Tuesday, January 29, 2008

What they WANT people to want...

One section of the 1973 Select Committee on Goals' report is the results of questionnaires sent to Amherst residents and Amherst Town Meeting members. Hindsight is always 20/20, but it seems like some of the failures of the SCOG plan could have been predicted by the results of the questionnaire. For example, here's the results for one of the questions about housing:
What type of housing would you prefer?
78% single-family house
9% apartment
5% 2-4 family unit
2% mobile home
And here's another:
If you are dissatisfied with your present housing, indicate the four most important reasons.
14% too little space
9% noise
9% traffic
8% inadequate facilities
8% too close to neighbors
8% garage lacking or too small
7% physical condition of unit
6% too few bedrooms
6% too small yard
3% dislike neighbors/lack similar interests
3% too far from shopping facilities
3% too far from bus stop
2% lack of activity in neighborhood
2% too far from recreation facilities
1% too much space
1% too distant from public facilities
1% too far from place of employment
.25% too far from neighbors
So, people back then wanted bigger single-family houses on quiet streets, on a bigger lot, with a bigger garage. That's basically the opposite of the "higher density Village Centers surrounded by open space" vision laid out in the SCOG plan.

We're about to make the same mistake again. I bet most people in Amherst still want bigger, new houses on bigger lots on quiet streets, but Town Meeting will continue trying, and failing, to get people to want smaller houses on smaller lots close to Village Centers...


Unknown said...

Gavin, no one knew they wanted an iPod until it was introduced. So, people generally want only that which they have seen and experienced. There is good data from the Congress on New Urbanism that people will pay more for clustered housing, closer to town and amenities etc. than they will for suburban sprawl. Read the book Suburban Nation by Jeff Speck et al. Just because people say they want X doesn't mean they'll not favor Y once they can see it. Another little kernel of evidence that there is market for clustered housing comes from the fact that co-housing communities locally have long waiting lists. The challenge in many communities is that builders want to build what they have built and sold in the past. Construction is a very risky business and these days, with home sales in decline, builders are going to be even less inclined to offer homeowners any choice. Challenge in many communities is that zoning laws create self-fulfilling prophecies, giving preference to the sort of suburban sprawl that has worked for residential builders in the past. I think it is entirely the role of government to produce a shift on which the private sector--possibly for good reason--is unwilling to take a risk. Or move down south, where there's loads of unsold suburban sprawl available at significant discounts!

Gavin Andresen said...

I absolutely agree that past policies have encouraged sprawl-- even here in Amherst! A big part of the "moderate growth" mantra was to limit density outside of the "village centers."

So we got big houses on big lots far away from village centers... and dead village centers, because Town Meeting wasn't willing to make the zoning change necessary to actually have robust village centers.

I'm still skeptical that most people will choose to live in smaller houses on smaller lots closer to a village center, but maybe you're right-- maybe Amherst attracts a different type of person...

... but if it does, then it seems to me the government just has to get out of the way. I bet you a dollar that Amherst's zoning laws make it hard to build cohousing, which is why there are waiting lists...

The Neutralist said...

I've lived in apartments, suburbs and now the exurbs where I cannot see my neighbors. I like the exurbs best.

I could never envision the ipod, but I can think about different living patterns. If I wanted cohousing, I never would have left my parents house.

"I think it is entirely the role of government to produce a shift on which the private sector--possibly for good reason--is unwilling to take a risk."

They've already done that with housing projects and Iraq amongst other ventures. How're those working out?