What Do Americans Want Out of Their Neighborhoods?

The latest poll from the National Association of Realtors (NAR), released in late October, focused on Americans’ housing and community preferences.  It seems that Americans prefer mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods over subdivisions that require driving as the main source of transportation when they have a choice.

Robert Steuteville points out in his Better! Cities and Towns article that Americans choose their housing based on “trade-offs on many factors, many of them conflicting.” These factors include short commutes, easy access to goods and services, public transportation close to their home, and access to arts and recreational facilities.

According to Kaid Benfield from The Atlantic Cities,a majority of respondents to the survey would most like to live in suburban neighborhoods. In addition, a majority of those who choose suburban living prefer to have “a mix of houses, shops and businesses” in the suburban community. However, Americans still choose to live in a single-family, detached home with a large yard. This is why coming up with one consistent message from this research is impossible. There is evidence that Americans prefer accessibility, walkability, large yards, and even the ability to travel by car but as Benfield states, “is it possible to have all that in the same community?” Perhaps by creating a community that offers many different lifestyle choices for residents is crucial to be a successful and sustainable community.

For the White Flint area, the Sector Plan is designed around the preferences of local residents and community development practitioners, similar to those expressed in the NAR survey. This is why mixed-use developments and a walkable street design are major components of the White Flint Sector Plan. The Plan will allow for residents to have more choice in the lives they live, since it seems this is the only way for White Flint to be a sustainable community.

Check out Steuteville’s full article and Benfield’s full article.

Children living in smart growth neighborhoods get more exercise

A study from the University of California, Berkeley found that children who live in smart growth neighborhoods, which include parks/green space and encourage active travel, get 46% more moderate or vigorous physical activity than children who live in conventionally designed neighborhoods. This number translates to about 10 more minutes of physical activity each day. Lead author and professor in the School of Public Health Michael Jerrett explained in a press release that:

“Ten minutes of extra activity a day may not sound like much, but it adds up,” said Jerrett. Taking in as little as 15 calories more than you expend on a daily basis can lead to weight gain over time, he noted. A child who weighs 100 pounds might burn an extra 30 calories in those 10 extra minutes of physical activity each day. “The basic idea is that even small things count,” he said.

Check out these articles to learn more:

http://dc.streetsblog.org/2013/09/11/study-kids-who-live-in-walkable-neighborhoods-get-more-exercise/

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/09/130910093406.htm

http://www.hngn.com/articles/12105/20130911/smart-growth-neighborhood-kids-more-exercise-study-finds.htm

Better ways to get to school: are we there yet?

Part of Reconnecting America’s report Are We There Yet? sheds light on how children (and their parents) get to daycare and school, and the ramifications of these options – or lack thereof. In a section titled “Safe Routes to School,” the authors explain that only 13 percent of children walk or bike to school today, compared to nearly 50% in 1969; parents cited schools being far away, traffic safety, and crime as major concerns. The authors highlight many serious repercussions of children no longer walking or biking to school:

“Obesity among children has tripled over the last two decades, and more than 20 percent of morning traffic is generated by parents driving kids to school. The combined emissions from all those cars and school buses adds up to the single greatest cause of pollution in many cities.”

The report points out that some communities are working to change the way kids get to school.

“At the Bear Creek Elementary School in Boulder, Colorado, Principal Kent Cruger serves as inspiration, arriving at school via foot-powered scooter, skateboard or unicycle — to cite a few of his choices — when he isn’t carpooling. The number of students now regularly walking and biking has risen by 30 percent, with a corresponding 30 percent reduction in traffic counts. At the Green Street School in Brattleboro, Vermont, the number of “walking school buses” — groups of children are accompanied by adults on the walk to school, picking up students along the way — and “bicycle trains” have tripled. A public outreach effort to reduce speeds around this school, just outside downtown, has resulted in a 40 percent reduction in the number of cars speeding through the school zone.

