The New American Dream: Denser, Smaller, Closer, But Still Private

Reading through the newly released 2011 Community Preference Survey, conducted for the National Association of Realtors, I've been overwhelmed with a sense of déjà vu. Ever since the economic collapse, I have been writing about the great reset and the rise of "a new normal"--now I'm seeing it clear as day, in the pages of this market survey. The ideal of a McMansion out in some sprawling subdivision, a long commute away from the office, is on its last legs. The idea of the car as freedom is dying too. Driving is now seen as something that is taxing if not enslaving.

When selecting a community, nearly half of the public (47%) would prefer to live in a city (19%) or a suburban neighborhood with a mix of houses, shops, and businesses (28%). Another four in ten (40%) would prefer a rural area (22%) or a small town (18%). Only one in ten (12%) say they would prefer a suburban neighborhood with houses only

Americans are dreaming new dreams and making new choices, when it comes to choosing where and how they want to live. More and more, they're choosing not to go further out so they can get bigger houses set on bigger lots.

While majorities of Americans prioritize space and privacy, a lengthy commute can sway them to consider smaller houses and lots. Six in ten (59%) would choose a smaller house and lot if it meant a commute time of 20 minutes or less.

The ideal home today is located closer to the workplace and mass transportation and in a neighborhood that's denser and mixed use, with amenities and businesses--parks, pharmacies, grocery stores, doctors offices, schools, restaurants--that can be walked to.

But what I find so interesting and sort of counter-intuitive is how this new American dream smacks against the old dichotomy of city and suburb. Americans may be willing to settle for smaller, they may prefer denser development, but they still relish their privacy. They want a detached house with its own walls and a yard.

Privacy from neighbors is the top consideration tested for Americans in deciding where to live (45% very important; 42%, somewhat.... Living in a single-family, detached home is important to most Americans. Eight in ten (80%) would prefer to live in single-family, detached houses over other types of housing such as townhouses, condominiums, or apartments.

We've come to a crossroads that neither dyed-in-the-wool sprawl advocates nor crunchy urbanists dreamed of two decades ago, in which the choice isn't between urban and suburban but between neighborhood and subdivision. A great neighborhood is a great neighborhood whether it's in the city or the suburbs. It's not an either/or, between crowded apartments or Cape Cods on cul de sacs, it's more of a blend. Developers and planners take note: there is a potentially enormous market in cities for narrow single-family houses on small lots, like you see in places like Santa Monica and Venice. And as I wrote in The Wall Street Journal not too long ago, there are countless ways that our suburbs can be densified and reinvigorated. The American Dream hasn't died--it just looks a lot different than it did in the 1950s. It looks a lot different than it did a decade ago.