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Beyond Sprawl: Rethinking Residential, Cul-De-Sacs For The Future

Arizona State University graduate students are studying today’s housing to reimagine tomorrow’s construction.

Above: ASU graduate students' vision of a cul-de-sac for the future is based on an actual cul-de-sac in Avondale, Ariz. They propose turning the existing infrastructure -- seven houses, ranging from 2,500 - 3,200 square feet -- into "manors" which blend small private units with more shared space. Currently, there are approximately 24 residents living on the street. The grad students propose a denser design which will allow for three times as many residents in 2030.


Aired 11/28/11

Beyond Sprawl Part 2

Special Feature Beyond Sprawl-Rethinking The Southwest Economy

In this multimedia series, we investigate the region's housing sector and report on what growth could look like in the future.

— Pigs will probably fly in the Southwest before homebuilders stop constructing new homes here. But the types of homes people will need in the next 20 years might look very different.

After all, we’re staying single longer, we’re having fewer children, and we’re paying more for gas and utilities. Is it time to re-think the all-American suburb? Arizona State University graduate students in design and architecture think so.

The cul-de-sac the team of ASU grad students picked to study has seven houses on it. The houses are new. They're huge. They have sort-of hard-to-make-out front doors, but really big garages, very center stage.

One of the grad students on the project, Whitney Warman and I are here one morning about an hour before we see anyone. When we finally do, Warman is shocked.

"OK, this is interesting," she said.

"I see a person," I said back to her.

"Oh my God, there's someone out," Warman said. "Wow, this is really promising that there are actually people on this cul-de-sac. Cause the first time we were here there were two families and we got yelled at. We were shooed off the street."

That was last spring. Warman's advisor Milagros Zingoni, and her colleague Aaron Golub, had recently applied and were awarded a grant from the Phoenix Urban Research Laboratory at ASU with the city of Avondale to redesign one of its cul-de-sacs for the year 2030. The cul-de-sac they chose to retrofit was built in the mid-2000s, but basically follows the design principles of the 1950s, when American demographics and gas prices and bank loans were actually really different.

In 1950, the average home was 1,600 square feet. In 2000, it surged to 2,500 ...
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Above: In 1950, the average home was 1,600 square feet. In 2000, it surged to 2,500 square feet. The design students want to reverse the trend and, in 2030, drastically reduce the average American home size to 800 square feet.

An example: Half of all households then had children. But in 2030, only a quarter are expected to have kids. And singles will occupy more than one-third of households. To Warman, the houses on this street – about 2,500 square feet – are way too big for just one or two people.

"I mean 2,500 square feet – you gotta clean that!" she yelled. "That’s a lot of cleaning!” Not to mention: "Air conditioning and heating and water and gas prices."

As the cost of these necessities and amenities rise, demographer Arthur C. Nelson at the University of Utah says our wages are not.

"We ended the 2000s at a lower per capita income in real purchasing power terms than we started the 2000s," Nelson said. "And all the studies I see indicate that we won’t come back to the 2000 level maybe until 2020, maybe not until 2030, maybe never."

So for economic reasons like this – in addition to environmental and demographic projections – the students found that we'll need to share more living space in the future, and, thus, the cost of maintaining the space.

To do this, Warman says we're going to have to know each other.

This is not how it is right now. Current cul-de-sac resident Sabrina Mitchell tells us she doesn’t know anyone on the block, and that she likes it this way – she and her family like to live quietly and keep to themselves.

As part of their redesign, ASU students retrofitted one of the swimming pools...
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Above: As part of their redesign, ASU students retrofitted one of the swimming pools into a skate park.

"I mean it’s good to know your neighbor and know that you guys have each others back if anything was to happen," Mitchell said. "But we’re pretty much in here. Everyone is pretty much by themselves."

So Warman is asking a lot. She basically wants to take this street where the only reported social interaction is hypothetical and turn it into a place where people live in private units a quarter the size of the current houses, and with more shared public space, close to buses and jobs.

