A couple has a kid, moves out of their condo in the city, buys a house with a big yard, sets up a swing set in said yard, loads up the
minivan SUV with backpacks and shin guards, and never looks back. This is probably our dominant life-cycle narrative in America, but does the actual data of housing preferences bear this out. Is this what we want?
There's generally two ways to figure out what people want: see what they do and see what they say they want. Both are tricky.
A new report from Statistics Canada saw what young families did. Between 2001 and 2006, many of them moved out of the Canadian cities of Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver into the surrounding suburbs. A full 27% of first-time parents made the move out the city and very few moved in. While this is definitely statistically significant, we can't jump to the conclusion right away that these families have a preference for suburbs. As family researcher Clarence Lockhead explains,
“I think a lot of what we’re seeing in these patterns are really associated with housing costs and availability of affordable homes. I think that’s a really big factor.”This is supported by the fact that young families with incomes over $100,000 do tend to live closer in, perhaps because they can afford to be homeowners in high-amenity, walkable neighborhoods. Any market choice reflects both supply and demand. It may look like families are demanding homes in the far-flung suburbs, but it could also be that there is a supply shortage of affordable, urban or inner suburban homes suitable for families. Or a little of both.
Another study just published in JAPA saw what families say they want. Researchers evaluated housing preference surveys conducted throughout the Southwest. They asked questions about trade-offs. Short commute or spacious yard? A Mixed-use neighborhood with things to walk to or a purely residential street? One finding:
"The presence of children in the respondent’s household is linked to less interest in small houses with short commutes, less interest in walkable mixed-use neighborhoods, and less interest in transit-oriented neighborhoods."The correlation between families and conventional suburban homes was not huge, and it didn't apply at all in some states, but it still does raise our question again. It looks like families are more likely to say they want to live further apart from others, whether they are currently able to do so or not.
Yet here there are complications too. Although the survey tried to force trade-offs, it's impossible to fully construct the multiplicity of real life with questions simple enough be answered in a few seconds. For instance,
"Among the Southwest respondents who embraced a small house and short commute, 39% nevertheless said they preferred to live in a strictly residential (rather than mixed-use) neighborhood, and fully 61% of them said they preferred a low-density, auto-dependent neighborhood."The researchers note that this is probably not a realistic bundle of preferences, but they were unable to truly force the decision between these ideals.
There's also the difficulty of parsing necessity from contingency. What factors are inherent to a type of physical form and what factors happen to be associated with it in Post-WWII America? For instance, good schools may come to mind when the respondents imagine a low-density scenario, but there's nothing about the density itself that has anything to do with educational quality. It's just how things happen to have shaken out in recent U.S. history. On the other hand, a large yard really is logically connected to lower densities, and lots of walkable destinations are only possible in higher densities. If what we're interested in is just the physical form, it's not easy to pull apart the conscious or subconscious prejudices that have become attached to that form in our culture.
I've hopefully been successful in shrouding this whole issue in a cloud of confusion. Or I could just admit that young families might be more likely to want lower densities, single uses, less connected streets, etc. and point to David Alpert's nice post about incorporating shared play space for children into neighborhoods. There's certainly more that can be done design-wise to make urban neighborhoods attractive to families.