Saturday, April 30, 2016

R-2, the New Suburbanism

Sometimes it strikes me how people will accept things as normal and inevitable without even stopping to consider why.  In urban design one idea that seems invincible is that suburban neighborhoods are made by subdividing land into residential lots with one house per lot.

Single-family residential (R-1).  The default.  As American as apple pie, right?  Well, why not two homes per lot (R-2)?  This approach has a lot of advantages.  What if you want to live close to someone but still give them a measure of privacy; say your 25 year old son or your 75 year old mother?  With R-1 you can't on the same lot.  With R-2 you can.  With R-2 you can earn some extra income by renting out a second unit when times get tough.  With R-2 we can increase the supply of housing in our expensive metro areas where people are getting crushed by the cost of housing.  With R-2 the local transit agency can run buses through the neighborhood more often, because there are more people there to ride them.  With R-2 there are more customers near stores, stronger businesses and more jobs.  With R-2 we can save natural habitat from the bulldozer.  With R-2 we can double the the amount of housing units in suburbia without even changing the look of suburbia: put little cottages in back yards, it's not rocket science.  We can make suburbia work better, while looking the same.

Sure, there will be objections.  Too many cars parked on the street.  Too much noise.  Loss of neighborhood character.  "Undesirables" moving in (code for poor people and people of color more often than not).  And, thought but seldom stated, loss property values, and hence, social status and sense of identity.  I think these objections exaggerate the problems of higher density arrangements, but even if we grant that they are valid for the sake of argument, I submit to you that these considerations pale in importance compared to the objectives outlined in the previous paragraph, particularly the need to provide more affordable housing and house "non-traditional" families.

R-1 has serious cultural inertia, but it's also increasingly being challenged by people who see its flaws more and more clearly as they struggle to afford housing and care for their extended families.  We need a New Suburbanism with its defaults set to R-2.

1 comment:

  1. "Too many cars parked on the street."? You mean "too little curb for the cars.