How do you build a really nice neighborhood?
Or, more to the point, how do you convince developers to build a really nice neighborhood? Besides showing lots of money, I mean….
It’s not as easy as it sounds. For starters, there’s this annoying little question about whose definition of “nice” you use. A case in point: who really wants an enormous house on a teeny piece of property? Okay, I understand it if you can’t or don’t want to do much yardwork. And of course the developers prefer this pattern because you can (or could) command a higher price for a bigger house than a bigger yard. So why not keep the house the same size, make it two stories, instead of one, and leave enough yard space to plant a tree…okay, a small tree…or even a shrub? Market forces, say the developers, and move on.
As if they have a lot of credibility when it comes to predicting market trends just now….
Of course, part of the problem is, as usual, contradictory values. You don’t necessarily want a neighborhood full of houses that are perfectly identical from the street (unless you’re living in Camazotz Estates, maybe). Or a street where nothing is visible but an endless row of 2-, 3-, or 5-car garages, for that matter. On the other hand, a street where none of the houses correspond in some respect is considered to have bad aesthetics. But then the fad in some circles is what they call “mixed income” housing, which by definition practically requires houses of contradictory sizes and shapes.
How do you take that and fit it into your zoning code and subdivision ordinances? More to the point, how do you tell the average citizen that because twenty years ago a certain kind of facade was made a legal requirement in their subdivision, they are now, as they say, very stuck-o? This is the sort of thing that makes for either a large or badly overworked city staff, as more and more building permits have to undergo deeper and deeper legal scrutiny, not to mention an irate public.
And then there’s the cost question: the more little features and requirements you add to your subdivision ordinances to improve the quality of the neighborhood, the more expensive it gets for the developer–and therefore the buying public, thus raising the cost and asking buyers to extend themselves further and further financially in order to live there. At least the market has a solution for that: “established” neighborhoods! Assuming, of course, that they haven’t all been plowed under to make room for new development….
So, what’s the solution to it all? I wish I had a good one. Maybe that’s one of the benefits of the current housing crisis: For the first time in a long time, we’ve got a few years to think it over.