/ Modified dec 13, 2011 1:43 p.m.

Beyond Sprawl: Not Your Mother's Suburb

Part 2 of the Fronteras Desk series talks to students learning from today's housing to reimagine tomorrow's communities

After an historic housing crisis, the Fronteras Desk asks: is it time to reconsider the way we’ve built the Southwest? This is part two of the special Fronteras Desk four-part series, Beyond Sprawl, airing December 12-15 on NPR 89.1FM/1550AM.

Story by Devin Browne


PHOENIX — Pigs will probably fly in the Southwest before homebuilders stop constructing new homes here. But the types of homes people will need in the next 20 years might look very different.

After all, we’re staying single longer, we’re having fewer children, and we’re paying more for gas and utilities. Is it time to re-think the all-American suburb? Arizona State University graduate students in design and architecture think so.

The cul-de-sac the team of ASU grad students picked to study has seven houses on it. The houses are new. They're huge. They have sort-of hard-to-make-out front doors, but really big garages, very center stage.

One of the grad students on the project, Whitney Warman, and I are here one morning about an hour before we see anyone. When we finally do, Warman is shocked.

"OK, this is interesting," she said.

"I see a person," I said back to her.

"Oh my God, there's someone out," Warman said. "Wow, this is really promising, that there are actually people on this cul-de-sac. 'Cause the first time we were here there were two families and we got yelled at. We were shooed off the street."

That was last spring. Warman's advisor, Milagros Zingoni, and her colleague, Aaron Golub, had recently applied and were awarded a grant from the Phoenix Urban Research Laboratory at ASU with the city of Avondale to redesign one of its cul-de-sacs for the year 2030.

The cul-de-sac they chose to retrofit was built in the mid-2000s, but basically follows the design principles of the 1950s, when American demographics and gas prices and bank loans were actually really different.

future-culdesac-spot In 1950, the average home was 1,600 square feet. In 2000, it surged to 2,500 square feet. The design students want to reverse the trend and, in 2030, drastically reduce the average American home size to 800 square feet. (PHOTO: Courtesy Whitney Warman, with direction from Milagros Zingoni)

For example, half of all households in 1950 had children. But in 2030, only a quarter are expected to have kids. And singles will occupy more than one-third of households. To Warman, the houses on this street – about 2,500 square feet – are way too big for just one or two people.

"I mean 2,500 square feet – you gotta clean that!" she yelled. "That’s a lot of cleaning!” Not to mention, she adds, the "air conditioning and heating and water and gas prices" that accompany 2,500 square feet in a suburb.

As the cost of these necessities and amenities are rising, demographer Arthur C. Nelson at the University of Utah says our wages are not.

"We ended the 2000s at a lower per capita income in real purchasing power terms than we started the 2000s," Nelson said. "And all the studies I see indicate that we won’t come back to the 2000 level maybe until 2020, maybe not until 2030, maybe never."

So for economic reasons like this – in addition to environmental and demographic projections – the students found that we'll need to share more living space in the future, as well as the cost of maintaining the space.

To do this, Warman says, we're going to have to know each other.

future-culdesac-focuslg As part of their redesign, ASU students retrofitted one of the swimming pools into a skate park. Their denser design will allow three times as many residents to live in the cul-de-sac in 2030 as do now. (PHOTO: Courtesy Whitney Warman, with direction from Milagros Zingoni)

This is not how it is right now. Current cul-de-sac resident Sabrina Mitchell tells us she doesn’t know anyone on the block, and that she likes it this way – she and her family like to live quietly and keep to themselves.

"I mean it’s good to know your neighbor and know that you guys have each other's back if anything was to happen," Mitchell said. "But we’re pretty much in here. Everyone is pretty much by themselves."

So Warman is asking a lot. She basically wants to take this street, where the only reported social interaction is hypothetical, and turn it into a place where people live in private units a quarter the size of the current houses, with more shared public space and proximity to buses and jobs.

The suburbs may not look this way right now. But Nelson, the Utah demographer, says that as much as one-third of the current American population wants something very similar.

"Twenty-five percent or 33 percent want a smaller lot within walking distance of transit stations or working opportunities or shops," the professor said. "Thirty years ago, it might have been 10 percent. So the fact that a quarter to a third want something different is a real dramatic change."

Even though home builders in Arizona are now building only a mere tenth of what they were building during the recent housing boom, they’re not necessarily building smaller, denser units that are closer to transportation and amenities.

culdesac-donna-focuslg Donna Niemann (left) and Claudia Hartman travelled 2,500 miles last summer to visit more than 20 co-housing communities all across the country. They're using what they found to be the best practices from these communities to design their own "neighborhood of the future" in Phoenix. (PHOTO: Courtesy Donna Niemann and Claudia Hartman)

So some “Phoenicians” (residents of Phoenix) aren’t waiting. They’re drawing up plans for a totally new kind of neighborhood, all on their own.

"Here is Vesta," said Donna Niemann, one of these Phoenicians. "This is our community."

Niemann is single, her kids are all grown up, and she has no official training as a planner. Yet, here she sits with pages of plans she helped dream up for a new community in Phoenix she wants to help build and then live in.

"We have 14 homes in this quad and this is our quad for adults," Niemann said, pointing to her plans. "Either married or single, and they’re around a common green area that we could have a barbeque, a shade structure..."

If this sounds familiar, it’s because the drawing hits on almost all the same themes as Warman’s.

"For me, as an aging baby boomer, I’ve lost half my stock portfolio. I did everything right, right? It’s all worth nothing right now,” Niemann said. “And I’m like: ‘OK, who is going to rebound for the last 30 years of my life? Do I trust the government? Do I trust financial people?’ Heck no!"

Instead, Niemann said, she wants to trust her neighbors.

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