By Ryan McGreal
Published July 27, 2006
According to a report published on NPR's program All Things Considered, the average size of a house has more than doubled since the 1950s.
I think the reason houses keep getting bigger and bigger is that their owners need more and more room to replicate the civic amenities that are no longer available in newly built subdivisions.
Instead of parks, people have big lawns. Intead of community swimming pools, people have multiple back yard swimming pools. Instead of local cafes, restaurants, theatres, and movies houses, people have big TVs with digital surround.
My wife and I live with our children in a tall, narrow house built nearly a hundred years ago. It's about 1,200 square feet and has two large bedrooms and one bathroom. We only own one car (!), which we drive a total of about 8,000 km/year, and we don't have central air conditioning.
Our small back yard is shaded by a huge, mature Maple tree and stays quite cool even on extremely hot days. We've just decked it (the great thing about a 16' x 20' yard is that you can afford to deck the entire thing in cedar), which has given us an additional 320 square feet, at least for about seven months a year. We also have a front porch, which opens close to the street.
By the nominal standards of middle class suburbia, we're almost pitiably impoverished. Family members shrug their shoulders and chalk our lifestyle up to "bohemian tendencies" while they struggle to carry their huge mortgages and utility bills, car lease payments, and gasoline purchases for long commutes.
By contrast, we have very little debt, can walk or cycle to work, can raise our children without putting them into child care, have the time to prepare our meals from scratch (we both love to cook so this isn't a burden), and live in a wonderful, mature neighbourhood with several nearby parks, a community centre with a pool, track, and sports fields, a beautiful urban forest with great trails for hiking and cycling, and a nearby lake for canoeing.
Most important, our street is very neighbourly. We throw annual street parties and regularly invite neighbours back and forth to socialize. People who move onto the street are often amazed or taken aback at first, simply because they're not accustomed to the "porch culture", but quickly fall in love with it and wonder how they ever got along before, living in places where they didn't know anyone.
To conclude, I ask in all seriousness: is it better to replicate every civic amenity in private form in a huge house, or is it better to live in a neighbourhood where all those amenities, plus lots of social interaction with neighbours and friends, is beautifully arrayed within walking distance? What is a better quality of life? Which is richer?
Of course, there's no single answer that reflects everyone's values and needs. However, It's instructive that the municipal laws on the books in nearly every North American city actually prohibit the construction of traditional neighbourhoods and require the construction of sprawl development (so much for the free market), and houses in old neighbourhoods keep rising in price.
There's a reason why small Victorian houses in, say, Toronto's famous Annex neighbourhood fetch close to a million dollars on the real estate market: they're a scarce and valuable commodity, since no one's building them any more. I can't help but wonder how popular those huge suburban McMansions would be if buyers looking for a new home also had the choice of buying smaller houses in real communities.