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12:00 am
Tue November 29, 2011

Beyond Sprawl: Rethinking Residential, Cul-De-Sacs For The Future

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.

We’re staying single longer. We’re having fewer children. 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. They're 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 and team had recently applied and were awarded a grant with the city of Avondale to redesign one of its cul-de-sacs for the year 2030. The cul-de-sac Warman we're looking at now 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.

An example: Half of all households then 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: "Air conditioning and heating and water and gas prices."

As the cost of these necessities and amenities rise, 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 – Warman says we'll need to share more living space in the future, and the cost of maintaining the space.

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

This is not how it is right now. Current cul-de-sack 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 others 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, and with more shared public space, close 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.

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.