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!