Reconnecting America People * Places * Possibility

Are We There Yet? Expanding Choices

This is the first in a series of blog posts excerpted from Reconnecting America's report "Are We There Yet? Creating Complete Communities for 21st Century America"

Americans are beginning to change their expectations of what makes a house a home. We are less interested in spending three hours a day slogging to work from the fringes of suburbia — and less and less able to pay for the gas to do so. We’re beginning to return to cities as well as to closer-in suburbs that offer more housing and transportation choices. We’re looking for lofts, apartments, places where we can walk to shops, take a bus or train or bike to work, and more easily enjoy the companionship of neighbors.

The realities of the 21st century are calling for these different lifestyle and real estate choices: high gas prices and traffic congestion; the increasing expense of heating, cooling and maintaining a large home; a severe, long-term recession, tough job market and the need to reduce spending; a rapidly aging population and more single-person and single parent households; concerns about America’s public health, and our ability to compete in the global economy; concerns about the environment and climate change.

“A new image of America is in the making,” notes Brookings Institution demographer William Frey after Brookings released its analysis of 2000-2008 census data. “What used to be white flight to the suburbs is turning into ‘bright flight’ to cities that have become magnets for aspiring young adults who see access to knowledge-based jobs, public transportation and a new city ambiance as an attraction. Old stereotypes no longer apply.”

Carol Coletta, then director of CEOs for Cities, adds in a 2011 USA Today interview, “Clearly the next generation of Americans is looking for different kinds of lifestyles — walkable, with art, culture and entertainment. This is no longer anecdotal. Every metro area has good suburbs, but if you don’t have a strong downtown and close-in neighborhoods then you are not offering a choice that many of them are seeking. Offering that choice is a real competitive advantage for cities.”

More choices are indeed what Americans seem to want now, and one popular choice — not for all Americans, but an increasing number — is what some people are calling “complete communities.” These are neighborhoods in cities and suburbs where daily exercise is routine and pleasant and could involve walking or biking to work, where daily tasks, including shopping and taking the children to school, can also be done on foot or bike, where neighborhoods are clean and safe and “neighborly,” and both housing and transportation is more affordable.

These “complete communities” are built upon “opportunity areas,” a term we use to denote those neighborhoods — or even just a part of a neighborhood — with smaller blocks and moderate density housing and/or jobs so that some people can live and work in the same neighborhoods.

Opportunity areas and complete communities can be in urban or suburban places, though they tend to be in the downtowns and “first-ring” suburbs of older cities. In many downtowns and close-in suburbs the combination of vacant lots and abandoned properties as well as historic rail infrastructure offer redevelopment potential, and investment in these places could bring new life to neighborhoods that would offer people the kind of housing and transportation choices that have become popular.

According to Reconnecting America’s research, more than 1 in 6 American households are in opportunity areas, a total of more than 17 million households. See List below: Top 10 regions with households in opportunity areas.

Top 10 Households in Opportunity Areas

More Blog Posts In This Series