Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Why Vegas?

Recently the Atlantic posted an article on its website called Why Are Developers Still Building Sprawl? which caused quite a furor on my Twitter feed among planners and architects because it presented a rather sobering reality: that most Americans still buy homes in the suburbs (which honestly should be no surprise to anyone who lives outside of NYC and San Francisco). But notice that I used the word "buy" rather than "prefer", because I think the reality is far more complex than the statistics would suggest. This post is a response to that article. 

One of the reasons I saw many other commentators point out is that ever since the recession the average homebuyer is considerably older than previously, so the statistics are obviously skewed towards Gen X and boomers, who are still trapped in a suburban mindset. And again, who can blame them when in most cities suburbs are all they know. Suburban homes are all that is available in most cities, so even those who would prefer a more urban lifestyle are given little choice. In my own once hometown of Columbus, IN, for example, even my millennial peers are buying suburban-style homes because that's about all there is. Columbus does have a historic downtown which has a couple decent streets, but there's very little homes in the area, and what there is is a low-income area. 

The article largely focused on Las Vegas, so it's the city this post will likewise focus on. For years Vegas has been seen as a stronghold of suburbanism while also being one of the nation's fastest growing cities, especially before the recession. It was also one of the most hard-hit areas during the recession, with many new developments stalling or going bankrupt. It's now starting to recover, but as the article says it's mainly business as usual, both for developers and homebuyers. 

First and foremost, I think it's incredibly naive to expect any sort of urban revolution to start in a city such as Vegas. From its very inception built for cars, it would take a generation or more to even begin to make a dent. It would have been far more interesting and perceptive to focus on Atlanta, for example, which while also now a bastion of suburbanism, at least has a historic pre-car backbone on which to lean on. From the core of its downtown on through the strip and outwards, Vegas is suburbia to its core and it'll seemingly take more than a recession to change that.

But let's analyze what's going on and why suburbia remains so popular. I want to understand the aims and psych of many of these developers and buyers. One of the new developments the article featured is Inspirada, on the very southern edge of Vegas. It's a curious hybrid of suburbia and vaguely New Urbanist aspirations. This hybrid nature results in a neighborhood which offers the benefits of neither (a common characteristic of other Traditional Neighborhood Developments as I'll later discuss). Before I continue, take a look at Inspirada on Google Maps

Sure the neighborhood has homes built closely together and close to the street, following the tenets of New Urbanism, but the very suburban width of the streets destroys the intimacy this tenet aims for, and the lack of anywhere to walk to negates the need to build densely. If you want people to walk, there have to be things to walk to beyond just a pool (note the copious parking by the pool). The developers quickly gave up on selling the smaller homes designed for walkability, ignoring the fact that buyers probably weren't interested because there was nothing to walk to. This begs the question: are the developers not very adept or are they slyly invoking New Urbanism to cover-up their aim to fit more lots per acre? I think it's safe to assume the latter. 

So in the end you have neither the walkability of New Urbanism nor the space of suburbia. If this is what developers are peddling as the next big thing, it should come as no surprise if most homebuyers simply opt for what they already know: a big suburban home on a big suburban lot. If you have to drive everywhere regardless, you might as well have it all, right?

Inspirada: no gardens and too much asphalt
Lakelands, Maryland, from above a sober sea of grey with little greenery
Why the Inspirada homes appeal is quite a mystery to me, truth be told. That big suburban home I can actually understand. You can't blame someone for wanting to have a big yard for the dog and kids to run around, after all. But these homes, they don't even have a suggestion of a yard, at best just a sorry little corner for the BBQ, with the rest of the rear taken up by the garage and a rear alleyway. It's not that different from living in an apartment. This may be deep in the 'burbs, but many inner city London townhouses have a larger back garden, with true walkability to boot. I understand the rear alleyway in an urban environment, where no one has a private garden anyway, or in the suburbs when it doesn't eat up the garden, but here the compromise doesn't work. The wide road in combination with the alleyway contributes to a sea of asphalt and means that homes are surrounded by a street on both sides, so you don't even get that all-important privacy. 

It's really important to balance design elements and not forget that the means don't always justify the ends. Even DPZ didn't get some of these things right in their Flatlands development in Maryland, so Inspirada is far from alone. The Daybreak community in Utah, touted as the largest TND development in the nation, also misses the mark, with wide roads, wasted land, and too much surface parking. As good as many TND communities are, a lot of them fall far off mark. In fact, they defer little from classic suburbs such as Irvine, CA.  

Most of the successful New Urbanist developments are pretty small in scale, rarely over a couple hundred acres, but for the movement to truly make an impact, large scale developments like Inspirada and Daybreak will have to start getting things right. That means true walkability and a full assortment of walkable services: shopping, schools, healthcare, and entertainment. I can't help but feel that the classic Main Street and classic grid is still the best model to replicate, and it puzzles me why it's not relied upon more often. It allows for organic growth and efficient use of land, whereas most of these master-planned communities grow in a hodgepodge manner, taking years to offer a semblance of their advertised amenities. Perhaps this isn't something one development can offer. One strategy I propose (which would require planning and foresight beforehand on the part of developers and planners) would be for several developments to jointly develop the Main Street where they all meet, thus relieving the pressure and sharing the load. City officials should take a more active role in this. 

I think it's important for homebuyers to think long and hard about the sort of homes they buy and in what kind of community, and to essentially vote with their wallets. There needs to be a deeper consideration beyond just whether there's a marble countertop. There are few better ways to force developers to get out of their comfort zone and make good, walkable communities that are truly walkable, not just in the marketing material. For the sake of our cities, and our planet, these decisions need to get better sooner rather than later. People want something to aspire towards, and communities like Inspirada don't make the cut. Here's hoping others in the future do.