Ann Sloan Devlin: Defining Your Space

Psychology professor and author Ann Sloan Devlin discusses how home size and scale can promote a sense of community.

September 1, 2011

How did taking Connecticut College students to Italy give you a new perspective on American architecture and lead to your book, What Americans Build and Why (Cambridge University Press, 2010)?

Sloan Devlin: The biggest revelation that living in Rome provided me was a new understanding of the big scale of many U.S. cities and how dependent we are on automobiles. Rome is unique because of how protected its central core is. In four months in Rome, I never got into an auto; I walked holes in my shoes or took buses. I was struck by the proximity of everything. When I came back, I realized how our highways are more important than our mass transit. I also learned how kids live so much farther from schools these days. If you were between the ages of 5 and 15 in 1969, there was a 90 percent chance you walked or biked to school. By 2001, there was less than a 15 per­cent chance you did, which reflects a variety of influences, including elimination of many neighborhood schools.

How can a community’s design inspire us?

Sloan Devlin: I like to speak about architectural determinism, possibilism, and probabilism. I don’t believe in the first—that architecture determines behavior. But I believe that architecture supports the possibility of certain activities. When you have McMansions and no sidewalks, it makes walking and bumping into people less possible. With sidewalks, houses closer together, and front porches, it’s probable you’ll meet people.

How can real estate salespeople use your information to help buyers and sellers make smarter choices?

Sloan Devlin: They can help people articulate what they want by asking them questions about how they want to live. I don’t think a lot of people think about the spatial context of the house, just the house.

Are there downsides to the New Urbanism concept where communities are more walkable and have been built almost instantly?

Sloan Devlin: Yes—less architectural diversity and fewer affordable options. Covenants now can be pretty strict compared to the Levittown community on Long Island, N.Y., where 60 years after it was built, there are no intact homes as originally designed left because everyone modified them so much. The problem with planning done at one time is that everything may look too similar and artificial. This might be avoided by having different architects work on a master plan.

What’s your prognosis for McMansions?

Sloan Devlin: I think the demand will re-emerge when the economy rebounds. The American spirit seeks bigness, and many people feel they’re entitled once they’ve earned enough money. What may be more troublesome than size is the scale of a big house on a small lot, particularly height rather than width, and style, compared with neighbors’ homes. Perhaps they won’t rebound if gas hits $20 a gallon.

If you gaze into your crystal ball, what might homes be like in future decades? 

Sloan Devlin: Greener and designed by LEED-certified architects. College students are much attuned to this. Look at their interest in recycling, healthier living choices, using bicycles or car-sharing programs, and purchasing produce locally. This will filter into more of the population, but designers have to show that doing so won’t hurt bottom lines over the long term, even if it does over the short term.

Is there anything you’d suggest that government do to improve the residential landscape?

Sloan Devlin: The Obama administration is committed to smart growth, which involves mixed land uses, walkable neighborhoods with affordable housing, open space, and public transportation. I’d like the government to be more interested in transit-oriented developments, which feature access to mass transit right in a neighborhood.

More Online

Read more from Ann Sloan Devlin on her blog at

Barbara Ballinger

Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer and the author of several books on real estate, architecture, and remodeling, including The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing, 2014). Barbara’s most recent book is The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space, co-authored with Michael Glassman (Images, 2015).