The holidays are a wonderful time to spend with family and loved ones, at some point thankfully sitting around a table, enjoying a fulfilling meal. But let’s be honest, our families may not look or act like how we’ve often been taught they should, and this is also a perfect time to reflect on that. Our families are made up of single mothers, gay and inter-racial couples with or without children in domestic partnerships, multi-generational and extended families, and those in second (and third) marriages.
That’s one of the reasons why this post (and subsequent summary on Planetizen) by Kaid Benfield is so timely. And though planners disagree on what this trend towards post-familialism means for the United States, something that Europe may to some degree be more accustomed to, it is a topic that merits some discussion. How do planners respond and prepare for such diversity in kinship and changing sociology in their cities? And perhaps more importantly, are these family trends occurring because we aren’t valuing the traditional family enough? What does this mean for suburbia and the single-family home?
Needless to say, these are tough questions and I agree there may be some truth to the idea that the needs of families, especially more diverse ones, are not valued as much as they should be. In fact, I even wrote a paper at Cornell about the importance of creating family-friendly cities, referring to America’s changing face and evolving housing needs. That said, I also think that that perhaps the family unit in the U.S., and arguably around the world, was never quite as homogenous and nuclear as it was made out to be especially in the 1950s. And the movements of the 1960s and 70s in the U.S. were clearly a rebellion against that.
And so now in 2012, are we ready to accept all this diversity? And how do we plan for this in our cities and suburbs alike? Having a sense of humor about it all is a fantastic starting point. And as a city planner, I believe the best policies will have enough flexibility and foresight grafted in, to accept and support families– from a single mother, to a gay couple with a child, to a grandmother living with a son and/or a grandchild– all regardless of ethnicity or cultural heritage.
That may be a broad (and perhaps liberal) statement, but from what I can see in Los Angeles, policy-development does seem to be moving in the direction of finding synergies in the many matters affecting individuals and families. This is true in areas such as housing, health and transportation, despite different possible value-systems. I think this is a step in the right direction. That said, my thoughts and opinions in this post, and generally, are not meant to be normative or value-laden so much as data-driven and human-centered, with an environmental slant.
One of our jobs as planners is to ask ourselves questions about what trends are out there and why, just as Joel Kotkin does when pointing out changes in how people make a living. Planners and policy-makers also need to identify common ground, like between the needs and preferences of Millennials and their parents, often Baby Boomers. I love the work of Dowell Myers, for example, who uses demographic data to make interesting social observations and predictions. And most importantly, I think that focusing on overlapping needs can greatly inform more effective and efficient policy solutions.
In terms of housing, people’s needs and preferences will vary just as greatly as the families who they are built to protect. Obvious, right? People may prefer to live in larger single-family homes, apartments, condos or in some cases micro-studios. These housing demands will be based not solely on race and age, but on countless other factors including access to social networks, economic matters such as job proximity, and different ways of working, like part-time and/or home-based work. Again, as planners, this means looking at zoning codes in away that aims to create a variety and flexibility in housing options; something that is much easier said than done when formulating zoning and development policies, and when speculation and gentrification come into play.
As for sprawl, I generally believe cities should be more compact, using fewer resources and that research such as this on TODs and families coming from the University of California Berkeley is hitting the nail on the head. That said, I also see how this type of development is much more difficult to envision in sprawl-loving Los Angeles. I certainly hope the progress we are making with transit in L.A. is worth the investment and that it proves resilient. Hopefully people will use it, guaranteeing its greenness. I also realize that even a suburban or rural home that is off the grid, growing food, fully solar-powered, and with a rain or grey water collection system, is and could be a sustainable future land use and housing development model.
There is so much potential in the architectural and construction worlds to build and restore infrastructure based on designs, techniques and materials that can adapt to different uses, using less energy. The key will be for cities and regions to develop policies that respond to increasing demographic complexity, and to complexity in general, while incorporating some of these sometimes groundbreaking, sometimes ancient, yet always smart technological solutions– solutions that are generally more reliant on renewable energy and on recyclable building materials. Given this backdrop, planners must continue to strive to create incentives for new development to nourish the needs of ‘modern families’, ultimately enabling cities and regions to evolve more sustainably. Among other things, research, education, tolerance, technology, and carefully-crafted policy (and implementation) will all come into play as we continue to build and manage our cities into the future.
This post admittedly covers a lot of ground, and might come off as a bit of a far-flung rant , but it is meant to give the reader a sense of how planners (and I) think when considering the big picture: sprawl, transit, housing, demographics, technology, policy, etc.– particularly by highlighting ongoing discussions. Again, this is definitely a post that looks at the forest and not the trees, but I will certainly get to the trees in other upcoming posts. I also think some of the conversations happening out there seem to be missing the point, failing to look for synergies in policy approaches, honing in only on certain factors and not others, and thereby staying too focused on the analysis of trees, so to speak. But I believe it was the famous architect, Mie Van der Rohe, who in fact coined the term, “the devil is in the detail”.
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