A Placemaking Journal

The Data is In: Let the heavy lifting begin

The good news about making the redevelopment of American neighborhoods more responsive to 21st century American needs is that we seem to have a pretty good grasp on the problem:

We have a lot more isolated, supersized, energy-sucking housing than we want or can afford. And we have a lot less compact, close-in, energy-efficient neighborhoods than we need.

The data is in, reported and summarized in a bunch of different places, including PlaceShakers posts here and here.

The bad news is how tough it is to turn around a half-century of misplaced investment and start delivering the sort of housing choices America’s changing demographics and economic realism demand. The fact is, we’re addicted to housing policies and processes that are sapping our wellbeing and future prosperity. And to make rehabilitation even more challenging, we’ve organized whole industries around supporting and prolonging the addiction.

I’m in Kansas City right now, Feb. 6-10, at the annual New Partners for Smart Growth conference, where conscientious-but-overwhelmed municipal and county staffers hash out problems and solutions. On Feb. 8, a group of us are leading a workshop on cottage neighborhood solutions to address affordability, sustainability, aging-in-place and other pressing concerns. We expect workshop participants will not need to be lectured on the need. They see it everyday in their communities. So we’ll be focused on the how-to, building off the sometimes painful experience of re-introducing small-scale mixed-use neighborhoods into the post-Katrina environments of Mississippi and Louisiana from 2005 to 2011.

If you can’t be at our Feb. 8 session and want to get in on the discussion, shoot me an email at But here’s something to chew on right now:

The most immediately workable solutions may be beyond the current capacities of many communities.

Brutal, but true. I see the current mission for advocates of sensible neighborhood redevelopment to be an act of triage. After 50 years of ignoring the lessons of centuries of community building, we’ve lost skill-sets required to design, permit, finance and build appealing, right-sized neighborhoods in the right locations. The right locations are infill locations, where the disadvantages of living in small private space are outweighed by all the advantages of walkable/bikeabale access to a public realm with just about everything we need for fulfilling community life.

Consider the obstacles our addiction has erected: Suburban-style zoning codes that outlaw compactness, accessory dwelling units and small-scale homes. Highway-focused transportation policy. Nearby neighborhoods panicked over the impacts on home values if smaller homes are built next door. Real estate appraisal processes that lack comparables for small home sales. Construction and mortgage loan processes built around suburban 3 bedroom, 2 bath homes. Developers accustomed to achieving “affordability” with drive-till-you-qualify locations farther and farther away from walkable town centers. And time and money-consuming planning and permitting processes that tip the risk/reward equation away from infill and towards more of the same in the distant ‘burbs.

Heavy lifting, indeed. A seemingly insurmountable task is possible with the right convergence of people and resources.

In time, the demographic imperatives of aging boomers and career-launching millennials, combined with constricted infrastructure budgets in states and municipalities, will overcome the barriers. But right now, in most places, the countervailing force of the status quo, no matter how delusionary, makes the push for right-sizing neighborhoods an uphill battle likely to exhaust all but the most determined and well-organized proponents.

Hence the triage.

Our experience tells us that, if you’re up for re-introducing small-scale neighborhoods in infill locations, pick your battles.

Communities with the best chances for this sort of community redevelopment enjoy these kinds of advantages:

  • An easy-to-demonstrate need for workforce/affordable housing close to job opportunities.
  • Political and business leaders who grasp the problems and are willing to throw their weight behind plans for neighborhood redevelopment of this type.
  • Zoning that allows for smaller scale units in the targeted infill location.
  • A commitment to quality design and construction to overcome the “projects” image.
  • Manageable land costs (city or county-owned property, for instance)
  • Potential partners (non-profit foundations, private sector developers, etc.) open to the discussion.
  • Opportunities for demonstration projects that can be replicated and scaled-up elsewhere in the community.

This is a wish list, of course. Few places have all those ready-made characteristics. But the fewer that are in place — or that are attainable with a little effort — the steeper the climb.

It’s a battle worth fighting. But it helps to wage it on the right turf, with all the reinforcements you can recruit.

Let us know how it goes in your community.

Ben Brown

If PlaceShakers is our soapbox, our Facebook page is where we step down, grab a drink and enjoy a little conversation. Looking for a heads-up on the latest community-building news and perspective from around the web? Click through and “Like” us and we’ll keep you in the loop.

Blue Asterisk
Blue Asterisk
Blue Asterisk