Shifts in Consumer Preferences Help New Urbanism Weather Real Estate Storm

A new Gfk Roper study shows Americans developing especially positive attitudes toward New Urbanism and neighborhoods where people live near each other (New Urbanism phrased another way).

Judging from a report in the Denver Post, this study is a keeper. Here are a few quotes:

"The report deemed "New Urban" communities such as Prospect, Colo., the
most desirable areas in which to buy homes because they monitor sprawl,
foster walkable amenities, and strike a development balance between
homes, schools and businesses." The re-emergence of front-porch
socializing, main streets and corner stores are key to America's most
popular neighborhoods."

"More than 90 percent of Americans consider the ideal neighborhood to be
one where people live near one another..."

With a 2003 U of MD study published in the Journal of Urban Economics coming to similar conclusions -- that buyers pay 15.5% premium for elements like connected street networks, smaller blocks, better pedestrian access to shops and proximity to light rail -- we're revising CNU's message on the Coming Demand. A previous study credited to CNU keeps getting repeated and has a life of its own: it says 30% of people would consider living in a compact traditional neighborhood. Once upon a time, when sprawl was truly the default development option, that might have sounded good, but it appears that examples of NU on the ground are proving powerful and prevalent enough to move mainstream consumer opinion. The 30% figure is clearly out of date.


Do more than 30% of people want really compact walkable places?

On the Urbanists listserv, Laurence Aurbach argued that a number of recent studies support that idea that 30% of Americans want to live in some form of urbanism and referred listserv readers to an extended analysis of consumer survey and study results at his informative blog, PedShed.

If you're interested, read his blog posting and my reply, which I've posted here.

Far from being the last word on the subject, the Roper study is part of a trending upward in the acceptance of living in compact, traditional neighborhoods, ranging from TNDs to T-6 downtowns. It's significant that a consumer preference study singled out the TND -- not the ubiquitous conventional subdivision -- as the highest-rated form of development. Judging from the journalistic coverage, the study defines NU (or at least TND) better than comparable studies -- walkable amenities; a development balance between homes, schools and businesses; front-porch socializing, main streets and corner stores."

The positive reaction to NU thus defined certainly contributed to the respondents' very positive response to "living near others," although you're absolutely right, Laurence, that a preference for "nearness" in no way equates with a preference for NU. I was being a little playful in making a direct connection. Nearness is quite a relative term -- to someone living in the exurbs, homes on half-acre lots around a cul-de-sac may sound appropriately cozy, even though the helter-skelter diagonal arrangement of larger suburban homes on compact lots is part of what makes McMansion a pejorative term. By contrast, this Roper report cites cites the role "of careful and deliberate planning" in giving NU neighborhoods their edge in popularity. You get nearness and harmony at the same time.

In the Pedshed posting, I actually see few studies that limit popular interest in compact neighborhoods with walkable mixed-use destinations to 30%. There is 47 percent in a California poll who'd “choose to live in a mixed-use neighborhood where you can walk to stores, schools, and services.” Between 20 and 40 percent of surveyed Atlantans "have a very strong preference for the most compact and walkable neighborhoods. In the Seattle area, between 48 and 54 percent of respondents prefer compact, mixed use neighborhoods. Maybe you focus on these studies because they had more interesting results than the great preponderance that put the preference at 30%, including those from the past two years. I'm interested in seeing those studies.

One issue I have with the typical surveys is that the results are used to portray Americans as being in an either/or camp regarding urbanism. Reporting on the studies also suggests that a given person's tastes are restricted and fixed -- 30% want to live in urban places, whereas 70% want detached homes on large lots. In truth, as awareness of TND and city living grows -- and demographics change -- there's nothing to stop a growing majority of the population from wanting to living in both kinds of places, especially as their household size and family composition changes. My brother isn't unusual in loving his large-lot house and coveting a downtown condo, where he and his wife may move when his kids are grown.

