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Community Over Countertops and the Shift of the American Dream

by Borderstan.com July 4, 2012 at 10:00 am 0

"DC Row Houses"

Americans are trading in sprawl for smaller spaces and a greater sense of community in more densely populated urban neighborhoods. (Luis Gomez photos).

From Rachel Nania. Check out her blog, Sear, Simmer & Stir. Follow Nania on Twitter @rnania, email her at rachel[AT]borderstan.com

What’s your vision of “The American Dream?”

Does this phrase elicit an image of a large house that sits on a large lot and has a two-car garage in a far-flung suburban (or ex-urban in the past two decades) neighborhood — with a “Great Room,” several unused bedrooms and endless kitchen countertops? Or does the phrase conjure up an aura of community, sustainability and convenience?

Chances are, your answer is different than that of previous generations.

According to a recent article in the The New York Times by columnist Allison Arieff, a paradigmatic shift in our concept of the American dream is underway. In her piece, “The American Dream: Phase II,” Arieff discusses how sprawl is on its way out, while smaller, community-focused living is gaining speed. In fact, for the first time in a century, America’s cities are growing at a faster rate than their surrounding suburbs.

In a country known for dreaming big, building big and living in excess, it’s hard to imagine that an increasing number of Americans are opting for smaller spaces and fewer possessions. So what’s behind this shift?

Well, for one, the economy.

Over the past several years, we’ve built more houses than we need in America — and ironically these houses are further away from jobs. As Arieff points out in her article, this idea of sprawl has led to longer commutes, which not only create more traffic (and thus more fuel consumption and pollution), but also more health problems and less time left to spend with family.

“It’s a vicious, seemingly endless cycle, and at its core is the notion that the American dream can exist only within the framework of the single-family home on a large lot,” writes Arieff.

Leading the charge in the migration from suburban to urban living are young adults. According to a recent Associated Press article published on WTOP, the newly released 2011 census shows that this age group is delaying careers, marriage, homeownership and children due to many factors, including low-wage positions and increased student debt. Instead, this group is opting for “shorter-term, no-strings-attached apartment living, public transit and proximity to potential jobs in larger cities.”

In urban neighborhoods such as Dupont, Logan and U Street, it’s often hard to relate to issues caused by sprawl. Many Washingtonians have a short commute to work (unless they commute to the Maryland or Virginia suburbs)… playgrounds and dog parks are within walking distance…  and Metro passes, bikes and Bikeshare users increasingly seem to compete with cars in terms of sheer numbers.

Instead of single-family houses being built in our neighborhood, we see apartment and condo buildings. Moreover, the city’s population registered an increase in 2010, the first time since 1950 — and a big percentage of it was right here in our neighborhood, especially Logan Circle and U Street. In 2010, DC had more than 601,000 people, a 5.2% increase from 2000 — but still far below the city’s peak year of 1950 when the Census recorded 802,000 people in DC.

One quality possessed by DC neighborhoods is each area’s unique sense of community — especially those within easily walkable retail (such as our slice of the city). Restaurants, shops and houses near American University differ drastically from their counterparts in the Shaw area, which also differ from those in Takoma Park. And while only a few miles apart, this “distance” gives each area in our little city its own sense of identity, and thus, community.

Here in Borderstan, it’s the neighbors, the local businesses, the parks and the services offered that build identity, closeness, familiarity and camaraderie. And while living in an urban setting is not perfect, it’s what more and more Americans are looking for.

As Arieff discusses in her article, the recent market slowdown has given builders time to assess the demographic change of the way Americans want to live. As a result, more and more developments are popping up close to, or in, cities and are equipped with sidewalks, and access to playgrounds, restaurants and services.

If the idea of “home” is moving further away from four walls and a yard and more towards a complete vision of community, then it seems like we Borderstanis have a warm place to hang our hats.

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