Housing vs Neighborhoods

When I was asked some years ago to write a piece about “housing,” I declined. I have a problem with the word itself. Or more precisely, I’m troubled by discussing housing outside the context of the other elements that comprise a complete neighborhood.

Words are powerful things; they can both define the present and predict the future. The world might be a very different place today if the term “housing” had never been invented. In the old days we had houses and we had neighborhoods, but housing as a concept barely existed until quite recently. (My dictionary shows the first recorded use of the term “housing project” in 1951.)

What if, instead of a Department of HOUSING and Urban Development, we had a Department of NEIGHBORHOODS and Urban Development? Think of what different results might have come from those billions of dollars spent if we hadn’t conceived of housing as “projects” isolated from the other elements of a neighborhood such as schools, houses of worship, main streets, town squares, workplaces, and transit systems.

I understand how the housing projects came to be. We had millions of returning veterans in 1945 who desperately needed places to live. It was a crisis of national proportions. My dad was among those vets who had no place to go but his parent’s crowded home in an older Seattle neighborhood. He and my mom spent the first year of their marriage living in a Quonset hut with six other couples, several with new babies. For years afterward they told stories of the hardships suffered during that time in their young lives. Later they moved to a place named Yesler Housing in Seattle, one of the first large-scale housing projects built in the United States. To my parents, it seemed like Shangri-La.

Housing we asked for and housing we got. The same Defense Department planners who directed the production of Liberty Ships and B-29 bombers also were involved during the war in creating housing for defense workers. In my home state of California, cities such as Oakland, Richmond, and San Diego were significantly impacted by these developments. Other regions around the United States such as Bridgeport, Connecticut, Portland, Oregon, and Detroit, Michigan, also had large concentrations of housing for wartime workers.

Postwar suburban housing was influenced by its wartime predecessors. As a nation we had fallen under the spell of mass production and technology, which had proved themselves so well on the battlefields of Europe and on the high seas of the Pacific. Hearth and home gave way to gleaming functionalism.

New housing subdivisions such as the various Levittowns of the eastern states and the Eichler developments in California began to affect the form of other elements of the suburban landscape. Neighborhood centers including churches, schools, and shopping areas, if they existed at all, were now much further apart, isolated in their own special “pods.” The neat rows of houses and apartment blocks within the subdivisions could thus continue uninterrupted for blocks and even miles; breaking up the pattern would have compromised the “efficiency” of the plan. But distance wasn’t a problem because suburbanites now had cars to take them swiftly and conveniently to jobs and daily errands.

With cars, and the new “defense highways” built to accommodate them, people could drive to much larger regional shopping centers and to factories employing thousands of workers gathered from all across a metropolitan area. Neither of these large-scale land uses would have been compatible with the scale of the old neighborhoods; they would surely have been opposed by surrounding residents. Thus, through the creation of large-scale, single-use “projects,” gigantic postwar suburban development was born.

Today, the suburban pattern of isolated single-use “pods” has become accepted as the norm in conventional planning circles. Though progressive planners are beginning to look at more integrated approaches to community-making, most conferences and many journals continue to discuss topics such as housing, transportation, infrastructure, etc; in isolation. This is an approach I do not support.

Instead, I suggest we discuss, as others have before me, the real places where people live, work, eat, sleep, fall in love, raise children, concoct new business schemes, curse bosses, and go bowling on Thursday nights. The “real” places I’m referring to are known as cities, towns, villages, districts, and neighborhoods. More than 2,000 years of experience has shown that such places are the only human habitats of truly enduring value.

Within such places, “housing” does exist, but only as one element of a much richer and more complex tapestry of uses and physical forms. Because such places are so complex, they are best studied by careful observation. The observation-based approach, used by famous author and activist Jane Jacobs, is certainly messier than the sort of clinical analysis I’m taking issue with here, but it is far more likely to yield lessons of significance.

Author Credit:
Peter Katz is author of The New Urbanism: Toward an Architecture of Community, (McGraw-Hill, 1994). He was the founding director of the Congress of the New Urbanism, a coalition of architects, urban designers, developers, and consultants that seeks to reintegrate the components of modern urban and suburban life into compact pedestrian-friendly communities, efficiently linked with the larger regional infrastructure.