Greater Greater Washington

The American Dream can be an urban dream, too

The classic image of the "American Dream" is, for many, a house with a big yard, 2 cars, and so on. Is that image still relevant, even as many people choose to live in walkable urban neighborhoods? Sarah Lewis argues that it's the ideals, not the trappings, that matter and remain strong.


Photo by Robert Gourley on Flickr.

During Inauguration Day, I found myself (an immigrant, a naturalized citizen) feeling reflective and full of national pride, regardless of what the President's next term may actually focus on, and regardless of partisan politics.

Has the "American Dream" really changed? Are Life, Liberty, and Happiness no longer noble pursuits? I say that the American Dream has simply gone from a set of ideals to an outdated consumer shopping list. I believe the ideals remain the same.

James Truslow Adams, in his book The Epic of America, which was written in 1931, stated that the American dream is

that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.
Notice "everyone" and "opportunity"incredibly important words. According to Merriam-Webster, an opportunity is a favorable juncture of circumstances. So in its most basic form the American dream is a time or set of circumstances that makes it possible for all people to do something that gives them a good chance for advancement or progress. Possibilities, options, and choices for all.

This is where we, the urbanists, exceleconomic possibilities, community options, and environmental choices. We are open-minded, fair, and adaptable. "We recognize that physical solutions by themselves will not solve social and economic problems, but neither can economic vitality, community stability, and environmental health be sustained without a coherent and supportive physical framework."

Economic possibilities

While it is often difficult for urbanists who are inclined to focus on the built environment to think about economics, given what we have all experienced professionally and personally in fiscal arenas over the past few years, this is changing. We have developer clients that cannot obtain loans due to the banking crisis and jurisdictions that have reduced funding due to local, state, and federal deficits. We need to concentrate is on creative thinking and problem solving more than evermaking available resources go further and be used more wisely.

We have had some real economic-based successes such as the Live/Work/Walk: Removing Obstacles to Investment initiative. In September 2012, the Federal Housing Administration revised rules that limited the cap of commercial space in mixed-use condo buildings to an updated 35% commercial use, with possible waivers up to 50%. While this is great for our walkable urban places, it does not yet address a jobs/housing balance that is required for full livability.

It is easy for us to encourage start-up entrepreneurs, telecommuting, and self-employment possibilities presented through digital technology. These occur in places and forms with which we are already familiar. Similarly, the physical manifestation of new forms of commerce (namely shopping) is taking shape in smaller footprint stores and increased online ordering with delivery. However, some of the reports say that this country is seeing a return to manufacturing and that alternative power is going to be a major employment sector in the coming years. What does this mean for our work to give equal employment opportunity across the transect?

Community options

Christopher B. Leinberger, in DC: The WalkUP Wake-Up Call, says "there is such pent-up demand for walkable urban developmentas demonstrated by rental and sales price premiums per-square-foot and capitalization ratesthat it could take a generation of new construction to satisfy." Combine these statistics with the population changes being brought about by the two largest generations in historythe Baby Boomers and the Millennials, more than 150 million people to dictating the housing market.

Both of these generations, for very different reasons, have similar housing needs. Yet "affordable housing" may as well be a four-letter word in many locations. It is often misinterpreted as strictly "projects" or subsidized apartment complexes instead of communities with options for elderly couples on a fixed income or recent college graduates in their first job can live.

Real affordability is a key factorI'm sure even the infamous 1% are concerned with affordability as a concept or they likely wouldn't have reached that financial bracket! Today we hear terms such as "social equity" and "environmental justice," but is the underlying concept really any different than civic responsibility or citizenship?

We focus on transit-oriented development and smart growth in our conversations and work but infill construction only represents one-fifth of new housing construction according to the EPA's Office of Sustainable Communities Smart Growth Program. Greenfield construction is still over 50% of new homes in most of the country. This means that motor car ownership is still a requirement rather than an option making new housing inaccessible to a large segment of our population. How can we encourage more of our fellow citizens to realize that a suburban house does not represent the only dream?

Environmental choices

Transit-oriented developmentit is unfortunate that it still exists as terminology or jargon rather than being standard practice for development throughout the nation. Compact, connected, and complete is the most environmentally sustainable form of development. We know that it is common sense. The closer all aspects of daily living are located to each other, the less energy used, the fewer emissions discharged, and the reduced damage to the climate.

