Homesteading the Suburbs

16 thoughts on “Homesteading the Suburbs”

  1. You didn’t mention some valuable existing infrastructure – I couldn’t help but notice the sidewalks on both sides of the street: existing pedestrian transportation network; and the houses with porches close to the street add cohesive community context.

    1. Andrew Price did a great blog post on the subject of transforming a parking lot into a village.

      Now for reality… We don’t actually have a set of physical problems. We “could” build all kinds of places. But we don’t. We won’t. We can’t. The culture won’t tolerate any of it.

      Whenever anyone suggests any plan that would create affordable housing or small scale incremental shops for mom and pop businesses on a tight budget the culture and political process stops it. Every level of society is organized around the idea that bigger, more expensive, more complex, and more precisely regulated approaches are superior. This isn’t a liberal or conservative tendency. It’s universal. Even the Texan with his boots and gun demands exclusionary zoning so no one can build anything small and cheap next to his lovely home.

      1. I DID read about a large underused private space that housed tiny house type things for COMMERCIAL start-up type of applications, but that was in DETROIT, which is often a special case, a little like the Berlin I recall from the early 1990s.

      2. I see, and I agree.

        I’ve checked Andrew Price’s work, and I’ve been advocating for a similar project in Lausanne, Switzerland, and finally the city decided to follow our group and build (the result is on Even though almost everybody agreed on the project, it will take 10 to 20 years to redevelop the area.

        10-20 years is a lot (basically, you’re planning a town for your kids), so I now prefer to engage in short term projects. I’ve been working for a while with La Maison Verte in Romont, Switzerland, ( and some other small projects nearby.

        So, I’ve found the same two patterns:
        – if the town is booming and there is some economic pressure, land gets expensive, big money come in, and people agree much easier in building big projects like the one from Andrew Price. On the other side, once this kind of project is done, you can have a massive gentrification of all the city, and small, incremental projects become nearly impossible.
        – if the town is stagnating or declining, no money comes in, and people get more suspicious about changes, as they are afraid to lose what they already have. On the other side, there is plenty of room for small, incremental projects (some backyard permaculture, a small café), if you can do it small enough to keep it under the radar.

  2. “At best a dead shopping mall might eventually be turned in to a branch of a community college or a budget medical plaza. That’s about it.”

    Not sure if I completely agree with this. When housing options in abutting, more walkable-urban areas become scarce and expensive, changes will come to these areas. In Austin, for example, home prices have recently boomed in areas built up in the 60’s and 70’s. The Highland Mall was converted into a community college, but additionally attractive, mixed-use apartments are going up in the mall’s former surface parking lots:

    1. Different markets will play out in different ways. Austin is booming at the moment. Not all locations have that kind of economic pressure. There’s a price point where converting a dead mall into a town center works. You see this in D.C., San Jose, Seattle, Denver. But then there’s the rest of the country…

    2. Yes! And don’t forget that a mall or an outmoded suburban block can be razed to create a park for not much money, potentially raising the value of.all the surrounding real estate on the cheap.

        1. Certainly true for independent suburbs that do not have enough commercial tax base, and certainly some parks are expensive to maintain, but I don’t think this is an absolute.

          1. Parks do tend to add value to the private property around them. But you need to get the balance right. If you have low value scattershot tract homes (which already have front lawns and back yards) a patch of open space with some grass it’s going to help much. It’s just the equivalent of a landscaped berm between strip malls.

            On the other hand, if the same patch of park has some benches, a little play equipment for kids, some picnic tables, and is neatly framed by mixed use buildings with corner shops selling ice cream, coffee, and sandwiches… then you might have higher property values, more tax revenue, local employment, and a safer, livelier neighborhood.

            But be careful not to have monolithic towers plopped down in a soulless expanse of lawn either. You’ve got to get the proportions and mix just right.

            1. All good points, Johnny!

              I might note the irony of park fetishism in some suburban communities. I am thinking especially of gated communities designed to eliminate the public realm in exchange for an exclusive private world.

              Yet, some of these communities have begun to question whether a golf course is enough. A private parklet or two is provided, to great applause. Yet, one rarely observes any real use of said parklet, because the privatized lives of the behind-the-gates people couple don’t really have a “need” for such a space, even a controlled one like the parklets in question.

    3. Sure, there are some places that could be redeveloped into more walkable places because they are near other successful places. But not everywhere. What about my parent’s small city in Alabama? It has absolutely nothing walkable. The oldest parts of town have the physical street layout, but nothing is using it. It’s not near ANYTHING (it actually is basically the market/healthcare town for the surrounding area.)

      It’s already doing so badly that every house is now selling for less than construction cost. With that there’s no market for redevelopment, so it’s difficult to redevelop the dead malls and impossible on an adequate scale.

      But – all that land around the houses becomes a lot less of a burden if you’re allowed to do something useful with it. Small scale gardening of food and flowers can be very productive economically and can easily be at least as attractive as a sterile lawn. Turning fading suburban areas into home farms is a vastly superior outcome to letting them become slums.

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