These are places we Americans know well: suburban and exurban neighborhoods, where gently curving streets are lined with single-family houses with driveways, multi-car garages, front lawns. We have been constructing these houses for decades, from coast to coast; and for decades the extensive car-dependent neighborhoods and cities they have produced have been roundly critiqued for their negative impact on natural landscapes and ecological systems, on cultural life and social relations, on energy use and personal health. For at least a generation urban design practitioners and theorists have focused on the redevelopment of suburbia; one of the most prominent recent studies is Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson’s Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs, which features case studies for up-zoning corridors, converting strip malls, reusing big box stores, etc. The big-picture ideas and national movements are by now well known — transit-oriented development, New Urbanism, Smart Growth, and so on. And yet the suburban reformers, focusing almost always on the scale of systems, have rarely paid sustained attention to suburbia’s essential component, its irreducible unit — the freestanding single-family house.
From the modest Cape Cods of Levittown to the center-hall colonials of New England, from the bungalows of the South and Midwest to the Spanish-inflected ranches of California, these houses at once embody and perpetuate longstanding national ideas and assumptions about home ownership, land use, family life and the relationship of the individual house to its neighbors and to the community as a whole. Viewed collectively, suburban housing constitutes the most ubiquitous construction type in the United States in the last half century. At the peak of the housing boom that ended in 2006, single-family houses made up more than three-quarters of housing construction permits and housing starts; and by then the average size had ballooned to more than 2,200 square feet, and the average price topped $250,000. The sustained growth in sales of ever-larger suburban homes is truly remarkable, especially given changing family structures and population demographics and the marked mobility of American life. In fact, since the postwar years, average household size has notably decreased (from 3.8 people in 1940 to 2.59 in 2000), and the population remains strikingly peripatetic (in 2009 and 2010, 12.5 percent of Americans relocated). The disconnection between the rising diversity of housing needs and the monotony of housing production speaks to the tenacity of the postwar American dream — the enduring allure of the detached house with front lawn and backyard patio — as well as to the profitability of catering to these aspirations.
For the full story, read more at Places Journal.
Aron is an architectural designer at Waggonner & Ball Architects, where he is working on the strategic use of vacant lots in St. Bernard Parish. This article was originally published by Places Journal in September 2011.