Monday, August 15, 2005

Giving homebuyers what they want -- a sense of security

The NY Times covers trends in exurban development, which ranges from the new-urbanish (though somewhat disneyfied) Avalon Park, to much more traditional suburban-like development with larger lawns and cul-de-sacs.

The good news: these are not the white-flight suburban enclaves of the 60's and 70's. As in Greensboro's Reedy Fork Ranch, the people living in the new developments are very comfortable with racial mixing. For example, in Tampa's New River development, the residents are 38 percent Hispanic, 24 percent white and 16 percent black. But most of these folks do have something in common: 75% of them have children.

Here's a part that bothered me, though:

In its most recent survey of Tampa home buyers, KB Home asked people what they valued the most in their home and community. They wanted more space and a greater sense of security. Safety always ranks [high], even in communities where there is virtually no crime. Asked what they wanted in a home, 88 percent said a home security system, 93 percent said they preferred neighborhoods with "more streetlights" and 96 percent insisted on deadbolt locks or security doors....[T]he company designs its communities with winding streets with sidewalks and cul-de-sacs to keep traffic slow, to give a sense of containment and to give an appearance distinctly unlike the urban grid that the young, middle-class families instinctively associate with crime.
The desire to keep one's family safe from crime is entirely understandable. But I wonder to what extent the fear of crime is disproportionate to real risks. Is it possible that the flight to secluded exurbs is being wrongly fueled by local TV newscasts hyperventillating over crime, by crime dramas like CSI, and by "reality"-based shows like America's Most Wanted and Cops?

It also rankles me somehow to think that people who have the social and organizational skills that would most benefit urban neighborhoods are taking their social capital out to the exurbs where it sits mostly unused.

Exurbanites seem to be cherry-picking urban benefits such as jobs, business and government connections, and culture and entertainment, while leaving the dirty work of city life to others.

Not to mention that their flight to far-flung communities forces governments to build and maintain a whole lot of new road capacity to carry those commuters. Are the exurbs paying their fair share for the new roads? I'd like to find out. And if they're not, I'd like to find some way to make sure that they do.


Ryan Radford said...

I can't say I like the new-urbanish, cutesy little planned towns... I guess the intent is to feel like you know everyone and know everything works the way it should (as it's been carefully planned by a development company), but it just feels fake.

Here's my example: I live in Northern Florida between semesters at UNCG, and along the Walton County coastline you have at least 4 or 5 of these planned communities. The first was Seaside, which you may remember from The Truman Show; it's exactly like the movie, everything is perfect, and the people that run it make sure it stays that way.
Where there used to be "natural" cute beach towns around it though, developers have come in and bulldozed everything to create similar communities, and as you drive down 30-A, the highway through there, everything just feels so... fake.

I'm sure the tourists who come and rent the places out for a week or two and spend their entire vacation funds just in these towns don't mind, nor do the developers taking their money, but in the process of trying to create charm, they've destroyed everything people used to love the area for.

It's not exactly the same scenario here, and faux-charm may be better than no charm, but I'd still personally prefer a community that has evolved rather than one that an urban planner in New York dreamed up.

Anonymous said...

The problem of cherry picking benefits without giving back to the community is particularly acute in cities like New York, where residents pay a local income tax and commuters don't, and it is even worse in DC, where residents pay district taxes and commuters pay nothing (in New York you at least have to pay the state tax on your earned income even if you live in Connecticut). The security thing is ridiculous. Our cities (and everywhere else) are getting safer and safer and yet public perception is the opposite (though I have to say, I would kind of want a $20 deadbolt in my new home even though I am not concerned by crime . . . I didn't think that was a very good example). It is also troubling that people want more and more space. From an environmental standpoint, a family of 4 just does not need 4000 sf.

Anonymous said...

My wife and I continue to have the discussion of what type of neighborhood is "safer" for kids to live and play. She thinks our cul-de-sac neighborhoods are better since there's only one way in and out. However I grew up in a traditional urban neighborhood with a grid based street pattern and though there was a decent amount of traffic, the roads were narrower and not as conducive to high speed and big rushes to get out of the neighborhood. Living in isolation creates its own issues and has definitely limits opportunities to be a significant part of the community.