Due to increased interest in walking and biking in Auburn Washington, the Auburn School District has been able to reduce the number of school buses from six to one, resulting in an annual savings of $220,000. At Pioneer Elementary in Auburn, 85 percent of students walk or bike on a regular basis and they receive the highest academic scores in the district, which Principal Debra Gary attributes to their healthy, active lifestyles.”

In addition to walking and biking, transit can also play a big role in how children get to daycare and preschool:

“Quality preschools and daycare facilities in high-access locations have proven to be a real benefit to harried parents dropping kids off on their way to work. A study by Local Investment in Child Care, a California nonprofit organization, finds that locating childcare facilities within a third of a mile of transit results in high ridership by families: 34 percent of people dropping their children off then walked or used transit to commute to their destination, with even higher numbers in low-income areas.

Childcare facilities not only provide an essential service to families but they can also serve as ‘anchor tenants’ in a development that can provide other needed shops and services that serve families.”

Creating more pedestrian-friendly, bike-friendly, and transit-oriented neighborhoods means that children and those who take care of them will have more options when deciding how to get to school, which would likely lead to healthier children and a healthier planet. Check out Reconnecting America’s blog post on childcare and transit for more information.

What will Millennials do for our cities and suburbs? White Flint may be the place to find out.

We’ve written before about how young families are increasingly seeking an urban lifestyle, though there are some challenges those parents may face (namely school choices). These preferences are particularly relevant to our region – while Montgomery County aims to attract more Millennials to this jurisdiction, a recent Streetsblog Capitol Hill article suggests that many of our neighbors in D.C. are worried about retaining them as they grow up and start having families.

Interestingly, both our article on young families and Streetsblog’s article end with the idea that where Millennials choose to live as parents will likely have a strong impact on how our communities are shaped – urban, suburban, and everything in between.

Streetsblog Capitol Hill author Tanya Snyder has this to say:

“When Millennials move to the suburbs — as undoubtedly some will — they’ll demand better suburbs than the ones they grew up in. They’ll want the urban amenities and transportation options they got used to in the cities [emphasis added]. That could put them on the front lines of retrofitting suburbia into a less car-dependent environment.”

With many urban amenities coming to the area and an already sought-after school system, White Flint is on the forefront of this movement.

The Today Show asks, “Is America seeing ‘The End of The Suburbs’?”

Last week the Today Show featured a book by Leigh Gallagher titled The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream Is Moving. In her book Gallagher points to a number of social and economic trends that contribute to the increasing preference for an urban lifestyle including the rise of energy prices, an increasing awareness of environmental issues, lengthy commutes, and a preference for a livelier neighborhood with a sense of community.

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Check out this short clip from the Today Show for an interesting look at various people choosing cities over suburbs, including a family with two children who chose to live in a two bedroom apartment in downtown Boston. Interestingly, the Today Show does not ignore the increasingly blurry lines between suburban and urban; the end of this clip features a Kentlands-esque “suburban-urban street development” outside of Chicago.

Despite her book’s title, Gallagher notes that the suburbs aren’t simply going to disappear: “when I talk about the ‘end of the suburbs,’ I do not mean to suggest that all suburban communities are going to vaporize. Plenty of older suburbs are going strong… and many newer suburbs are reinventing themselves to adapt to the times.”

The Washington Post also ran an interview with Gallagher this weekend offering more insight into her book.  When asked how a suburb could reinvent itself, she said it should strive to be “a place people want to walk around. Organic, village-type environments that are how the suburbs started to begin with. Public transit also. People want out of their cars, especially millennials.”

Complete streets should include room for strollers

We’ve written multiple times about how aspects of New Urbanism, such as walkable neighborhoods close to transit and smaller housing units without a huge lawn to maintain, appeals to many Millennials and Baby Boomers alike. It may be easier to understand how this lifestyle appeals to young adults without children and empty-nesters. But what about families with children? We’ve noted that more young families are seeking an urban lifestyle, and one of the questions I still hear a lot is “how are parents supposed to walk to the grocery store with their children?”

A fair point. Right now it’s difficult for anyone, with or without kids, to walk or bike along Rockville Pike safely – never mind while also carrying a bag of groceries. But complete streets can change that. By providing wider sidewalks with ample room for bicyclists and pedestrians, and appropriate buffers to safely allow these people to use the streets with cars, parents with small children and strollers can more easily use these streets.

