Beautiful Places Should Not be a Luxury

We Can and Should Build Gorgeous Neighborhoods

The United States is the worldwide undisputed heavyweight champion of really bad cities. Not many folks today would disagree with this sentiment. 

There’s just one problem: it isn’t completely true. In fact, the U.S. does have a surprisingly large number of really beautiful places. Take Beacon Hill in Boston: 

That looks like it could be a cozy medieval European street! And Beacon Hill doesn’t stop at beautiful streets and homes. Those who live in this neighborhood are within easy walking distance of nearly every daily necessity - schools, restaurants, groceries, etc. This is good urbanism exemplified: not just pretty but practical. 

But it doesn’t end there. We’ve also got the stunningly beautiful historic area South of Broad Street in Charleston: 

And don’t forget about Brooklyn!

So what’s the problem? If we have so many beautiful places like this, why are developers like me still so hell bent on building more beautiful places in the United States? 

It’s because of the not-so-insignificant detail that these neighborhoods are astronomically, stupidly expensive. They’re luxury items; they’re the Rolls Royces of neighborhoods: 

  • Brooklyn Heights average sale price for a 2,000 square foot home: $2,720,000 (Redfin)

  • Beacon Hill average sale price for a 2,000 square foot home: $2,546,000 (Boston Realty Web)

  • South of Broad average sale price for a 2,000 square foot home: $1,730,000 (Redfin)

So, yeah… not really working for checks calculator anyone other than the .01%...

Not Just a Housing Shortage, A Shortage of Good Houses

Yes, we all know there’s a housing shortage. But what that fact completely ignores is: what type of housing are we talking about? What do people actually want? 

To the economist, planner, and all but the most caring developers, all of these are all equally good ways to address the housing crisis:

Images Generated by Google Gemini AI

But of course they aren’t equal, at least not to the people who live there. The abstract notion of “housing” makes no accounting of the context that the house is embedded in. This is disastrous because the context around a home is just about the only thing that matters. Considering a house without regard to what’s around it is like studying a single thread of fabric under a microscope. You might learn a lot about the properties of that piece of thread, but what matters to most people is how it’s woven with hundreds of other threads into a complete piece of clothing. 

Trying to address a housing shortage by only seeking to provide abstract units of “housing” is like a doctor trying to treat a patient’s disease by writing a prescription for “medicine”. It’s so generalized as to be meaningless in almost every case. 

The doctor and economist might feel satisfied that they’ve provided enough “units” of their particular medicine. But ask any of the residents living in those houses or the patient still dying from cancer, and they’re not going to think the problem is solved at all. 

In short: most people prefer something like the last image, but everything that gets built is one of the first three images. 

This might be acceptable to the economist: housing is housing after all. But as an entrepreneur I can’t rest knowing that millions of people want to live in places like Beacon Hill and Brooklyn Heights but can’t because it would take their entire lifetime earnings just to buy a modest house there. Beautiful neighborhoods like Beacon Hill and Brooklyn Heights shouldn’t be luxury goods. They should be accessible for anybody who wants to live in places like them. 

So what do we do?

Make Some Place People Want

Imagine a world where walkable neighborhoods weren't only for the elite, but the norm for everyone. A world where kids could safely walk to school, neighbors could gather in local parks, and the corner store was just a stroll away. Most importantly, imagine a world where this lifestyle actually costs less to live in than wherever you live now. That is my mission, and I won’t stop until it’s made an option for every person in the country. 

Because that’s what it should be: an option. Americans shouldn’t have to choose only between a shitty subdivision that satisfies some abstract requirement for “housing” and spiritually bankrupts them or a walkable paradise that literally bankrupts them. People deserve better than that. 

Don’t worry, I have a solution. What if we - and bear with me on this - build more of the places people actually want to live in? 

It's not easy. First of all, it requires giving a shit about the people who live there. That rules out nearly every homebuilder and most large developers right off the bat. I’m not going to name any names, but you know who you are…

I mean look at this: you can have the garage on the left OR the right side!!! The possibilities are literally endless! Oh wait did I say endless? I meant the possibilities end there. Also you have to spend 3 hours per day in your car. Enjoy!

Yes, I know. Regulation this, zoning code that. I don’t care. It’s difficult. I’ve been through it. But it’s worth it if it means even a handful of people get rescued from a place where their only choice is if they want the garage on the left or right side of the house to live in a place like this: 

Image Generated by Google Gemini AI

And it is up to developers to provide these places. Governments can create policy to help or hinder the efforts. Planners can support the efforts where they happen. But unless developers commit time and money to creating these places, they won’t happen

 It is more difficult than producing another 200-home tract subdivision. It’s more difficult than producing another “live, work, play” that’s really just an apartment block in a corn field. 

Designing a great and beautiful place is hard because you have to think about the whole thing. You have to consider the whole piece of clothing rather than just some individual threads in the sleeve. 

Not just the homes, but what they’re connected to. Not just how to get utilities to the site, but how it feels to walk on the street. Not just whether or not to integrate commercial, but specifically which commercial services would best serve the daily needs of the people living there. And a thousand other considerations. 

It’s extremely difficult. But then again, so is nearly anything worth doing. And although it’s more difficult, it’s also astronomically more gratifying. 

So no, the status quo is not good enough for me. I think it’s worth trying to actually give people the goddamn type of housing they actually want. If people want beautiful, cozy, tree lined-streets - and they do - then it’s up to developers to move heaven and earth to give it to them.

Joel Anderson is a Partner Writer for Resident Urbanist. He is the Founder of Mainstreet Communities, a real estate development firm created to make great urbanism accessible to every American. Mainstreet’s first project is West Village, a 200-unit mixed-use neighborhood center in downtown Florence, Alabama. He also writes Reinventing Real Estate, a newsletter about new approaches to real estate development. You can follow him on Twitter.

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