In the housing industry, land planners are the first to be dropped during a downturn… and the first needed in an upturn. A good way to monitor the optimism of the housing development market is to monitor the volume of land planning.
The land plan is the beginning of a long and arduous process. Unlike architecture, which is relatively quick from design to construction, land planning takes patience. It can easily consume a year or two (or more) for a US neighborhood to go from the initial design stages to the beginning of construction.
Typically, but not always, national recessions coincide with downturns in the construction industry. For example, housing growth in the Minneapolis region leaped to the far outer suburban regions because we had an urban boundary that raised raw land prices and made unsubsidized affordable housing within the core unattainable. To get a financially attainable home for a middle-class family meant a 30 mile trek to the suburbs, typically in that shiny new gas guzzler SUV.
About a year before the national recession, when local gas prices exceeded three dollars a gallon, homes sales in the outer reaches of the Twin Cities (Minneapolis-St. Paul) came to a standstill. This halt impacted the low-value suburban cookie cutter bland developments. Planning consultants that simply followed the regulatory minimums saw their workload come to a screeching halt.
Around that same time, our unique land planning business grew 30%. Our clients were savvy developers and builders who knew that they needed an edge to entice buyers back into new purchases. Unfortunately, development redesign takes time to go through the approval processes. When the banking collapse triggered the national recession and the housing collapse, we had 105 neighborhoods going through the approval process. Within a 48 hour period, all 105 neighborhoods either went dead or dormant. The building industry Armageddon had begun.
Most design professionals we knew reduced overhead to survive or went out of business. We weren't aware of any that took the time or money to re-educate or re-tool. On the other hand, during the five year downturn we invested more time, money, and energy than we had in the past into improving design models, software technology (and related patents). This depleted our personal and corporate resources, because no bank or investor was interested in a company that served the home building industry. Our work outside the US kept us (barely) afloat.
During the recession years we had only two jobs within the US: A single master planned community of 1,900 units, and a 20 lot subdivision. That was it. When 2012 began, the phone started ringing with requests for the planning of new domestic developments. The preparations to invest in the recovery were underway.
In the years before the recession it had become increasingly more time consuming and difficult to gain approvals. The US is the only country in which we work where neighbors have input into development decisions, even when a project clearly meets all required regulations. But now, we are witnessing quicker approvals than before, as citizens (I think) recognize that their net worth, income potential, and perhaps their job (or that of a family member) is tied to getting the housing industry healthy again.
When suburbia imploded, urban planners and architects rejoiced and announced a resurgence of urban growth that promised an era of utopian living. People were going to walk, bike, or be bused to nearby jobs in gentrified (i.e. expensive and exclusive) neighborhoods. Instead of decaying urban blight, we were going to see suburban blight. To be sure, urban economic growth areas such as Washington DC saw reinvestment and positive redevelopment, but for the most part, the promising urban rebirth miscarried.
In the 45 years that I’ve been in the planning, engineering, and software side of land development, I’ve continually read about the death of the suburbs and the major change in the housing market. Most of the predictions have proven to be false. Terms like 'cocooning' and 'clustering' failed to catch on, and are no longer commonly used.
More recently, I’ve seen a projection that 50% of all households will be single person entities in the not too distant future. I’m from the hippie generation. If, in 1969, forecasters judged that we represented future housing needs, everyone would surely have foreseen an upcoming growth in communal neighborhoods, marriages with multiple sex partners, and children raised in flower gardens. Yet most of our generation grew to be conservative, short haired, well behaved, religious suburbanites and business leaders.
I’m certainly not an economist, a demographer, or a professor, but my projection is that the idealistic young people of any generation will eventually marry and desire (for the most part) a home with a yard in which to raise their children. A home they are proud to pull up to in a neighborhood that is beautiful, safe, connective, and functional. In addition, I believe that they will want a lower-maintenance home that consumes little energy for heating and cooling. That home could very well be in a redeveloped urban environment, or in a suburban setting.
Those that qualify for a mortgage today want to arrive at an individual home that elevates their sense of self-worth, especially after experiencing the recession. Instead of a 10mpg SUV, they are likely to drive home in a vehicle that gets three to five times that efficiency, making the cost per gallon not so critical, even if we go beyond five dollars a gallon.
The resurgence in development is sprouting in many regions. North Dakota, for example, desperately needs to house its workers in cities that offer enough of a living standard to entice families. Before the boom, the minimalistic regulations worked well. But that approach is far behind the curve to create competitive, sustainable towns during the current population explosion. The number of new development submittals and the demand for housing is overwhelming both the city staff and the local engineering firms.
To make matters worse, developers and builders flooding into the area to make a quick buck have built some truly terrible dwelling places. The result has been a sense of caution that is preventing quick approvals. Many consulting firms that used to prepare farm property splits or new utility easements are now planning large scale developments. They are either unqualified or ill-prepared for designing new cities.
Regulations such as streets with 66-foot wide right-of-ways and absurdly wide local paving widths (often over 40 feet) go unchallenged because consultants do not want to deviate from obsolete regulations in fear of further delaying approvals.
Moving forward as the housing market recovers, if we simply repeat the same solutions that we used prior to the recession, growth will be slow but steady. If we add significantly more value by advancing both home and neighborhood design, efficiency, and value we can accelerate economic recovery and leave a better legacy for future generations. At the same time, we would increase developers' profitability, and decrease municipal maintenance burdens. As with any product, demand is created or re-energized when the product is significantly improved.
Rick Harrison is President of Rick Harrison Site Design Studio and Neighborhood Innovations, LLC. He is author of Prefurbia: Reinventing The Suburbs From Disdainable To Sustainable and creator of Performance Planning System. His websites are rhsdplanning.com and pps-vr.com.
Flickr photo by outtacontext, 'A few acres of suburban land, previously a high school… becoming a housing development.'