Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a big fan of the Strong Towns movement, a supporter of Urban 3, and an admirer of the Incremental Development Alliance. These three overlapping groups describe how centuries of trial and error all over the world produced remarkably fine grained durable self sustaining communities.
They also explain why our post World War II development pattern is proving to be a fatally flawed insolvent and unstable experiment. And they show us how we can get back to a steady footing again with a return to traditional communities. But there’s a problem… As a society we’re too emotionally invested in the strip mall and cul-de-sac landscape we’ve built. We can’t imagine what anything else would look like. People immediately panic and envision communist style high rise concrete towers and impoverished ghettos. No one ever pictures a classic Norman Rockwell Main Street neighborhood – which is currently illegal to build.
In the past I’ve attempted to implement a Strong Towns approach to property using incremental development techniques. I bought a small one story home for example and attempted to make it a two story home. That ended poorly. I attempted to take a little house in a small town and build a modest granny cottage in the back half acre. That plan crashed and burned. It doesn’t work. Society on every level has no tolerance for any of it. Full stop. So we’re going to continue to do more of what we’ve been doing for the last several decades and it’s going to fail of its own dead weight. I’ve made peace with that reality.
I’ve learned to focus on a simple approach instead. Buy low. Do very little. Hold. Eventually sell high. This does nothing to fix any of the wild imbalances built in to the current development pattern. But it’s easy and profitable and the authorities and Upright Citizens Brigade don’t give you grief since you aren’t attempting to change anything. The trick is to understand the long slow pendulum swings at play and get ahead of the curve.
Moving forward I see three trajectories. First, older places that were built before the auto oriented development pattern will gain value. The efficient metabolism of such neighborhoods allows for a high quality of life at a very low burn rate. Since many of these Main Street locations have been out of favor for decades they’re often remarkably affordable relative to comparable property in newer suburban areas. I see a slow motion inversion of that market dynamic over the next generation based on contracting household incomes and rising costs for essentials. Traditional neighborhoods simply perform better when money is tight.
Second, suburban neighborhoods will be retrofitted to meet future needs with an emphasis on productivity rather than consumption. But the form of the retrofits will be behavioral and cultural rather than physical. Single family homes will become de facto multi family properties as relatives move in together and unrelated people share space as lodgers and room mates. This is what “density” will really look like. No renovations or new construction are required. Instead of whiz bang technological solutions we’ll see simple work-arounds. Attic insulation, heavy drapes, and long underwear will be the better options compared to solar panels. Instead of expensive new hyper efficient cars running on alternative fuels we’ll see the same old aging gas guzzlers cruising the cul-de-sacs. But they’ll be completely full of passengers all heading to the same important destination rather than a single driver taking discretionary trips. And all those blank expanses of lawn will become veggie gardens and orchards as grandma and unemployed cousins make themselves useful. Simple household economics will force these changes, not government edicts.
And third, a lot of the suburban environment that was never particularly good to start with will be abandoned and become the new slums. Part of me loves these clusters of empty buildings because they have so much potential to be reinvented at a very low price point. But the current raft of regulations and social prohibitions makes it impossible to do much with these places. So they’ll just continue to delaminate and crumble. Invest and proceed accordingly.