.

Today, or at least before the bust, marketing campaigns like the one below  (a development masterplanned by the New Urbanism firm, DPZ), for a new housing development was common. The New Urbanism movement has clearly shown that small towns and all the preconceived notions that come with it, sells houses. In my opinion, it’s not that people miss living in a small town, necessarily, but they miss the sense of community. With marketing tag lines like “A Place Where Yesterday Meets Today,” for The Vermillion development in North Carolina, some people believe that if they can leave their subdivisions, cul-de-sac, and Escalades behind they might feel like they belong to a place and the people who live there.

The New Urbanism Marketing Campaign

New Urbanism Marketing Campaign (Image: http://www.newvermillion.com/home.htm)

I am a strong believer in the marketing of smart growth and sustainable development, and on some level, believe that anything that sells these important design principles should be championed in the development profession. But I can’t help but think that thousands of people have moved to these “small town” developments, and turn up to find they just can’t fit their escalade in their back alley…and nothing much else. I have to agree to some extent with the BBC reporter, Dreher, that the cultural ideals that are represented by small town America have been lost. Mass globalization, automobiles, cultural and national events, and technological evolution can pretty much take responsibility for the loss of places like Mayberry. Of course, with these things, have come very positive contributions to our world that we would never trade back.

I may assume from the limited research into my father’s mind, that the sense of community and neighborly friendliness left America and their small towns, well before the physical urban form changed. So, therefore even if we design our urban form to answer to traditional design principles, we may not be able to bring that back. Not all hope is lost however… There are numerous other reasons to design and build places that adhere to urban design and smart growth characteristics that New Urbanism often embodies. Climate change, public health, and social equality are just a few. New Urbanists, developers, and everyone else who is trying to sell sustainable smart growth based on what community meant in the past, needs to find a new argument. Otherwise, one day, people will catch on to the fact that they are being sold something that doesn’t exist and can’t be recreated. Let’s stop living in the past, cherish what we have now in our culture, and try to figure out what “community” means for us in society today.

Mount Airy Mayberry

Mount Airy, NC today. Andy Griffith’s hometown and what many think was the inspiration for Mayberry. (Image: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2477/3844702155_f909e86718_z.jpg)

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