Neighborhood as Platform

Bermondsey Street Studios, LondonUp until the recent housing bust, you often heard the advice “drive until you qualify.” If you couldn’t afford as large a house as you’d like to buy in the city, you should look at surrounding suburbs, widening your search outwards until you found one far enough out on the suburban fringe to cost what a bank would loan you. The bust — which has hit outlying suburbs most devastatingly — has made this advice pretty clearly a thing of the past, and even traditional real estate agents are starting to recommend that families look at the combined cost of transportation and housing when choosing a place to live.

The opposite advice would seem to be the old adage that if you’re on a budget, you should buy the smallest house in the best neighborhood you can afford. Certainly, market analysts tell us we’re seeing a shift (especially among Millennials) away from concern with owning one’s “dream home” and towards living in one’s “dream neighborhood.” In North America, observers say, we’re definitely seeing a fast-growing locational preference for walkable urbanism, a more modest set of expectations in terms of home size and an overall shift away from home-ownership as a heavily-leveraged financial investment. People want smaller, more affordable homes in walkable neighborhoods.

Buying in a good neighborhood is probably sound advice. But there’s something bigger moving under the surface of these waters. A leading-edge set of urbanites now wants neighborhoods with “good bones” to support urban lifestyles that barely yet exist.

All good compact neighborhoods offer more ability to live a low-consumption, high-access, experience-rich and car-free life. I’m seeing evidence, though, that a non-trivial number of the best informed home buyers are looking for neighborhoods able to evolve in the face of rapid change. Places willing to adopt innovations – from increased density to district energy to elimination of parking to new transit modes — that might be opposed by NIMBYs in more established areas. They’re shopping for places where both the urban form and the community culture favor experimentation and adoption of new solutions; they’re looking for someplace they can build their own solutions and life experiments.

They’re looking, you might say, for neighborhoods that work as platforms for innovative living.