The original allure of cars as part of the American Dream was freedom of movement. Do we truly have a freedom if it is not available to the many? Access to safe mobility should be a constant. We know our development patterns have hindered our choices but we all stood on our own two feet and walked when we were very very small and our parents and grandparents celebrated. Remember how excited we were when we got our first bicycles and were taught to ride? It's not trendy or old-fashioned, it's simply mobility.

At the same time automobiles have changed from Packard to Prius or Lincoln to Leaf so why isn't alternative fuel-powered transit becoming more even commonplace? While compressed natural gas buses are seen in cities fairly frequently, hydrogen fuel cells only emit water and even solar panels can provide power-assist. Invention is part of the American spirit but have we considered how our urban places might change to accommodate these fuel sources and technologies?

In short

Leinberger hits the nail on the head when he says, "...the creation of economically successful WalkUPs [walkable urban places] with high social equity is a huge challenge, possible the largest domestic challenge U.S. society currently faces. This research shows that economic success tends to lead to lower social equity performance. Many citizens would like to see high economic and social equity performance. This is the dual goal that urbanism must embrace."

It's the same dream, the concept endures, but it's not the one-size-fits-all that it had been interpreted to be. It's the option of numerous locally-owned shops versus a Walmart. Now is the time for us to be even more focused on our principles and remember that they, just as the ideals that founded this country, still applyit's only the physical manifestation that has to constantly adapt.

Sarah Lewis is an architect by training urban designer by choice. She works for Fuss & O'Neill and contributes to the American Society of Landscape Architects blog, The Dirt

Comments

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Preaching to the choir, my friend.

by Alan B. on Jan 30, 2013 4:46 pm • linkreport

Good point. Nothing we haven't been saying since 2008.

by Cavan on Jan 30, 2013 5:28 pm • linkreport

Just wanted to say I thought it was what I wanted. Now I have it and I hate it. If the housing market weren't so bad in St Louis MO, I'd move back to the city - or at least one of the walkable older suburbs like Maplewood. At least I'm not underwater with my mortgage.

by Steve K on Jan 30, 2013 6:07 pm • linkreport

I think a neighborhood like Del Ray embodies what the American Dream, at least in terms of housing stock. Mostly single family homes but much narrower lots than today's subdivisions. I guess basically most neighborhoods before 1940 or so embody this ideal.

by NikolasM on Jan 30, 2013 9:33 pm • linkreport

The "American Dream" died in 1973. If we did a linear addition to incomes, your average plumber would be making about 280K a year right now.

Interesting, it did continue for elites and the "1%" -- basically people without economic competition. So a few doctors, a lot of lawyers, and a lot of IB make a healthy chunk of what should be their income.

But we basically tried to used housing money and debt to cover the income loss, and until we fix the income, we're f***ed. Sorry.

by charlie on Jan 30, 2013 9:50 pm • linkreport

The American Dream is whatever you want it to be and it's rooted in freedoms and choice.

by selxic on Jan 31, 2013 1:17 am • linkreport

"Today we hear terms such as "social equity" and "environmental justice," but is the underlying concept really any different than civic responsibility or citizenship?"

Yes, I think the two concepts are fairly different. To me, civic responsibility and citizenship speak to a community's sense of rootedness and belonging, the more people feel a sense of belonging their participation in civic matters is then far more likely no matter what those matters may be. An active civic life means engagement consistently, about issues mundane (local ordinances, school boards, etc) and more 'interesting.' IMO, civic life and engagement in many DC neighborhoods is weak. Citizenship to me implies the extent to which we connect our own local communities to a larger whole, but honestly I haven't thought that much about that concept.

Social equity to me implies the extent to which resources are spread equitably over a population. This is a concept that may be more ensured the more civic responsibility we have but is by no means a guarantee of it. To me this is something that requires perhaps a finer sense of observation and maybe more dedication than civic engagement. Environmental justice - the same, though that is a little bit of a vague term (and I consider myself an environmentalist).

by Jazzy on Jan 31, 2013 7:48 am • linkreport

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