Good Investments for Successful Housing

BucksCountyPanorama.jpgAfter reading my post on the current housing market, friend of LG Margit Johnson dropped off a copy of an article in the March Atlantic Monthly for me to read. I finally got around to it.

In “The Next Slum?”, Chris Leinberger contends that “the story of vacant suburban homes and declining suburban neighborhoods did not begin with the [subprime-mortgage] crisis, and will not end with it”. He goes on to argue that “a structural change is under way in the housing market – a major shift in the way many Americans want to live and work”. The author argues that these trends will benefit cities and hurt suburbs.

Leinberger reviews the history of the suburbs that he traces back to 1946. In the pursuit of fresh air and open space and to escape the problems of the cities, the population shifted to the suburbs. For over half a century, the suburbs grew.

Now the trend seems to be moving in the opposite direction. Leinberger cites the rapid change in the price relationship between suburbs and cities as a key indicator, “per square foot, urban residential neighborhood space goes for 40 to 200 percent more” than suburban residential space and this relationship holds true throughout the country.

As the Businessweek article that Jim Herreid gave me also indicated, demographics are moving against the suburbs too. Back in the early days of the suburban boom, families with children made up more than half of all households; by 2025, they will be closer to a quarter. Compounding this shift, single-person households will also account for about a quarter of American households by 2025.

Different people may draw different conclusions from these trends and develop different recommendations. Personally, I think the trends support those Northfielders who have called for more compact future development, better connectivity between neighborhoods, and stronger support for our historic grid in the Comp Plan revision. These are characteristics increasingly valued by tomorrow’s housing market and they are a good investment for Northfield.


  1. Tracy Davis said:

    Ross, I think you pulled your punches too much on this one. The Atlantic article is excellent, and points out many macro and micro trends with immediate relevance to Northfield, both in terms of our strengths and possible weaknesses.

    Loved the article photo:

    It seems ironic that just as the tide appears to be turning, when both the private and public sector is figuring out that the cumulative decisions about site planning, connectivity, environment and architecture can result in a better or worse built environment (read: more or less saleable, more or less sustainable), Northfield seem hell-bent on ignoring these demographic and economic trends and continues to follow the path of least resistance: The discredited “suburban model” of growth.

    April 18, 2008
  2. Mary Rossing said:

    It’s not only a suburban vs urban thing when we look at Northfield. Something I realized recently as a looked at the possibility of a scaled down life style in the next ten or so years is that there are no homes/town homes/condos here yet that I would be interested in living in. I am a single woman with no children, and none of the developments so far interest me. If a builder were to ask me what I want here is my dream: A small ring of town homes and condos that share amenities and open up onto a shared patio with built-in fire pit, hot tub and perhaps a small pool. I could see many of my women friends owning around the complex and we could spend the evenings enjoying each other’s company in the shared patio space. We could also have a shared exercise and project room nearby with a work bench and sturdy table for crafty and fixy type things could happen. With these shared amenities the condos/townhomes could be smaller and less expensive, therefore our quality of life could be higher as we move into retirement. Plus we would have built-in community with others looking out for us, and others to watch our places while on vacation. Talk about missing the trends…or maybe we’ll just need to take a mcmansion and condo it out.

    April 18, 2008
  3. kiffi summa said:

    Well, maybe since the city council sometimes overrules the PC, and the staff often finds it difficult to speak to the issues raised by citizens at public hearings, (I’m thinking of woodley re: bike lanes and stop signs) or in that case, also work harder with Rice County, then maybe just everyday citizens who care about what this Comp Plan says for their community need to keep commenting to the PC and the City Council.

    The Community Development Director said to the council in last weeks work session that the time for public input was long over, BUT, what happens if the final product does not reflect the majority of comment from the big , and small, public meetings?

    There will have to be another time for public comment at the time the Comp plan is approved/ accepted.

    I think the Planning Commission would appreciate public support for the work they have done.

    April 18, 2008
  4. Anne Bretts said:

    Mary, there is a movement that reflects your interests. The Intentional Communities group has a website and magazine that track the many variations of cohousing going on around the world. They range from sharing a house to building a cluster of cottages with common kitchens and community spaces. You can check out the ideas at

    April 18, 2008
  5. Anne Bretts said:

    And Mary, I know women who might be interested in the idea, so you may find it easy to recruit some like-minded people and work with a builder to create a model to test out here.

    April 18, 2008
  6. Mary (comment #2),
    I encourage you to check out the blog I posted yesterday (“Cohousing: A new living option in the Northfield area?”; Cohousing has a lot of the features that you’re talking about, with a strong emphasis on community, clustered housing, and shared facilities (including a largish community house with space for communal dining and parties, kid hang-out space, library, workshop, rooms for visitors to stay in, etc.)

    I’ll be holding an exploratory meeting on April 30th to discuss a possible local cohousing project. Check out the blog post for details.

    April 18, 2008
  7. Mary Rossing said:

    Thanks for the links, Bruce and Anne. All very interesting. It’s a subtle thing that I can’t quite put my finger on that separates many of these intentional communities from what I want, but I think both could probably work in Northfield. It’s the difference between sitting in a hot tub talking about life over a bottle of wine with friends/neighbors vs. sharing a community meal with a peace and justice theme. While both have qualities like shared amenities and have made use of alternative and green technologies, and are built with the idea of community…one just sounds more fun to me (and the other sounds better to other folks, I suppose) Anyway, Bruce, I love that you are talking about this on the gorgeous property near Dundas. I can’t make the meeting on the 30th, but keep us informed! And if there are any builders out there who would like to get a single woman’s view on what to build for the single, post baby boom retirees, let’s talk.

    April 19, 2008
  8. Mary,
    I’m actually much more interested in a bottle of wine (or homebrew, or some good bourbon on occasion) and good conversation with friends and neighbors than in a peace-and-justice-themed community meal, and a hot tub sounds great as long as it’s fired by sustainably harvested on-site wood!

    No need to assume that a cohousing group would be composed of Kumbaya-singing or furrowed-brow earnest folks. I’m way into fun!

    April 19, 2008
  9. Mary Rossing said:

    Well great Bruce! Let’s have a drink. Actually I didn’t have that impression from your blog, but from the other links –all good examples of intentional living and food for thought. But, we can do it better (because, of course, we are so special here in Northfield, don’t cha know) Put another sustainably harvested log on the fire.

    April 19, 2008
  10. Patrick Enders said:

    This is getting silly. Will this post appear?

    April 22, 2008
  11. Patrick Enders said:

    Apparently, any comment I try to post in this thread that contains
    (even an unembedded) HTML address just disappears into the ether.

    There’s an interesting article series at the Strib titled “From Boom to Bust.”

    Part 1 is titled “Minnesota’s New Ghost Towns.”

    I’d link to it if I could.

    April 22, 2008

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