A New American Dream – From Sub-Prime Crisis to Livable Communities: McMansions Revisited

A shift toward walkable urbanismBack in November I commented on an Atlantic Monthly article about the hardest hit areas of the sub-prime mortgage meltdown: the large-lot “McMansion” subdivisions built far from urban centers, gobbling up once arable land and forcing residents of these communities (if they could really be called “communities” at all) into their cars for hours a day to get to where they need to go to maintain their McMansion-style lives. 

I suggested that if the American Dream is buying unsustainable housing with unsustainable financing then perhaps the dream has turned into something of a nightmare for some and that out of the the sub-prime mess might come the motivation to do better – to re-imagine the American Dream.

Christopher Leinberger writes this month in the Atlantic Monthly an article simply entitled The Next Slum that talks of such a shift toward sustainable communities and development.

Leinberger’s proposes that what is reflected in the mass foreclosures, abandoned track houses, and surging crime rates in many suburban developments is from much more than our current financial situation. While bad loans certainly help fuel the fire, it is not its ultimate source.

A fundamental shift is afoot in America, according to Leinberger, and that shift is toward a more integrated, walkable, urban-centered lifestyle.  

The Pendulum Swings

After World War II the boom was on: babies, highways, and suburban track housing developments. Light rail tracks into urban centers were torn up in favor of highways leading the other direction – out of town and into quiet, comfortable, safe communities with green lawns and good schools. Gas was cheap and the V-8 was king.

As the pendulum swung out toward the suburb, the inner city was abandoned, left for only the poor that couldn’t escape (Leinberger cites the Kurt Russell the 1982 sci-fi thriller “Escape From New York” depicting New York City as an unsupervised penal colony as indicative of the “culture of decline” of the inner city), allowing decay, blight, and crime to fill the vacuum left by the whoosh into the ‘burbs.

But that whoosh is increasingly silenced as the freeways become choked with cars driven by commuters making their way to work, shopping, or simply a night out in search of some “culture”. The pendulum is swinging back the other way.

Leinberger refers to a study by Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech director Arthur Nelson of trends in demographics, consumer preferences, construction costs, and other data that indicates a growing shift in lifestyle and housing preferences. Nelson concludes from his research that by 2025 there will be a surplus of large-lot housing (1/6 of an acre or more) of 22 million homes by 2025, or 40% of the current stock.

Combine this with the current premium residential space commands in major, newly gentrified, urban centers, upwards of $750 a square foot according to Leinberger, and the simple law of supply and demand swings the pendulum back the other way.

The City Comes to the Suburb – “Lifestyle Centers” – Does the Concept Work?

In 1966, when I was a lad of eight, our family moved to Lakewood Colorado, a suburb of Denver, into one of hundreds of developments springing up around the city. As I remember, our house, the first house that my mother and father ever owned and for which they paid a whooping $15,000, was one of the first built on our street. We were living the American Dream.

About that same time, a brand new, thoroughly modern, enclosed shopping mall opened in Lakewood called “Villa Italia”. I can remember the excitement of going to the mall as a kid, seeing the occasional movie at the theater, and playing miniature golf at the inside course. Of course, we had to drive to get there.

I was in the Bay Area by the time Villa Italia had become a run-down eyesore of a shopping mall, and last year, visiting my parents, I saw first-hand what had become of my childhood stomping grounds. Where once stood Villa Italia is now “downtown” Lakewood (something I never really knew Lakewood had) in the form of a mixed-used faux-urban “lifestyle center” known as Belmar.

This and other such newly-minted, walkable, mixed-use “lifestyle centers” appear to be suburbia’s answer to traditional urban cores.

Some aren’t so sure about the idea. The Urbanophile writes that so-called lifestyle centers are little more than a shopping mall with a few condos and offices scattered in, and the thought of such projects as mixed-use “downtowns” he finds “amusing” (though he admits it may be a start in the right direction.)

Urbanophile’s principal objection to the concept of lifestyle centers is “staying power”.  Building a suburban environmental to mirror the perceived fashion of the day doesn’t create a reason or desire for anyone to live there 25 years later. It’s fad over foundation.

And there is clearly a competing vision of development in Lakewood, for only minutes from Belmar and “downtown Lakewood” are dozens of large-lot McMansion style subdivisions spreading inexporably westward toward the foothills and southward toward Colorado Springs.

Walkable Urbanism vs. Drivable Suburbanism – Investing in the Future of the American Dream

But I don’t believe Leinberger is speaking of fad. Suburban lifestyle centers may, in some cases, be slow to catch on, or not entirely authentic in their “urbanism”, but it does offer a choice. Apparently one that consumers are increasingly demanding. Thus, I think that Urbanophile’s assesement that Leinberger is engaging mostly in “wishful thinking” misses much of the point. That is, the evidential shift toward sustainable, walkable, mixed-used development.  

We have two choices in developing our living environments: drivable suburbanism or walkable urbanism.

Drivable suburbanism has been the choice for the last fifty or sixty years. It offered what, at the time, was the current version of the American Dream.

What Lienberger speaks to, I believe, as an expansion of the American Dream. Drivable suburbanism isn’t disappearing anytime soon, and will remain the viable choice for a large segment of our society for some time to come. But as we move into a new century, with new challenges, shifting demographics, and changing priorities, it is clear that drivable suburbanism writ large upon the landscape is neither desirable or sustainable.

America is a nation built on expansive vision and change. Perhaps, out of the ashes of failed mortgages and abandoned tract houses, we’ll continue to build on the dream.

Or is that just wishful thinking?


A podcast with Christopher Leinberger is available at Planetizen.com

Leinberger is author of “The Option of Urbanism – Investing in a New American Dream”, available from Island Press




Tom is the founder, editor, and publisher of GlobalWarmingisReal.com and the TDS Environmental Media Network. He has been a contributor for Triple Pundit since 2007. Tom has also written for Slate, Earth911, the Pepsico Foundation, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, and many other sustainability-focused publications. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists

One response

  1. “lifestyle centers” aren’t too much more than re-conceived suburbs/malls. The main problem with the concept is that they attempt to artificially create value in order to drive profit to the developer, and developers are not enough of an economic force to maintain them for more than a short period.
    Cities, on the other hand, typically operate in reverse. They have an attractor (natural or manmade location, such as a port or river bend, historical accident such as a railroad junction) which generates economic interest in the location, out of which arises commerce and attendant city centers, architecture, stores. This activity covers a variety of economic interests, enough for one to pick up when another falters, and thus sustain the location far beyond what a single developer could afford.
    Suburbs/malls/lifestyle centers are essentially population monocultures, vs. the diverse ecology of a city. A monoculture requires constant energy for its sustenance, and is very susceptible to disruptions in its environment. Hence a landscape filled with failed suburbs, malls, and eventually “lifestyle centers”, while cities undergo cycles of rejuvenation.

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