There’s a lot of confusion and skepticism about what Americans really want in a neighborhood. The conventional “American Dream” has, for more than a century, been an house with an acre or so of land in the idyllic suburbs. A lot of Americans still desire that dream — but what percentage, and under what conditions? And will the majority want that dream in the future, or are cultural shifts in the offing? Let’s look at some surveys and projections about the market for neighborhood types.

Current Demand

Several surveys of market preferences have found that a solid majority want large, detached homes, while at the same time there is substantial support for walkability and proximity to mixed use. A 2002 National Association of Homebuilders survey found that a majority wants big, low-cost, spread-out houses, but also that 25 to 35 percent wants destinations within walking distance, sidewalks, workplaces closer to home, and infill in the center city or inner suburbs.

Seventy-one percent of respondents said that suburban sprawl was “somewhat of a problem” or “very serious.” Only 16 percent said that sprawl was not a problem.

Note that the NAHB survey was not quite a representative sample of the U.S. population. Seventy-six percent of the survey’s respondents were owners of single family detached homes, compared to 57 percent nationally (according to Census 2000).

A similar survey was conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California in 2002. It also found a majority of Californians wanted large detached homes; however, half of the respondents would choose a small home with a small yard if it meant a shorter commute to work. A remarkable 47 percent would “choose to live in a mixed-use neighborhood where you can walk to stores, schools, and services” compared to 50 percent that would choose “to live in a residential-only neighborhood, even if it means you have to drive a car to stores, schools, and services.”

The SMARTRAQ study surveyed 1,466 people in Atlanta and found, “all in all, depending on which characteristics people preferred, between 20 and 40 percent of survey participants have a very strong preference for the most compact and walkable neighborhoods.” In the LUTAQH study, 461 households in three Seattle-area neighborhoods were surveyed and respondents indicated a preference for compact, mixed use neighborhoods at rates between 48 and 54 percent (pp. 203-215).

In the book Zoned Out, Jonathan Levine reported the results of market preference surveys conducted in Boston and Atlanta. A random sample of 1,607 individuals was contacted; in Atlanta 60 percent lived in outer suburban and exurban locations, while in Boston the majority were in central city and inner and middle suburbs. In Atlanta 29 percent of respondents expressed some degree of preference for transit- and pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods; in Boston 40 percent expressed that preference. Based on a statistical analysis, Levine concluded there is more demand in Atlanta for transit- and pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods than is being met by the supply.

The article Consumer Preferences for Neotraditional Housing Characteristics was based on a survey of 1,551 people in the Columbus, OH area. The article did not report the raw results, but instead made a complex statistical analysis to identify under what conditions people would prefer new urbanism. The article concluded,

Although our results indicate that on average the lower density choice was preferred, we found that the mean respondent would choose the higher-density, neotraditional-style neighborhood under a range of plausible conditions. … given what is available in most markets, the higher-density, neotraditional/New Urbanist neighborhood choice was more popular than one might expect.

In addition to broad opinion surveys, targeted market surveys are made by marketing professionals whose reputations depend on providing reliable, accurate information. Firms like Robert Charles Lesser, Leland Consulting Group, Zimmerman Volk, Market Perspectives, A. Nelessen Associates and Gibbs Planning Group could not stay in business decade after decade if they gave their clients information that was purposely distorted.

These firms consistently find that a sizable percentage of the market prefers walkable, mixed use neighborhoods with a variety of housing types, and that this percentage will increase in coming years because of changing demographics. They dismiss the notion that current buying patterns accurately reflect consumer preferences. As Volk and Zimmerman write, “In most metropolitan areas, American households buy into the current settlement patterns because they lack genuine choice.”

The bottom line is this: The great preponderance of surveys finds approximately one-third of the current U.S. market wants neighborhoods that are multiform, mixed use and walkable. Nearly all (90+ percent) of new residential development is conventional suburban sprawl or otherwise hostile to pedestrians. Ergo, a market failure is taking place, and a pretty massive one at that.

Apartment Housing

The National Multi Housing Council’s report, From NIMBY to Good Neighbors crunched statistics about apartment dwellers. The common assumption among Americans is that almost all apartment dwellers are stuck in apartments due to their financial situation. However, the report found that 40 percent of Americans living in an apartment do so by choice. That percentage has increased steadily from 28 percent in 1999. Households earning $50,000 or more are the fastest-growing segment of the apartment market, and now total more than 3.6 million.

