A Suburban Future?

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.


  1. been a fan of your blog, great to see the town we grew up in as the feature of your blog.

  2. I think one big problem is that the owner of the two lots pays very little tax on the now vacant lot since property taxes mostly fall on buildings (80% on average) instead of land. If we reform the property tax law such that land was taxed at a higher rate and buildings at a lower rate fewer people would do what your parent's neighbors did.

    Want density? Tax land and relieve taxes on buildings and other improvements.

  3. old suburbs rule. i grew up in glenview. mixed feelings about The Glen, though.

  4. Well it would actually have to be rezoned as well to allow more density right? That way land would be more expensive and not affordable for a single family.
    I remember a suburb in Berlin where old huge mansions were turned into several mid to high end appartments. Some of it looked kind of akward, since you would have a huge double height balcony with doric columns for a small appartment, but it seemed like a good way to reuse the area.

  5. The same thing is happening in Skokie where I grew up because there is an ordincane that 50% of the property must be open. They are tearing down houses everytime I go home to visit. It's just awful the houses they build now. Btw have you seen what they have done to the old Jane Addams Center on Broadway in Chicago--it is a trainwreck.

  6. Your post today brought to mind the effort in places like Flint to integrate lots on which abandoned houses have been torn down in blighted neighborhoods by selling them to adjoning property owners. Aesthetically, I have the same reaction - whether in a nice suburb or a blighted one - it still looks like a hole in the streetscape most of the time.

  7. I don't see a "mansion". Have we gotten to the point that any new replacement house is called a "McMansion"? It's a huge distraction from the point you're trying to make.

    Certainly less density per acre is not the way we want to go.

  8. At least they bought the house next door and left yard.

    Take a tour around Hinsdale or Burr Ridge. There the tear downs are being built to cover almost all the lot.

  9. Thanks for the comments, everybody.

    sideofwisdom - Don't know if I've seen the Jane Addams Center. Old or new building? Any images?

    trevor - Good point. I wonder if that applies if they build a gazebo or some other sort of semi-habitable structure?

    cesar - Yep, more density requires rezoning, but less only requires more money on the part of the owner.

    hoopla - I'm saying the McMansion is the goal and this is a way for those to be built on smaller lots without them covering the whole lot (like aaron says) and not having that oh so desirable lawn. This is a speculation on what might happen, not on what's currently there.

  10. I agree with Alan Coren that the word "suburbia" should be replaced by the word "peripolitania" (from the Greek peri = around, polis = city) because suburbia implies a substandard urbia. However, it's where the vast majority of our population (86% in the UK) live but where architects rarely design for or study. Please join me in rebranding this important but ignored part of our built environment so that it gets the attention it deserves!

  11. Architecture today surely suffers from the young raw and bad mentality of the generations that are about to come and sadly the bling bling effect comes along with it in different shapes. Really hope that the mansion it self won`t dissapear or change it`s status two much.


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