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Desire for the Undesirable

There's an interesting attitude that tends to pervade in discussions about urban (or suburban) redevelopment, particularly when it comes to rezoning neighborhoods for walkable mixed-use and building for high density. Often, the concern is that the redevelopment will attract a bunch of yuppies, increase the cost of living in the area, and price out long-time residents who like living in a low-rent neighborhood.

(from Flickr user citta-vita)

The situation begs some important questions. Why is the area inexpensive now? Why will redevelopment increase the cost of living in the area? What is it about the redevelopment that will attract people willing to pay big premiums to live in it?

Perhaps the answers stem from the hypothesis that single-use zoning makes the area less desirable. The mixed-use development will increase the desirability of the neighborhood. A more desirable neighborhood will shift the demand curve to live there up, which will attract people willing to pay more to live there.

But that begs yet another question... why is a mixed-use type of neighborhood so desirable in the first place? Maybe the answer is that truly good walkable neighborhoods are so few and far between. There simply aren't enough of them.

Defenders of sprawl will continue to argue that suburbanization occurs because people prefer it and want it. Often, they point to a typical American metro area, with tons of people living in suburban subdivisions and say "look at all the people who live in these places. Obviously they want to live in these places."

This is actually like making an apples and oranges comparison.

Consider a hypothetical farmers market. There are only two items sold there: apples and oranges. Half of the customers prefer apples and half prefer oranges, but 90% of the total inventory is apples and only 10% is oranges. What's going to happen? Oranges are going to be very expensive, apples will be cheap, and a lot more apples will be sold than oranges.

Would it be fair, thus, to use that as evidence and conclude that people obviously prefer apples to oranges? Because hey, look at all the people walking away from the farmers market with apples in their bags. No, this isn't fair; but it's more-or-less the evidence that defenders of sprawl use and will continue to use.


Kristen said…
We both know that the suburbs are aided by racism,interstates big homebuilding and and companies who are after cheap land. I think people exist who want both, but not for most of the reasons listed in media outlets and even some position papers today.
Joe S said…
Rob, this is right on. Research has shown that there is excess demand for smart growth neighborhoods. However, high-production home builders have been slow to adapt and meet this demand for a variety of reasons; financial issues, past history etc. It's going to take innovators who are willing to take risks that will hep bring about change.
John Morris said…
That was certainly my experience in NYC.

I was pretty commonly at openings or parties in Brooklyn, and meet people who whould have prefered to live there but now lived further out or in suburb for economic reasons. Sometimes they grew up in the area and were bitter their parents sold the house years ago.
Now, obviously this is select crowd, but it does make one wonder how many people are actually not thrilled with where they live.

Obviously, the whole bubble term--"drive till you qualify" told the real story behind a lot of what was going on.

It will be interesting to see how things pan out in the future since a huge previous factor--the home as bullet proof investment-is now questioned.

Lot's of people simply bought whatever they could get and often bought in the suburbs because that seemed to be what others were buying.

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