Much of my time over the Thanksgiving break was spent helping my parents pack their belongings to move out of the home in which they raised me and my sister. Located about 20 miles north of Chicago, the house is in what could be called an old suburb, with a gridded street pattern, small lots, and walking distance to shops, library, and a train station to Chicago.
Regardless of this condition, the McMansion phenomenon is still to be found in the area, though more likely on the large blocks of adjacent streets with larger lots than this street and its smaller lots, where new houses -- between the size of the old ranches or colonials and the trendy McMansions -- crowd their lots and leave very little yard space. Well, looking out the back of my parent's house I noticed one possible scenario for achieving large houses on small lots:
Buy the next-door neighbor's lot, tear down the house, and plant grass! Yes, that open space directly behind my parent's yard used to be a house, a split-level 70s-era number, from what I recall. The orange-brick house on the right is a recent addition to the block (built after tearing down a one-story house about the size of my parent's house) that did this duty.
While the newfound airspace and light seems refreshing (though late, considering the move) it also strikes me as a cautious scenario for transforming "old" suburbs into "new" suburbs. Where critics of suburbia offer future scenarios that call for adding density to suburbs old and new, in effect filling in further the existing voids, this gesture, if writ large, would make the transformation of the suburbs into a more sustainable use of land close to impossible. Not only would it push houses even further out across the landscape, it would make the place affordable to only those that can afford two houses and pay property taxes on a relatively unused lot.
I can see my parent's suburb -- Northbrook, the home of Ferris Bueller and other John Hughes teen flicks -- as being desirable for the qualities I mentioned earlier, though the hypothetical application of this two-lot apparatus to the area would be similar to what's happening in Manhattan: the desirability of the place drives the price beyond the reach of the lower and middle classes (minus irregular, crowded situations). This isn't to say Northbrook is as desirable as Manhattan, but I do think that these and other old suburbs will become more desirable as people see the inferior nature of the new suburbs and attempt a scenario that tries to meld the two (walkability and other qualities of the old with the giant size of the new houses and lots) before other alternatives are tried and the tide turns.