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Will Northeast Ohio choose more sprawl?

Marc Lefkowitz  |  07/17/12 @ 1:00pm  |  Posted in Vibrant cities

A thing is about to happen that hasn't in an age. Americans under 35 and over 65 are rejecting a large house in sprawlsville for a small house/condo in a walkable neighborhood. A National Association of Realtors survey confirms that prospective homebuyers favor a smart growth community by 57%.

If Americans favor smart growth, what explains the 54% (35-49 year olds) who favor sprawl? It does point to inertia in the system-for decades Americans have been sold something that's readily available, in a bland flavor (single-family large lot house) that everyone felt OK trying.

But this 2011 survey is an enlightened announcement from NAR, an organization that opposes progressive policy like the EPA's regulation of carbon emissions as a greenhouse gas because they fear it will infect the residential market next. They write:

Another sign that walkability is important came when people were asked to choose between a community with a mix of housing/businesses within an easy walk and a community with houses only, where residents have to drive to businesses. People preferred the walkable community by a 58 percent to 40 percent margin.

Most (59%) said they would be willing to accept a longer commute and forgo walking to shops and restaurants to live in a single-family home rather than an apartment or a townhome. Still, that leaves a sizable minority- 38 percent - who'd prefer an apartment or townhouse if it shortened their commute and enabled them to walk to shops and restaurants…it's another indication that "the more information we give people about what smart growth looks like, the more likely they are to choose it."

If we define Generation Y and Millennials as being born between 1980-2000 (10-30 year olds in 2010) the population equals 82,576,000 in America, outnumbering even the Baby Boomers. They are being called Generation Rent, the under-30 set, because houses are unaffordable and good jobs are hard to find. Many will graduate college and move to a city-or a suburb-where they can be close to their friends, living in apartments in vibrant, walkable neighborhoods that their parents wouldn't dream of living (that's the whole point). With the recession expected to last, they'll form their identity politics on urban living. They are already the most liberal generation since the New Dealers. Should it be any surprise they favor quality, connected places-America is a very urbanized population, with 82% residing in cities and suburbs as of 2008 (the worldwide urban rate is 50.5%[3])

Let's bring it back to Northeast Ohio, and what this all means to us. The readers of this blog know that the region accepted $4 million from the federal Sustainable Communities program to plan for the future trends in land use and transportation. It seems reasonable to conclude that we need a plan and action steps responding to a post-recession prospect of how the 23.7% of the U.S. population (under 18) plus 13.3% (over 65) want to live. Are we going to be open minded and heads up enough to heed the trends?

We have inertia of sprawl in the region, but this survey gives clear preference to walkable communities – whether it's downtown Medina or Cleveland. Are we doing enough to locate jobs in key corridors and clusters so that young people who are entering the workforce can afford to live close enough to walk, bike or take transit to work and daily needs (their preference)? Or are we going to continue the mismatch between job clusters and affordable living for the next generation? That's what's happening right now in the 12-county region. What needs to change, for one, is the corporate leadership around not promoting sprawl by building corporate suburban campuses on highway interchange development. Not helping matters is the corporate HR practice of not promoting choice for walkable neighborhoods for new employees.

Every community in Northeast Ohio can offer an attractive, walkable town center. We cannot afford to miss out on the single largest demographic shift in a generation. In the words of the conclusion to the National Association of Realtors:

That puts real estate developers at the same crossroads as U.S. auto companies a few decades ago when they were painfully slow to respond to changing consumer demand for smaller and more fuel efficient cars…"I don't know if builders realize that this is their 1970s/1980s oil shortage ... and they can't ignore the opportunity to change their business model."

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