Another intriguing public opinion poll has surfaced. It shows that those Americans citizens, who aren't counted in the ranks of the "beautiful people", hold views and preferences different from those of their social and intellectual betters.
The new poll comes from the Pew Research Center; like previous studies on the same subject, executed by other researchers, it finds that most of us would rather live in a single-family house, on as large a lot as we can afford, rather than in a minimal-footprint rowhouse or walk-up as most of our grand-parents did.
Half of my family, for example, spent their working lives in a Clinton, Mass., three-decker convenient to the mill; they were able to escape for only a few brief retirement years.
The new Pew study won't get much exposure because it doesn't match the approved received-wisdom template, but it did get some space in a construction-trade magazine Professional Builder . In a commentary, the editors of Bilder lament being pushed to do more infill and more compact-development residential jobs which most customers don't want. The phrase the editors use is the pressure on the industry from smart-growthers, "to overcome tepid demand".
"We all talk about the increase in infill construction and a back-to-the-city lifestyle, but recent research suggests people in the 'burbs are happier," the Builder editorial says in the March 2009 issue.
You can find a study or two with any finding to match your pre-disposition or ideology, but more indicative I'd argue are those intended for in-house expert consumption only, such as the 2007 report entitled "Lot Size, Zoning and Household Preferences: Impediments to Smart Growth?", published by the Environmental Protection Agency in co-operation with the University of Maryland.
On page 2 of the reference above, the EPA lists the potential obstacles to smart-growth as including new homebuyer preference for larger lots,; on page 16 the EPA worries specifically that "the bigger issue (than minimum lot size) may be household preference for larger lots". In short, the EPA complained, the average American is too dumb or too stubborn to recognize what the experts know is better for him. Or maybe not.
The majority opinion, so despised by self-appointed intellectuals and know-it-alls, lies in a tradition which goes back to the tiny farms and large-lot city plans of the colonies and the philosophizing of Thomas Jefferson, the rural-urban notions embodied in Ebenezer Howard's "Garden Cities" (1902)and Frank Lloyd Wright's similar Broadacre City design proposal in his 1932 book, "The Disappearing City". In 1935, author Maurice Kains published "Five Acres and Independence", the first of a series (1948, 1973, 2008) which has never gone out of print. Even the USDA has gotten into the movement, publishing in 2008 a book titled "Living On An Acre: A Practical Guide to the Self-Reliant Life".
Kain's book, and the USDA book, aren't among the self-absorbed navel-gazing books we've seen-like the writings of wealthy, let's-play-farmer Henry David Thoreau in 19th century Massachusetts or even the Nearings in 20th-century Vermont (and later in Maine)-but they are efforts at publishing practical, how-to manuals.
These books are exactly what the new local-vore movement now admires: changing food from an industrial/supermarket/mass production/low-purchase-cost model to a grow-it-yourself or buy locally organic, locally variable( and yes, markedly higher price) range of products. These local products, although theoretically growable on apartment balconies, in practice, require just the sort of larger-than-minimal house lot sought after by the great majority of homebuyers and despised by the advocates of smart-growth. It's turning out, in a delicious irony, that the grow-your-own and local-vore trends are best supported by pro-sprawl land use planning guidelines.
This principle was acted upon by builder Mike Mallott in -surprise-New Jersey, back in 1983; he started a residential development in Beckett, a crossroads suburb 17 miles from Philadelphia in Gloucester County. The layout called for 98 lots ranging in size from 1.6 to 18 acres together with a standard Cape-style house then selling for $75,000. Mallott named his successful subdivision "Five Acres and Independence".
The average lot size works out to roughly 10 acres, about the size of Vermont's once-popular, but now expertly condemned 10-acre lot, usually associated with Act 250; it is actually the offspring of earlier health department on-site sewage disposal regulations. More next week.
Former Vermonter Martin Harris lives in Tennessee.