Get a Bird's-Eye View of the Housing Patterns of America

Even before Google allowed anybody with an online connection to find a satellite view of everywhere on the globe, I loved looking at novels with aerial photography. A Couple of favorites that focus on natural and human-made landscapes of America are Alex S. MacLean’s Designs on the Land: Exploring American from the Air, Dolores Hayden’s and photographer Jim Wark’s A Field Guide to Sprawl and Alan Berger’s Drosscape: Wasting Land in Urban America.

Flipping through these novels again lately prompted me to look at America’s housing patterns in Google Maps, especially areas for which high-resolution, 45-degree aerial imagery is available. The collected views reveal the diversity of the nation’s suburban housing in terms of scale and form, but also that much of it is exactly what MacLean explains as “monotonous, sterile, wasteful and pedestrian unfriendly. It’s missing a bigger plan that goes past the responses to market forces, finances and restrictive regulations.”

But all hope isn’t lost, as we will see. So come along on a trip over America, taking in the good and the bad, the ordinary and the weird. All the views are in exactly the exact same scale (a bit less than 1/2 mile across).

Suburbia. The suburbs in the United States take many forms, with evolved, like cities, over time in the 19th century to today. This picture of Katy, Texas, (near Houston) is of this kind that frequently springs to mind when we think of the suburbs. It’s really a design that is somewhat indicative of developments in the 1960s and ’70s. Instead of following a grid, like before suburbs did, the streets are curved. But unlike after suburbs, where the cul-de-sac predominates, the streets are interconnected and have no more than the occasional cul-de-sac.

Suburban-urban grid. As cities grew in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they tended to follow the grid that Thomas Jefferson laid down in the 18th century. This view of Buffalo, New York, illustrates the adherence to the grid in addition to relatively tiny lots and houses compared to what we see today. Many regions like this were suburban but have since become incorporated into many cities. Their density (amount of housing units or inhabitants per acre) is higher than that of succeeding suburbs. Another major difference occurs in the presence of alleys, which disappeared following the post–World War II boom; nevertheless, we will see some recent advancements after that attempt to bring back alleys for garages and services.

Fairway housing. This view of Bend, Oregon, is fairly typical of suburban houses bordering golf courses. Their fronts face the streets that serve them while the backs face the fairways and greens of the golf holes. Developments with houses and golf courses are now quite common. The design of these streets, houses and golf courses must work together, though each has its own needs. As I pointed out in a post on walkability, golf course developments are extremely car dependent, provided it is crucial to drive a great distance for retail, industrial and other providers.

Multifamily island. At the middle of the aerial shot of Bloomington, Indiana, is a multifamily housing development composed of about a dozen flat buildings. Typical of much of the suburban landscape, the development is segregated from everything that surrounds it, such as the retail on the left. Residents need to drive to it via one of two entrance roads. Note the recreation centre with a pool that functions the flat buildings, in addition to the monumental quantity of surface parking.

Greenfield housing. One of the most used aspects of sprawl is how land formerly used for agriculture and forests is designed for roads and housing. This view of Columbus, Ohio, reveals some houses that are pushed into the edge (for now), likely serving homeowners that can’t afford houses nearer to urban or other industrial cores. 1 way to tell that is the “end of the line” is the simple fact the power lines do not extend to the right.

Correction: The electricity lines do stretch into the right, angled into the south and east.

Fly-in houses. Initially this view of Cameron Park, California, might look quite average of the suburbs, but a few odd things come to the fore: Those streets are mighty wide (compare them with all the street in the base), and the left-to-right street in the middle of the photograph is connected to a runway. Yes, this really is a neighborhood of fly-in housing, as Alan Berger calls it in his book Drosscape. Following landing, residents can park their airplanes into hangars attached to their houses.

Canal houses. A variation on fairway housing, though not quite as popular, is canal housing. Just envision the waterways between these houses in Palm Valley, Florida, as fairways. Although this sort of strategy — where water is used for both recreation and (to a lesser degree) transportation — makes some sense on the Florida coast, it may also be found in the desert Southwest and other regions where water scarcity will point to more appropriate choices.

Houses on the water. Canal housing can provide the look of living on the water, but the prior example shows how the suburban standards (streets, yards) are still preserved. Houseboats, on the other hand, offer the fact of life on the water (waves and) in addition to the ability to move from one slide to another, or perhaps to a different town. This “area” of houseboats in Sausalito, California, is nearer to the kind of boat docks than suburban sprawl … although I guess each walkway can be seen as a cul-de-sac.

