The Suburban Solution

Once dismissed as cultural wastelands, robust suburbs are necessary to a healthy housing market.

November 1, 2011

There’s a certain romanticism attached to living in urban locales, as well as the great rural expanses and even isolated small towns of America.

There is no comparable sentimentality attached to the suburbs, even though a 2009 study by the Pew Research Center shows suburbanites are the most content of all home owners. In fact, there is a long intellectual and literary bias against the suburbs.

They’ve often been perceived as a cultural wasteland inhabited by a particularly venal species of Americans who drank too much, philandered, and saw their life forces oozing away. The intellectual assault began with the development of the first modern suburb in America: Levittown, N.Y., which was constructed in the late 1940s to compensate for the housing shortage after World War II.

When the war ended, hundreds of thousands of servicemen and women—many newly married with children on the way—had no place to live but with parents. Enter William Levitt, who devised a way to apply industrial mass-production techniques to the housing problem. Levitt created the first housing development, clearing old potato fields and building thousands of homes in one massive project.

Almost immediately, and for the next 20 years, Levittown was the most reviled community in America. It was attacked by the intellectual left and right. The upper-crust right hated Levittown for many reasons: snobbery, lowering of aesthetic standards, and simply because the suburbs got in the way when they traveled from Manhattan to their country properties in the far reaches of Long Island. The left associated Levittown with 1950s-style conformity, meaning you would end up like everyone else around you.

I wrote a book about the place, Growing Up Levittown: In A Time of Conformity, Controversy and Cultural Crisis (Dancing Traveller Media, 2011), because I was raised there, and it was a terrific place to grow up. My family moved there in 1954. I started kindergarten in the Island Trees school system and stayed until I graduated from high school in 1967.

Decades later, people in suburbs nationwide feel about their towns the way I felt about Levittown. According to Pew Research, 42 percent of suburban residents give the place they live high marks in regard to employment opportunities, cost of living, a place to raise children, recreational and cultural activities, shopping, and the chance to make friends.

Critics today issue many of the same complaints that were leveled against Levittown when it was built. But some of their arguments are specific to our times: Suburban living wastes gas and other energy resources because of the long commutes and oversized homes.

For the past three decades, however, many companies, big and small, have followed the population growth into the suburbs. Consequently, commutes are often shorter because so many Americans who live in the suburbs also work there. And the sizes of the homes are the result of consumer demand.

Getting home building back on track still means suburban development. More than half of all Americans live in the suburbs, and the health of these communities are crucial for the future well-being of residential life in the United States. However, home builders need to be more conscientious than before the economic bubble burst. For instance, walkability and smaller footprints are increasingly important qualities for new suburban developments. Also, not every U.S. metro area can handle major new development in the near future because of foreclosure gluts or lack of growth. Home builders need to target tomorrow’s growth metros—such as Charlotte and Raleigh, N.C.; Austin, Texas; Salt Lake City; and Oklahoma City.

Levittown was the right place and the right time. Who knows? Maybe Edmunds, Okla., or Round Rock, Texas, are the next right places at the right time.

 

Note: Opinions expressed in “Commentary” do not necessarily reflect the position of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® or ­REALTOR® Magazine.



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Freelance journalist Steve Bergsman has covered the real estate industry for more than 20 years. Find out more about his e-book, Growing Up Levittown: In a Time of Conformity, Controversy and Cultural Crisis at dancingtraveller.blogspot.com.

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