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Family structures have changed drastically during the past ten years. Family homes, for the most part, haven’t.

“We’ve been stuck in this 1950s model for the past 60 years. [Builders] know they can rely on it,” says Devin Browne, a reporter with the Fronteras: Changing America Desk in Phoenix.

But due to the economy, as well as cultural and demographic shifts, kids are living at home well to their 20s, and many older people find themselves cohabitating with their children and grandchildren. In 1950, about half of all homes had children. By 2030, Browne says, only a fourth will have kids, and more single people will be homeowners, too.

Yet, homebuilders have been slow to react to these changes, in part, Browne says, because it’s simply not in their nature to do so.

“The way that the development industry works is really different from, say, the personal technology industry, where they can create a product that customers haven’t even told them that they wanted yet,” Browne says. “I didn’t know I wanted an iPhone until Steve Jobs put it in front of me and then I said ‘I have to have this.’ And the homebuilding industry is really different. They don’t usually innovate ahead of customer demand.”

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Turning Cul-de-sacs into Community Space

Browne followed a group of Arizona State University graduate students who were looking to rebuild— and completely re-envision—the traditional cul-de-sac, a housing development staple of the American Southwest. Their professor in ASU’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, Aaron Golub, envisions subdivisions where the cul-de-sac doesn’t have any asphalt at all. Rather, the entire front section is a public park, complete with gardens, semi-private nooks and playgrounds.

Pretty radical, right?

Golub points out that the creation of these dense cul-de-sacs won’t only answer the demographic issue. It will also help foster a greater sense of community among residents.

“Many lament the lack of community and lament the lack of intergenerational interactions,” Golub says of Southwestern housing developments. “This is a way we can get back to intergenerational communication.”

And, Browne says, he might be onto something. In the ASU study, there were seven homes on the cul-de-sac. None of the neighbors seemed to know each other, and didn’t particularly seem to mind. Community, except anecdotally, was nonexistent.

A Tough Time for Big Ideas

But Bill Lenhart, owner and broker of Sunbelt Development says of Golub’s idea: Not so fast. Although casitas, and casitas with full kitchenettes are catching on as an add-on, home builders suffering from the down economy aren’t going to be keen to take risks. “They are being super conservative right now,” he says, which makes sense.

Buying a house, after all, is a lot more of an investment than buying an iPhone.

Alan Hess, an architecture historian and critic, says he thinks that change will happen, but that it will have to be more than just structural—it has to be emotional, too. People have to buy into it, and zoning laws, traditionally an obstacle to new, innovative types of dense housing in the Southwest, will have to evolve with the demography of communities.

“The solution to these problems is going to be, as it has in the past, on a mass basis,” Hess says. “Small interventions from neighborhood to neighborhood aren’t necessarily going to solve this.”

Devin Browne, reporter, Fronteras: The Changing America Desk
Aaron Golub, Asst Prof, School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, ASU
Bill Lenhart, owner and broker, Sunbelt Development
Alan Hess, architecture historian and critic

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