One mother from Miami chronicled the dangers of walking along the street with her child in a stroller. While she’s not in White Flint, I’d imagine that a parent walking down Rockville Pike, or any of White Flint’s streets with fast cars and narrow sidewalks, may have the same worries.

stroller miami

Source: http://www.transitmiami.com/pedestrian/a-walking-moms-miami

Larger apartments could draw families to White Flint

A school bus stops outside  the apartments at North Bethesda Market on Woodglen Drive.

A school bus stops outside the apartments at North Bethesda Market on Woodglen Drive. Photo by the author.

We’ve noted before that a growing number of families are interested in urban living, whether to be closer to work, to be less reliant on driving, or to give their kids more exposure and independence. However, apartments or condominiums big enough for families can be hard to find, even in areas like White Flint with lots of new construction.

Growing up, I lived with my parents in a 2-bedroom apartment in downtown Silver Spring. I didn’t have a yard, but I found that the “the city was my playground,” filled with interesting people and new experiences. Our building, and the other apartment buildings around it, were filled with kids, and in the summer I could ride the elevator to the roof and hang out in the pool. I loved walking with my parents to stores, the Metro, and Woodside Park across the street.

However, when my brother was born, our family needed more room, so we moved to a house on a cul-de-sac several miles away. There wasn’t much to walk to, but there were still lots of kids around and, of course, we had a big yard. I’m not sure if we would’ve moved there had we been able to find a big enough apartment closer in.

Other families in Montgomery County seem to desire an urban experience as well. While the county’s largest concentrations of young families are in East County and the Upcounty, young families still make up one-tenth of all households in White Flint, downtown Bethesda and downtown Silver Spring, and 15% of all households in downtown Wheaton, areas which are almost entirely made up of apartments and townhomes.

Does that mean we’re building lots of family-sized apartments for them? Not quite.

Writing about the virtues of family-sized apartments, Washington Post columnist and architect Roger K. Lewis notes that municipalities prefer smaller units because developers market them at childless adults, who often pay more in taxes than they use in return. Montgomery County Public Schools estimates that it costs as much as $180,000 to educate a child from kindergarten through 12th grade, which means people without kids effectively subsidize those who do.

Another reason why there aren’t more family-sized apartments is the difficulty of getting construction financing. Fire codes require that high-rise apartments be built out of steel or concrete, which makes them more expensive to build than houses or garden apartments, which have wood frames. At the same time, there’s a perceived lack of demand for family-sized apartments, so lenders are reluctant to give developers money for them.

As a result, the few large apartments or condominiums that do get built are expensive. A quick look at real estate listings around the White Flint Metro station revealed just 3 apartments with 3 bedrooms, ranging in price from $3,995 to $4,700 a month, and 4 condominiums priced between $549,000 and $959,000.

Those prices are out of reach for many working families, even in an affluent area like this, but even those who could afford them could buy a nice house for the same money. Families seeking the urban experience might just settle for a more affordable house or townhouse, justifying lenders’ reluctance to fund the construction of larger apartments.

However, there are ways around that. Lewis recommends public subsidies to make larger apartments more affordable for families, arguing that the government already favors homeowners by giving them tax breaks on their mortgages.

Another solution that doesn’t require government assistance are so-called “mortgage helpers,” or condominiums with a built in rental apartment, kind of like a granny flat. In Vancouver, where “mortgage helpers” are common, this could be a 3-bedroom condo in which one of the bedrooms had its own bathroom, kitchen and private entrance.

In this scenario, a family would buy the entire unit and rent out the third bedroom, giving them a source of income. Later on, if they need the room for another child, they can just take it over. This flexibility makes “mortgage helpers” attractive to families who otherwise may not be able to afford a high-rise condominium, which in turn increases demand and makes lenders willing to fund them, meaning more of them get built.

