Many of our suburban cities are updating comprehensive plans. These set the course for what our communities will look like over the next 20 to 30 years and are quite important. These impact safety, community desirability (and so home values, city tax revenue and ability to maintain infrastructure), quality of life, physical and mental health and many other things.
It’s important then to consider what we want our communities to look like for ourselves, what future home buyers will want, how this may affect home values and what other changes are coming that we need to plan for.
For Ourselves And Our Community
More parks? Less car congestion? Greater income and housing diversity? Recreational bike paths? Safe bikeways and walkways for going to schools, grocery and dinner? Do we want traffic to move faster or slower? More shopping? Less shopping? Different shopping? Less noise and light pollution?
More fitness centers? We have 8 times as many fitness places as the OECD average and spend 5-12 times as much on joining them as any developed country in the world. And yet we’re the most obese and least healthy of all developed countries. I don’t think that they are working.
Are our cities financially sustainable (More: Strongtowns Ponzi Scheme)? How about environmentally sustainable? Do we want to do better on these? Do we need to do better on these?
Have you ever been traveling somewhere and thought you’d like to live there? What about it did you like? I travel to Europe frequently and the comment I’ve heard most often from people returning is “I wish I could live there.” Several have made comments along the lines of “it seems so much more human”.
Future Homeowners – A Blue Zones Lifestyle
Over the past couple of decades we’ve seen an increasing migration of people from suburbs to urban cities in search of more human scale walkable and bikeable places with a stronger sense of community.
They want to be able to safely and comfortably walk or bike stress-free to the local grocery or café and see their neighbors there, not gobs of strangers. They want their children to be able to walk or ride to a local school and to local activities rather than relying on mom and dad taxi service. They don’t want the wasted time, costs and stress of having to drive long distances or battle stress-inducing traffic for anything and everything.
Intuitively they want a Blue Zones lifestyle; active transportation, less stress, healthier food options, local community, and neighbors who also want a healthier lifestyle.
One realtor told me that “there’s nothing that sells Shoreview like a customer seeing lots of people walking and bicycling on Shoreview’s paths”. More recently another said “lots of bikes parked outside of a local café is turn-on for prospective residents while a place filled with overweight people eating large portions of unhealthy food is a turn-off”.
They want quality over quantity and experiences over things. Walking or bicycling to a local café for wine or beer with friends is more important than buying something.
They want a financially efficient lifestyle where they will waste less money on unnecessary transportation and healthcare costs. And they want to live in a community that likewise is financially sustainable.
People increasingly know that the community we live in and how it is planned plays a much more important role in our health and well-being than we’ve previously realized. It is more difficult to maintain a healthy lifestyle in a suburb like Vadnais Heights (above) where walking and bicycling are dangerous and unappealing than in Shoreview with an extensive network of paths. But even Shoreview, like every Twin Cities community, is still far behind average communities in Europe where people are much healthier because they are not prevented from active transportation.
This Ramsey County road through Vadnais Heights is a 2% road – one where only about 2% of the population feels safe and comfortable walking or riding a bicycle on a regular basis (and for good reason given our road fatality rates). Most people living in the adjacent neighborhoods cannot ride bicycles to local restaurants, grocery, pharmacy or schools because of roads like this. The result – many house shoppers will not be interested in these neighborhoods because roads like this isolate them and will not allow the low stress active transportation that people increasingly desire. Less demand = low house values = low tax revenue = poor maintenance = lower house values = suburban death spiral. Does it deter 60% of house buyers? Or 30%? It’s difficult to say. Many buyers will not even look in suburbs because they think that all suburbs are sprawling places with fast traffic and roads unfriendly to walking or bicycling.
Who are ‘they’? Largely millennials but increasingly also retired folk and people from every imaginable demographic who want a better quality of life than that offered by most of our cities.
“It’s easier for people in those towns to stay healthy because they live in a place that supports them rather than constantly undermines them.” – Dan Buettner, The Blue Zones Solution, discussing communities that embrace safe active transportation.
People will increasingly migrate to communities that embrace this lifestyle. They want communities that are working towards walkable/bikeable village centers of mixed residential, retail and healthcare rather than allow a local healthcare facility to be built 4 miles away so that driving or being driven to each and every appointment is required.
This migration has caused significant increases in the values of core urban areas while surrounding suburbs have seen stagnating or declining values with many suburban homes worth not much more, or even less, today than ten years ago.
Communities that aren’t meeting these desires will find continued declining home values leading to declining property tax revenue, declining infrastructure and delayed maintenance, lather rinse, repeat. This is particularly acute for suburbs since their lower density and huge amount of untaxed parking lots requires much more tax revenue per resident.
Any city that is not attracting a significant number of people who desire to live there so much that they will invest in existing housing stock to the extent that values keep up with inflation, will find themselves in a prolonged death spiral until they become a candidate for gentrification 50 years from now. That’s not good. And once the spiral begins it’s extremely difficult to reverse.
How will your city do in attracting people and investment in housing upkeep in the coming years? What cities are doing the best? Worst?