The suburbs may not look this way right now. But Nelson, the Utah demographer, says that as much as one-third of the current American population wants something very similar.

"Twenty-five percent or 33-percent want a smaller lot within walking distance of transit stations or working opportunities or shops," the professor said. "Thirty years ago, it might have been 10-percent. So the fact that a quarter to a third want something different is a real dramatic change."

Even though home builders in Arizona are now building only a mere tenth of what they were building during the recent housing boom, they’re not necessarily building smaller, denser units that are closer to transportation and amenities.

So some “Phoenicians” (Residents of Phoenix) aren’t waiting. They’re drawing up plans for a totally new kind of neighborhood, all on their own.

Donna Niemann (left) and Claudia Hartman travelled 2,500 miles last summer to...
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Above: Donna Niemann (left) and Claudia Hartman travelled 2,500 miles last summer to visit more than 20 co-housing communities all across the country. They're using what they found to be the best practices from these communities to design their own "neighborhood of the future" in Phoenix.

"Here is Vesta,"said Donna Niemann, one of these Phoenicians. "This is our community."

Niemann is single, her kids are all grown up, and she has no official training as a planner. Yet, here she sits with pages of plans she helped dream up for a new community in Phoenix she wants to help build and then live in.

"We have 14 homes in this quad and this is our quad for adults," Niemann said, pointing to her plans. "Either married or single and they’re around a common green area that we could have a barbeque, a shade structure..."

If this sounds familiar, it’s because the drawing hits on almost all the same themes as Warman’s.

"For me, as an aging baby boomer, I’ve lost half my stock portfolio. I did everything right, right? It’s all worth nothing right now,” Niemann said. “And I’m like: ‘OK, who is going to rebound for the last 30 years of my life? Do I trust the government? Do I trust financial people?’ Heck no!"

Instead, Niemann said, she wants to trust her neighbors.

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Avatar for user 'eduardo'

eduardo | November 29, 2011 at 8:04 a.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago

Gee what an amazing concept. You actually got a grant to come up with a concept called condominiums.... I will decide what size house I want to live in thank you very much. 2500 sq ft may seem large to students but I find it just about right for me. The developers will build what the market demands. This the the basis of the free market and it does not require any input from grad students trying their hand at social engineering. Your ideology is amusing. Just wait till you get a real job, then you will understand...

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Avatar for user '1drew'

1drew | November 29, 2011 at 9:08 a.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago

I was initially intrigued by this story but soon realized that the sources lacked credibility.
A grad student and an individual "with no official training as a planner"; really? Would it have been that difficult to consult a licensed design professional to add real-world prospective to this piece?

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Avatar for user 'brixsy'

brixsy | November 29, 2011 at 6:34 p.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago

In general, we need to downsize. I don't know where eduardo sees it as his right to take up the remaining open land we have, and turn it into ugly development. The ideas of the past don't work anymore, and frankly, never did. Urban sprawl needs to go, to make our communities function again, to get our health and peace of mind back.

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Avatar for user 'polydeukes'

polydeukes | November 30, 2011 at 9:11 a.m. ― 5 years, 2 months ago

Cul-du-sac does not have a k; in plural form, it's culs-du-sac. Does KPBS need more copy editors?

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Avatar for user 'Natalie Walsh'

Natalie Walsh, KPBS Staff | November 30, 2011 at 10 a.m. ― 5 years, 2 months ago

Dear polydeukes,

Thanks for commenting on the headline in our story: Beyond Sprawl: Rethinking Residential, Cul-De-Sacs For The Future.

According to Webster's New World Dictionary, the plural of cul-de-sac is either cul-de-sacs -OR- culs-de-sac.

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Avatar for user 'stoett22'

stoett22 | July 9, 2012 at 1:28 a.m. ― 4 years, 7 months ago

The future of housing is probably left to the students today who are going to be the developers and designers of tomorrow. Greener housing seems to be much of their focus, and this residential plan sure looks promising.

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