Transit

The Public Policy Institute of California’s survey included a question about demand for transit in particular. The results were:

31% – Would you choose to live in a high-density neighborhood where it was convenient to use public transit when you travel locally?

66% – Would you choose to live in a low-density neighborhood where you would have to drive your car when you travel locally?

Thirty-one percent market demand is nothing to sneeze at. However, current attitudes may be very different than future attitudes over the next several decades. We know there will be large changes in the demographic makeup of the U.S. population and increasing impacts from Peak Oil and global warming. That’s for certain, although no one can predict exactly what scenario will come to pass.

Future Demand

A spectrum of associations, industry publications, and academic researchers is looking into projections of future demand.

In The Coming Demand, the Congress for the New Urbanism previewed research by Myers and Gearin (see below). The study used two scenarios to forecast the next ten years. If current market preferences remain the same, demand for “a townhouse in the city” could fuel 30% of new growth. If the market changes due to cultural preferences, traffic congestion, and the snowball effect, the demand could increase to 17%-19% of the market, representing 55% of new growth.

The shifting of cultural preferences on a nationwide scale is something that lies in the realm of possibility rather than certainty. An example of a such a shift is when successful transit- and pedestrian-oriented developments stimulate similar developments in the same region. I’ve seen exactly that snowball effect occur over and over in regions across the country. As The Coming Demand puts it:

A final catalyst for cultural change is the growing presence of new walkable neighborhoods on the ground. New Urbanism first spreads slowly into a region. But once it is there, people quickly understand its benefits. Each code, development, or policy is easier than the last. For example, in Florida and Colorado New Urbanism has sunk in enough to get dozens of developments approved and on the ground. It is now widely understood in those markets, allowing bankers and local agencies to consider it without prejudice.

In 2005 the American Institute of Architects surveyed its members; 58-63% of firms reported that mixed use and infill development are growing in popularity. Higher-density development and access to transit are also increasing in popularity, according to 41-43% of firms.

The AARP surveyed 2,000 seniors and asked “How important do you think having each of these features located in your community will be to you in your later years?” The percentage that answered “very important” or “somewhat important” was:

  • 67% for accessible public transportation
  • 78% for sidewalks
  • 75-94% for mixed use within 1/2 mile of home, including library, restaurants, community center, drug store, grocery store, shopping center, place to worship, doctor’s office and hospital

Academic researchers such as Emil Malizia and Susan Exline at UNC Chapel Hill, Arthur C. Nelson at the University of Utah, and Dowell Myers at the University of Southern California have made or examined forecasts. These researchers find that large segments of the population prefer compact, walkable, diverse neighborhoods, and they project a strong increase in demand for such neighborhoods due to demographic and cultural factors.

In the article Leadership in a new era, Nelson projects a demand for 34 million dwellings to be built in the U.S. between 2000 and 2025. Using a conservative interpretation of Myers and Gearin’s survey results, and incorporating demographic trends, he finds there will be no new demand for large lot, exurban homes by 2025. All of the demand for new construction by then will be for attached and small-lot (less than 1/6 acre) housing in walkable or transit-oriented developments.

See also a similar report by Nelson, Toward a New Metropolis: The Opportunity To Rebuild America and a related PowerPoint, The Longer View, that forecast demand for 80 million dwellings to be built between 2000 and 2040. Again, the market is projected to be for condos, attached houses and small lot houses in mixed use, pedestrian-oriented or transit-oriented neighborhoods.

Is that a new urbanist fantasy? Maybe the vision shall become real, if we can change land use regulations to allow the the market to work more freely.

Today there are about 6 million U.S. households living within walking distance (1/2 mile) of rail transit stops. This study by the Center for Transit Oriented Development, Hidden in Plain Sight projects demand for similar transit access by an additional 14.2 million households by 2025. At 2.5 persons per dwelling, that’s about 50 million Americans. Add to that the neighborhoods beyond the 1/2 mile radius that can easily commute to rail transit, plus the neighborhoods that can be served by bus, plus the neighborhoods that drive fewer miles because of mixed use and pedestrian orientation alone, and the overall future impact of urban form becomes significant to energy security and the environment.

More importantly, if all this new development truly provides what people want in a neighborhood, then it’s fairly likely that the quality of life will have been improved for millions.