Radiating sprawl. Sun City, Arizona, is arguably the very first retirement community in the USA, began in the 1960s near Phoenix. The neighborhood has numerous radial “pods” with retail facilities, a strip mall in this circumstance. This pod comprises two types of houses — detached on the left and right semidetached on the right — and distinct landscapes to cooperate with them. I’m guessing the semidetached houses with bud predate the detached houses with xeriscaping, provided the taste for single-family houses and the water problems the desert Southwest needs to take care of.

Cul-de-sac segregation. Founded in Sun City, Arizona, is the more prevalent kind of suburban housing composed of curling streets and cul-de-sacs. What draws my attention is the line in the middle of the photo, where fences separating two developments have been casting shadows. This line illustrates how the houses on either side are sequestered from one another by the means by which the advancements are cut up and the streets are laid. A person visiting someone in the house right behind them must drive for five minutes to do this (or hop the fence) as other streets or pedestrian routes are not provided.

Trailer park. Occupying the middle of the photo is a sizable development of mobile homes, or trailers. It’s located at Glenview, Illinois, a suburb north of Chicago near where I grew up. I was constantly amazed to find mobile homes in the region, and it seems like it’s lived the encroachment of semidetached housing and big-box retailers on either side. Not surprisingly, the mobile homes are not directly connected to either; residents need to utilize the four-lane street on the right to get anyplace.

Gated community. Under a mile north of this mobile home park is a much more common kind of suburban development, a gated neighborhood. The principal entry, and so the gate, is located between the two ponds on the ideal side of the aerial photograph. There’s one additional way in (at bottom left), but I’m guessing it’s for emergencies. So the combined detached and semidetached houses are linked to the remaining part of the region via the entry and the exact same four-lane street as the mobile home park.

Residential fingers. The sprawl around Phoenix frequently stops in the bases of hills, sometimes as hard edges but also as fingers that intertwine with the natural capabilities. Here are a few “fingers” in Chandler, south of the city. What I find fascinating is that the street on the left does not have direct access into this four-lane street in the base; instead residents need to push through the other finger to go anyplace. In fact, this is not surprising, given a close look reveals that this for a tiny gated neighborhood.

Tract mansions. Dolores Hayden, in A Field Guide to Sprawl, defines a tract mansion (her term) as “a large, expensive house [4,000 square feet and] constructed among homes that are very similar with a subdivider who builds on speculation.” These houses in Grand Junction, Colorado, appear to fit the bill. It’s hard to miss that every lot has a detention pond, but more subtle is the northsouth line between the houses on the left and right; even with curling streets laid out by developers, the Jeffersonian grid is still there.

Transit-oriented Improvement. Alternatives to status quo suburban developments are increasingly popular, though they are barely realized at near the exact same pace. 1 alternative is the transit-oriented development (TOD), which provides increased density and mixed uses at transit nodes. Highland Gardens Village at Denver, planned by Peter Calthorpe, is charged as a TOD, though the nearby transit is a bus line, which isn’t as perfect as light rail. This project occupies land that was formerly an amusement park. Now it is a mix of single- and multifamily housing and a network of shared open spaces.

New urbanism. Another alternative is jobs that follow the charter of this Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), “the major organization promoting walkable, mixed-use local development, sustainable communities and healthy living conditions,” according to the group’s site. The well known CNU developments include Seaside and Celebration, both in Florida, the latter developed by the Walt Disney Company. Also in Florida is your CNU Baldwin Park project in Orlando, shown here, which sits on a former army base. In this view we may see the mixed-use core and also the residential at the lower right. Much criticism found at new urbanism asserts that it is suburbia in fresh (neotraditional) clothing; the street-front buildings concealing inside blocks of surface parking are cases in point.

Sustainable urbanism. There’s a good deal of overlap between TOD, CNU and renewable urbanism; every has been pitted against suburban sprawl, and each has a good deal of traditional urbanism in its core. Sustainable urbanism “integrates walkable and diverse places with high-performance infrastructure and buildings,” a Douglas Farr, the author of Sustainable Urbanism. He highlights the Holiday Neighborhood project in Boulder, Colorado, a mixed-use community intended by Barrett Studio Architects with higher-than-average density for the Region. The project features its own green building guidelines, which go past the city’s own program, and the streamlined street pattern promotes connection and walking.

These past three examples are markedly different than most of the other layouts shown earlier, indicating that there are alternatives for people who want to live more responsibly without living in cities. Or to put it another way, there are choices to the housing that author Alex MacLean explains as “monotonous, sterile, inefficient and pedestrian unfriendly.”

More: Back into the Future of the House

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