30% want walkable place

Your brother likes choice among attractive variables. That's what urbanism provides across the Transect. Choice is the key and we'll see more of it as government regulations and programs stop mandating and subsidizing sprawl.Separate use zoning, DOT and Fire Dept. generated wide road standards, mininum lot sizes for schools and hundreds of other interventions have made it difficult to produce the urbanist options that consumers increasingly want. That's changing as demand grows and as awareness of form based codes and context sensitive street design spreads.

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The March issue of "Builder" magazine says that downtowns "could lead the housing industry out of its slump." Robert Lang says that 5% of Americans want to live downtown, while Leinberger puts the figure at 40% in "walkable urbane places." While acknowledging that luxury condo gluts have hit Miami, Las Vegas, and other cities, it says that "the demand for urban housing will remain steady and, over time, so will the increase in property values." Indeed, "the potential for new center-city housing will be quickly exhausted... [S]econd-tier downtowns will blossom in town centers within driving distance of large cities."

The market for urban housing is strongly bifurcated, with younger buyers looking for smaller and affordable and older empty-nesters looking for larger; it suggests that builders either appeal to one segment or allow extreme customization all the way down to selling raw, "hard loft" shells.

Interestingly, the average price per square foot for attached housing now exceeds that for detached housing -- which shows that condos are not cheaper because (a) people don't really want to live in them or (b) they're smaller than detached houses. In fact, condos aren't cheaper than houses, and that fact is pretty amazing testimony to the fact that Americans don't all want to live in single-family houses.

Elsewhere in the magazine, a package on "America's Best Builders 2007" features a Massachusetts infill specialist and a Charlottesville custom-house builder that's moved into townhouses, condos, and soon into mixed-use infill.

Promising Reports from Philadelphia and Coastal Texas

Philadelphia infill developer Sam Sherman, a co-chair of the local host committee for this year's Philadelphia Congress, offers some fresh evidence to back up the case he's made over the last year that the market for residential and mixed-use urbanism in the city of Philadelphia is holding up well and is generally outperforming the suburban housing markets. A statistical report from Kevin Gillen of the Wharton School of Business assembles charts showing city neighborhoods repoting strong sales numbers through the second quarter of 2007. And Philadelphia CBS affiliate WKYW aired a similar report in late August saying, "Philly Bucking The Trend In The Housing Market. Reports WKYW:

Experts are saying Philadelphia is not following the national headlines that proclaim housing is going from bad to worse.

"The best locations in any market still will hold their value while the peripheral locations will suffer the most," Realtor Allan Domb said. Few know the Philadelphia condominium market better than Domb, who sells hundreds a year and from the newest at 22 Front, he likes what he sees.

"If you're not under the gun and you don't need to sell, clearly if you're in Center City, this is only going to get better," Domb explained.

And from Coastal Texas, Thaddeus Herrick of the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday of a "wave of New Urbanism" engulfing the Texas Coast. In addition to other Texas projects, Herrick reports on the ambitious plans of developer Tofigh Sherazi to create a 260-acre, $1 billion new town known as Beachtown outside Galveston. "The first of the project's four phases, 160 lots for single-family homes, is sold out," reports Herrick.

Though Herrick touches on critiques that say some examples of New Urbanism are too nostalgic and that traditional-neighborhood develompents in coastal locations become homogeneous resort towns, but concludes that the prospects for these urbanism-based projects are largely good. He writes:

While the movement offers something of a counterpoint to subdivisions, malls and office parks, it is attacked by critics as nostalgic and unimaginative for its reliance on 19th-century architecture. While New Urbanist communities such as Seaside often are pitched as real towns, critics say they tend to become little more than playgrounds for the rich.

But the movement is growing and could be well-suited to weather the nation's recent real-estate woes, in part because of its appeal to long-term owners instead of just investors. In addition to Beachtown, a 93-acre, $175 million urban village known as Evia is taking shape in Galveston. The work of local developers, the project will include a total of about 350 residential units, with 70% of the 222 lots for single-family homes sold.

Given the market struggles dominating so much coverage, when the Wall Street Journal has something positive to say about a real estate trend these days, it's a pretty big deal.


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