Married to the Wrong Place

image courtesy of Nate Hood

I often write about what makes great places.  I try to provide insights on what makes places great and what makes places not so great.  It generally boils down to this.. Places built around people that are highly walkable tend to be great.  Places built around cars, not so much.  Places that try to accommodate both are hit or miss but usually fall into the miss bucket. 

Now, I know a lot of this is personal preference but just take a look at look at home values and vacation destinations to discover the magic of place.  In a 2009 study on walkability, Walking the Walk, houses with above average walkability were seen to command premiums of about $4,000 to $34,000 over houses with just average levels of walkability in the typical metropolitan areas studied.  Additionally, the study saw between a $500 and $3,000 increase in home values for each point increase in Walk Score.  In our own metro area, the same place/walkability premiums exist and can be evidenced in neighborhoods such as Virginia Highlands, Inman Park, Decatur, Historic Roswell and eventually Avalon.

Vacations, another high ticket item where place seems to matter, also show a distinct preference for destinations that deliver great experiences .  Vacation destinations are almost always either walkable urban environments or places that bring us closer to nature, and it is apparent that the ‘burbs just don’t provide either very well.  Unless you’re visiting a friend or family, you probably aren’t headed to suburbia for vacation.  There just isn’t any ‘there’ there.  People crave places with personality and will pay a premium for it.  

Building better places was an important discussion 5 or 6 years ago when we were in the throws of the Great Recession but it’s even more important now as we are seeing a building recovery, dare I say boom, in North Fulton.  The unfortunate thing is that we are still building the same crap devoid of personality and lacking any true future.  Will Windward be the next historic district in Alpharetta? Why are we still throwing up commoditized subdivisions dominated by front loader garages that pretend to be walkable but yet connect to nothing?  Why do we still tolerate sucky architecture from builders looking to make a quick buck?

In my opinion, the problem revolves around our obsession with economic efficiency and our love affair with the short term.  When we add on to our suburban street network, we fail to see how that will impact our commute in 5 years when more vacant or under developed land is developed.  We purchase a home using borrowed money planning to sell it within 5-10 years hoping for a quick profit.  We think that a quality interior will somehow fix the shallow and cheap exterior.  We are blinded by the mortgage interest credit.

In our short sightedness, we have built an environment that only a mother (or homeowner) can love, a world full of non-places whose sum is less than the value of its parts.  The fact of the matter is that we are building places that have few redeeming qualities save that fact that you can buy and sell them.  They won’t stand the test of time... 

Nate Hood, a fellow urbanist from Minnesota, recently made just this point when he posted his engagement photos online.  The satirical photo shoot highlights just how ridiculous our suburban landscape is in a series of shots in front of driveways, empty lots and cul-de-sacs.  Nate’s website says it all; “Engagement photos are either urban or rural. They are either a former factory or a leafy meadow... Never the subdivision. Never the cul-de-sac.  We wanted to capture the ambiance of the American Subdivision”

What a sad sad place we have created when our homes and neighborhoods are a punchline for a witty couple who recognizes the hilarity of our suburbs.  Like it or not, we are married to the places we build.  Like a spouse, don’t expect to change places.  Once built, we have to accept them for what they are.  When the traffic gets bad, realize that you married that traffic when you chose to live in a car oriented world.  When you have to drive the kids everywhere, don’t think you’re going to change that zoning code so things can be closer together.  When you want to ride your bike, go ahead and strap it on the SUV and drive it over to the greenway because you’re married to a place where riding on the streets is akin to risking your life.  But, maybe you’d be better off.. or maybe you just need to get a divorce and move to a real place that will truly truly stand the test of time.  One that is capable of growing with you as your needs and preferences change.  

For those of us who can’t get a divorce from our places, we need to focus on building more real places and quit pretending that the suburbs as we know them are the answer.