Compact Living

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The common rant against compact or dense living is that it is not what people want. People rather prefer one-acre lots that have ample backyard space for their children to play and two-car garages to park their sedan and minivan/SUV/truck respectively. Every individual in the family needs his or her private space and in turn each family needs a large amount of private space that they chose to call home. The result – families are getting smaller and their homes are getting larger. And we believe that this is exactly what they – the consumers – wants? Or is it possible, like how I think, is this what they think they want because they have no other option or have not been offered any alternative. Before sounding to condescending regarding dictating to the common folk about how they should or should not live, I will simply argue that consumers of the real estate market or the housing market have been offered a limited set of choices for long and have been sold on the typical ‘American dream’ choice of a single-family home. Probably that worked for most part of the previous half-century but with the changing demographics and increasing need to living sustainably, we probably need more choices than we are offered right now.

Compact or dense living in condos or townhomes carry a stigma of being homes for middle and lower income but at the same time, high priced condos in most of the mega-cities cost far more than those single-family homes in the suburbs and the demand for them is no less. Single-family homes received a fillip from the government through incentives like the mortgage interest deduction or through veterans affairs or even as an indirect benefit from the construction of the inter-state system. People could afford home because they received magnanimous exemptions on their mortgages or they could commute easily to distant places thanks to the inter-states; so in fact the free-market isn’t entirely responsible for the inculcation of the American dream. The single-family homes sit on large lots away from the city mostly on cheap lands that are supported on city infrastructure and public subsidies. Fewer developers with the exception of high-growth Florida have chosen to develop subdivision if they were burdened with providing the underlying infrastructure of water, power, and sewage connections to these distant properties.

Density living, on the other hand occupy more people leaving more room for open and green space and significantly reduces dependence on automobiles. Provision of smaller parks for groups of apartments or town homes can easily fulfill the need for open space for children. This will not only further social communication but also encourage sharing of spaces that renders most backyards redundant (because children tend to play in groups in a common area as opposed to on their own in their own backyard). Compact living also makes it possible to walk down to such social spaces such as parks, neighborhood shopping, restaurants, or even hospitals. Retired folks and empty nesters (couples whose children have moved out) are already moving back into downtown to enjoy easier proximity to restaurants, night life, cultural districts, hospitals, and drug stores. They are choosing not to drive if they can help it.

Economically speaking, multifamily housing actually makes housing more affordable as infrastructural resources are shared and cost per unit is lot less than for single-family homes. The huge demand for housing is limited by scarcity of land in the suburbs which can develop only so much but by increasing the supply of land by minimizing the footprint and housing more people per footprint, real estate prices can actually decline. The city planning principle of developing several nodes in New Bombay (Navi Mumbai) has worked well in creating several foci instead of creating distinct zones for residential, commercial, or industrial that all people would have to flock to. Every sector or neighborhood is self-sufficient in its immediate needs and if you seek more, you can always travel to other nodes that have their own special attractions like movie theaters, stadiums, or transport terminals. But you may not need to use these public amenities everyday and hence reduce the daily commute by relying on facilities that your neighborhood provides. This is a proven fact by the traditional mohalla concept in Indian cities and has worked wonderfully over the ages.

Compact living has many other advantages over sprawling development, most of which cannot be packed into this short post. I’ll offer more arguments in the future. But respect for your environment is not a logical choice but in fact a moral and emotional choice, much like other choices you make in life. I wonder why this choice is always subjected to economic or logical conditions.

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2 thoughts on “Compact Living

  1. Hi, I am a graduate student at Columbia. I read your article and was particularly interested in this concept used in New Mumbai of urban nodes. I see an approach that could potentially solve problems of density control, segregation, and commuting if implemented correctly.

  2. footballnath

    Nice observations, you seem like a New Urbanism convert.
    Since i’m not too familiar with the “node” concept used in Navi Mumbai, can you further elaborate on how it works in opposition to the subdivision zoning system?

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