Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The way we live

Musings on gas prices, communities, density and sprawl

What does the price increase in gas mean for us US residents long-term? The obvious is known - more people have started driving smaller vehicles, the market for big SUVs and gas-guzzling Hummers and trucks is going down, more people now take transit or try to.

However, I'm interested in what this means in the macro, long-term sense for the way communities have developed in the US.

If we see this oil price trend continue or even stay at a $4.00 per gallon baseline for a couple of summers more, I foresee a huge change in the way housing gets built and for housing demand in general. General trends I see developing:

- Density goes up. People are moving closer to city and community centers with an emphasis on easy access to transit, proximity to schools, shopping and community-type activities. While driving 30-40 miles every day to drop off + pick up kids, for doing your groceries and going shopping may make sense when gas is $2.50 a gallon, at $4.00 it's murderous for your wallet. People will prefer staying in places where all these things are much closer to home or maybe closer to transit options.

- This in turn means average size of homes goes down. The past couple of decades has seen the average size of a single family house in the US balloon. Astronomical heating bills and long driving distances will see more people opting for town-home style housing, smaller house sizes ( no more 1.5 acre lots) or at least 'friendlier' housing with smaller lots which are more amenable to smaller communities with walker-friendly neighborhoods.

It's already beginning to happen. While sprawl was a direct function of urban decay, urban revival in many towns and cities in the US is seeing a trend 'inwards'. Places like Denver, Portland and other smaller towns have managed to do a great job of revitalizing the city core making it easier (especially for younger people or empty-nesters) to make their way back to living in the city.

To me, this is a good thing. After over two years of living in the suburbs (suburban New Jersey, then Redmond, WA), moving to the city was revitalizing in many ways. This post wouldn't have been made if I hadn't moved - my thinking would never have evolved to this point.

Communities are a function of inhabitants. However, residents too become a function of their communities. There is something vital about living in an area that's denser and occupies a smaller footprint. It's something that's missing in a lot of the 'bedroom communities' that a combination of the real estate boom, cheap gas and a predilection towards big houses conspired to create. Huge McMansions where your house is your fortress and you have no real link to the place you live in isn't going to help make a place seem more like home.

The "walk-ability" of a neighborhood does seem to increase your affinity to the place and foster a sense of community - it's definitely done so in my case. As I've mentioned before, there's a sense of place about here that I have come to genuinely like. There's pieces missing of course - like the fact that I hardly know or talk to my neighbors, which would be unthinkable while growing up in India (though I see similar trends developing there). This lovely piece in the NYT talks about that.

If this increase in fuel prices results in more places like Seattle and Portland which have a reasonable trade-off between sprawl and skyscrapers and a push towards mass transit, at least some good will have come from all this pain.