Making Suburban Lots Bigger

Great article from New Geography examining how people feel about the space they have in the suburbs.

An excerpt.

Space has value. Even the mere perception of space has value. As land becomes more scarce, space becomes more valuable, and has a direct impact on housing costs and a developer’s profit (or loss). Both developers and the New Urbanists who preach that dense cities are good places know this, even as they pressure town councils and planning commissions to authorize reduced lot sizes. Where they have succeeded, the resulting compressed lots sacrifice quality organic space — green space — to the point of oblivion.

Less than a half century ago, Phoenix was a sleepy retirement town with vast openness and desert character. A few years ago, my wife Adrienne and I visited the city. Today’s Phoenix, like Las Vegas, Albuquerque, etc., is a blanket of rooftop and pavement with a few strip malls spattered about. We met with developers to demonstrate a new way to design that increases lot size (value), while reducing infrastructure (costs). Without exception, developers responded: “People move to Phoenix to have a smaller lot. They do not want space.” So we visited the new, compressed developments, and asked residents about their new homes. Without exception, all the residents we interviewed loved their new places, but wished they had more space, especially between themselves and their neighbors.

Simply put, a larger lot with more space is likely to be more valuable to residents, but builders are interested more in selling ‘product’ — homes. The more, the better.

A buyer will pay more for a large home than a small one; for a large lot than a small one. They will pay a premium for a home with a view of space over that what they would pay for a view into a neighbor’s adjacent yard.

Space has value, and value translates to an increased tax base.

The social engineer will argue that it’s OK to sacrifice space because there will be a small park a five or ten minute ‘walk’ away. Reality check: A very small percentage of residents will actually walk to that park, but the homes that can view that space will be priced at a premium, costing well above the homes in a sardine-like placement far from the park. In denser suburbs or new urban communities, the haves will enjoy space; the have-nots, not so much.

If space does not have value, as the proponents of dense neighborhoods claim, then why is it so heavily featured in home builders’ sales and marketing materials? When a home builder uses a marketing photograph, it is taken at a wide angle to make the lot appear larger than it actually is. When a builder uses a rendering on their web site or sales materials, it’s never shown with adjacent homes compressing the visual space.

How can we feed the hunger for space? The conventional design methods that have been used since the dawn of civilization can’t work. To achieve increased space while preserving a higher density standard, the housing industry needs to take an approach that incorporates innovation and attractive value.

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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