A combination of changing desires, changing demographics and limited budgets has pushed more and more people, including parents, to urban environments. While many families will continue to prefer houses with yards, it’s important that places like White Flint accommodate the families who want to live here. Building more family-sized apartments may not be easy, but by responding to changing needs, White Flint will be able to draw and keep new residents for decades to come.

Young families seeking urban living face new challenges

Mother and daughter in Rockville Town Center. Photo by the author.

More and more Millennials, or young adults in their 20’s and early 30’s, are choosing to live in urban areas. Unlike their parents, however, they don’t want to leave when they have kids. While families seeking the urban lifestyle may face some challenges, there are huge opportunities for places that can convince them to stick around.

Three panelists from the real estate and education worlds discussed this issue with former DC planning director Ellen McCarthy at the ULI Real Estate Trends conference on Wednesday. AJ Jackson, partner at local builder EYA, noted that many young adults who spent their twenties in the District or Arlington are no longer moving to the suburbs when they have kids.

Revitalization of inner-city neighborhoods have made them safer and more attractive to young professionals. Meanwhile, rising congestion and farmland-consuming sprawl have removed much of the allure of suburban living. “They’re not moving to the suburbs because … the green oasis that our parents moved out to doesn’t exist anymore,” said Jackson.

Instead, young parents are looking at closer-in areas that offer a little more space without having to maintain a large yard or endure a long commute. EYA mostly builds rowhouses in walkable, inside-the-Beltway neighborhoods; as a result, 30% of their buyers are young families with kids, Jackson said.

However, this presents many unique challenges to young parents, as the Post’s Jonathan O’Connell noted last year. Many parents worry about finding homes that meet their needs, unsure if they can comfortably live in a rowhouse or apartment. The quality of services in urban neighborhoods, like trash pickup, crime prevention and schools, is another issue.

Parents considering inner-city schools often ask, “am I going to be subjecting my children to inferior teaching and an inferior academic experience?” said Sharicca Boldon, vice-chairman of the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance.

Boldon finds that the best to combat these perceptions is by exposing parents to the benefits of city living. She holds non-education-related community events at schools so parents can get familiar with them before enrolling their kids. Boldon also organizes tours of rowhouses to show how families like her own can live in one comfortably.

“I find that housing configuration to be very efficient for a family. I can be on the third floor and my kids can be loud on the bottom,” she said. “I think it changes family needs that I need to be in the suburbs with a driveway and a two-car garage.”

Even as they become more attractive to young families, inner-city neighborhoods can’t take them for granted. McCarthy said that the District’s population growth comes mainly from out-of-area migration, and that the city continues to lose more residents to Maryland and Virginia then it gains. “There aren’t a lot of things that tie [young families] here if the District doesn’t gain a reputation for being family-friendly,” she said.

Increasingly, urban living is no longer synonymous with being in DC or Baltimore. The growth of job centers outside both cities are drawing young families to places like White Flint and Silver Spring in Montgomery County and Merrifield in Fairfax County, which offer both walkable neighborhoods and transit access alongside larger homes and higher-quality public services. In Montgomery County, young families are clustering in areas where they don’t have to drive as much.

Jackson pointed out that the Mosaic District in Merrifield, where EYA is building new homes in a neighborhood with shops, schools and Metro close by, has drawn the firm’s youngest homebuyers. “It’s the experience and the overall atmosphere more than the specific location,” he said, adding that newer suburban neighborhoods may have trouble competing with their inner-city counterparts to provide the same feel or history.

It’s unclear whether this trend is limited to young parents. While there are many highly-rated elementary schools in the District and Baltimore, issues remain with many middle and high schools, which may discourage parents from sticking around. Even in good school districts, families may simply want more space and leave their rowhouses for single-family homes.

Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, raised three kids in Adams Morgan and says it gave her teenagers a sense of freedom and independence. She wonders what would happen to DC if more parents chose to do the same. “It’ll be interesting if they stick around as their kids age,” she said.

As singles, Millennials have led the ongoing revitalization of inner-city neighborhoods and encouraged the creation of urban places in the suburbs. However, it’s what they do as parents that could have a lasting effect on the urban realm.