Can large-lot suburban homes have a sustainable future?

The U.S. has a massive oversupply of large-lot homes, defined as properties of 7000 square feet or more. According to studies by Dr. Arthur C. Nelson, professor of city and regional planning at the University of Utah, and others, more than 25 million large-lot suburban homes now exist that will go begging for buyers over the next couple decades.

Demand is strong for homes in walkable urban settings, though, fueled by seniors who are leaving the suburbs and want the amenities of a city, and by younger people who crave an urban lifestyle. It looks like a fundamental shift from the drivable suburban development pattern of the last fifty years.

By the year 2030, only about 27% of American households will have children, according to Dr. Nelson, so the nuclear family of mom, dad, and two kids living in suburbia will be in the minority. In addition, Dr. Nelson predicts that single-person households will rise to 34% of all households by 2030. And with a huge surplus of suburban homes on large lots—the traditional home of the nuclear family for so many decades—and only about a quarter of all households having children, creative living options will be needed to attract people to those neighborhoods.

More from Dr. Nelson: “From the 1950s to 1990s, we designed American suburbs through zoning and subdivision codes to accommodate families with children,” Nelson said. “That kind of model is outdated. We need to redesign our suburbs to cater to people without children, and even single-person households, who have a very different perspective on what they want for housing.”

Read more here.

So demand for large-lot homes in suburbia will be weak thanks to over-supply, and other interlinked factors that will probably exacerbate the problems. Rising fuel costs make daily life everywhere more expensive, but in suburbia, where a car is almost required, residents are stuck with driving, as public transportation options usually do not provide service to all the places that people need to go to. Excessive supply and inability to sell many homes leads to foreclosures and blighted neighborhoods far from people’s jobs, so even if the prices are low, how many people will want to invest in a seemingly declining neighborhood? Who would want to borrow money to buy such homes, considering that the property may depreciate over time?

I can think of a few scenarios. Industrious young-ish people may want to use the available space for business. The contrarian in me sees many of those large-lot homes as having great potential for self-sufficiency. An oversupply means low prices; large lots mean room for gardens and woodlots and workshops and so on. With proper growing techniques, you can grow more food than you need for your own family, so you could also have a market garden and cash income.

How much land is required to grow food? It depends, of course, on the methods you use. People who promote biointensive techniques claim that only about a half-acre is needed for a family of four. The Dervaes family in Pasadena, California, has produced 7000 pounds of vegetables, in one growing season, on 1/10 of an acre, or about 3900 square feet. Adding a simple greenhouse could extend the growing season and produce even more food. It might be necessary to rebuild the soil, as many productive fields saw the topsoil bulldozed off and sold when the land was being developed for housing, but that can be done and isn’t too complex.

David Holmgren, one of the originators of Permaculture, has explored this idea here.

Another idea for creative re-use of suburban homes is “alternative” housing arrangements, such as co-housing, multi-generational housing, and multi-family housing. It seems that these uses would often require changes in zoning and covenants, but if half the homes in a given neighborhood end up vacant, people may very well be able to change the zoning, if not simply ignore it. This option would be useful for so many people, from older people who may need financial or physical assistance to be able to stay in their homes, to single parents who can develop relationships with other single parents and all look after each other and their children. Intermixing between the generations is also a positive attribute found in walkable urban neighborhoods, and could be encouraged in suburbia.

And finally, another example is artists and musicians, who always seem to flock to cheap and useable spaces. In the process, they often create exactly the kind of vibrant, creative, mixed-use—and gentrified—neighborhoods that attract families, singles, and seniors. I find it very interesting to contemplate artists and musicians re-making suburbia so that hipsters and yuppies want it again.

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The Farmhouse Media is all about living sustainably with

  • green building
  • permaculture
  • green cities