Keep Single Family Homes in Mind

I enjoyed looking at the examples of smart growth in NRDC’s new online feature, Picturing Smart Growth. Thanks to Kaid Benfield for bringing this great resource to everyone’s attention! I was pleased to see three of the examples, in Miami, Kansas City and Memphis, included single family homes. I think us smart growth enthusiasts need to remember Witold Rybczynski’s point in his book Last Harvest, that Americans, indeed people in many countries, tend to gravitate toward single-family living. They want their private quarter acre, not just a communal park. I don’t think people will necessarily be dissatisfied if they can’t have a whole acre, which is what many suburbs are largely zoned for.

But what if we’re talking about a new housing development on a large patch, say 90 acres, of vacant land? The examples on NRDC’s site all appear to be of urban infill, enhancing older single family neighborhoods. Is it not kosher among smart growth advocates to build a new single-family neighborhood, even if the houses are on quarter acre or perhaps one-eighth acre lots? I haven’t seen a lot of examples of this among smart growth promoters. I do see it pitched by the New Urbanists, who are often criticized for encouraging anti-smart growth developments like Celebration, Florida or Kentlands, which are built like traditional close-knit neighborhoods but more or less in the middle of sprawl.

I hope smart growthers remember that we have to give people lots of choices if we want them to accept smart growth, and single family neighborhoods have to be one of the choices. On the efficiency scale, small single family houses might not rate as well as multifamily dwellings, but at least they’re small and therefore fit well on small lots!

David Holtzman is a planner for Louisa County, Virginia, a freelance writer, and a former Shelterforce editor.


  1. David, thanks for your thoughts on our work. While most analysts agree that the market for new single-family homes (particularly on larger lots) has diminished greatly due to changing demographics, I agree with you that smart growth needs to accommodate a measure of it in our visions and advocacy.

    Personally I prefer moderate density over high density, and the research indicates that the greatest increments of performance improvement in transportation efficiency per household actually occur at the lower end of the scale, as we move from low to moderate density. Celebration and Kentlands are both good examples, and 1/8-acre average lot size can be far superior to classic sprawl.

    Better still, of course (and Kentlands does this, not sure about Celebration) is a full mix of housing types from SF to THs to MF in the same development, so that the average density and efficiency of land use is moderately high but some lower densities are also accommodated. Urban infill is almost always best for the environment, but some of this will occur on greenfields, one hopes in an orderly, connected, non-leapfrogging fashion.


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