what should architecture for the downwardly mobile be?


A number of threads here have prompted me to ask the question in the title of this thread, from the lonely hipsters to insecurity-borne discussions of race.

I think it's probably safe to say that large numbers of Americans born in the '70s and '80s and who grew up middle- and upper-middle class, are looking at that most un-American of prospects - structural inter-generational downward mobility, in income, lifestyle, employment prospects, housing, and so forth. The country (and the world) can no longer sustain the levels and forms of consumption that our parents benefited from and to which we are (many of us) accustomed. Environmental resources are only one aspect of this. National growth prospects (or the lack thereof) further constrain ambitions and hopes.

Rates of homeownership have fallen now for half a decade. The average size of homes have fallen by around 15%-20% over the last three years and that trend seems to be accelerating. Real unemployment for the young is somewhere between 25% and 70%, depending on who you ask and for which region. 1 in 4 persons in their 20s and 1 in 7 in their 30s, by one report, have simply moved back in their parents. And we are now entering the third generation born into a zero-to-no real per capita wage growth economy, where increasing debt, not income, fueled contentment for so many decades (and now that debt is no longer available). Few of us who grew up affluent have a shot at maintaining those expectations through our own efforts. Merit and achievement have largely been replaced (in our expectations) by our prospects for inheritance or by other forms of financial security (handouts) provided to us by the foresight for financial planning of our parents, and even that vast pool of savings is (for many) evaporating. One study suggests that half of those born between 1975 and 1985 will experience inter-generational downward mobility.

These changes have fueled resentment and apathy: ever-falling voting turnout among the young, tea-baggers and no-nothings, calling for recreationary solutions, and, of course, the uproar over what many believe to be the non-issue of illegal immigration.

Many urban planning and architectural movements actually seem to be about managing downward mobility, after the ideological and aesthetic bias of one group or another: the smart growthers and new urbanists want more density and transit orientation (which really means smaller homes, stacked up more densely, and a bus trip to and from work) and sustainability advocates want us to reduce carbon footprints and water use, even beyond purely technology-based solutions. All these things are good, but they bespeak diminished expectations at one level or another.

My question is, given this emerging American reality, what is an architecture of decline? What forms should cities of the more leisured (and downwardly mobile) take? How do diminished expectations, albeit for the still prosperous in any absolute sense of the term, look like in terms of housing, culture, leisure, retail, and work? What do cities where vast numbers of highly educated knowledge-workers go from underemployment to underemployment, job to job, without healthcare or other benefits, look like?

I know this will sound a bit whiney, for those who weren't raised in to experience the full glory of American consumer over-indulgence, but these trends are real, for vast numbers of people.. and that probably makes the issue worth discussing.

May 13, 10 2:56 pm

there is no architecture of decline. architecture is inherently optimistic. its goals may have to be more modest, but they'll still be positive.

there may be less building. there may be less flash. who knows, maybe there will be more preservation as a way to get a high quality building at a renovation cost instead of a new construction cost. (though the level of quality of the renovation may not be restoration caliber.)

but, all in all, if there is building, it won't be based in an architecture of pessimism. if you're not optimistic, you don't build.

May 13, 10 3:59 pm

"if you're not optimistic, you don't build"

I wish my boss hadn't thought this way. He and his optimistic clients crashed and burned with the market and now we are quite optimistic the judge will offer at least 30 cents to the dollar on what we are owed.

Come to think of it, I've never met an optimistic banker.

May 13, 10 4:13 pm

yes,but product types will change. Places of work change. the relationship between home and work will change. Yes, architecture is inherently optimistic, but the adverse change occurs, but, at the person-scale, buildings will stil be built.

Clearly, if I make a stable $150,000, a year as does my spouse, and some bank will lend me $700,000 to buy a $900,000 mcmansion, I can have the mcmansion, and a woppipng 90 minute commute in my SUV to get to and from the garage of my 50'-to-core office building, where I spend 40 hours a week.

But in 20 years, fewer people will be able to afford that mcmansion, the average work week will fall to, say, 34 hours a week, and that moving between multiple jobs/consulting assignments, and I probably will live closer to work. And work will be different too, since it is highly likely that I will work by myself or in temporary collaborations on projects with other independent contractors (one vision).

Housing will eventually come to provide different types of services, in close proximity, perhaps residents providing services to each other?

A few sites I found interesting:

May 13, 10 4:20 pm
Distant Unicorn

"there is no architecture of decline. architecture is inherently optimistic. its goals may have to be more modest, but they'll still be positive."

I disagree.

There is a ton of architecture revolving around pessimism, hate and avoidance.

To some people, a home like this says all sorts of positive things-- dream, hope, a reward for hard work, a new life and even suggests a sort of peace and tranquility that's inherent to the object creation.

To other people, a home like this says as many negative things-- self-segregation, dissolution of community, selfishness, environmental destruction, division of wealth from city-state, passive aggression and isolation.

One could say, "I moved here because I enjoy the peace and quiet of the outdoors." Others could counter with "I moved here because there aren't any n****rs in Colorado."

In fact, many of the public projects of the early to mid 20th century are born from pessimism and contempt. Housing projects were built like concrete zoos because the poor couldn't be trusted to take care of anything. High-rise towers were place in the middle of fields so that they would be as far away from people as possible. The fields that residents were visible 24 hours a day.

We have expensive homes with bomb shelters and panic rooms behind 12 foot high stone walls. Office parks locate themselves in desolate areas interconnected by hostile roads. There are even hospitals that don't have public entrances. There are beautiful buildings with armored reception areas surrounded by bulletproof glass. Metal detectors and dogs stationed at doors. From mazes entrances, to studded railings to spiked window ledges... architecture has proven itself to expect the lowest common denominator and to usher its citizens around as quickly as possible.

Even with all these negative aspects, it is hard to be optimistic. Optimistism can only truly exists when corruption fails to exist. Any plan, ploy or design to institute some new policy for change will always be corruptible. When people have their hope abused, they become callused to such claims.

Even with an optimistic attitude, merely acknowledging corruption or abuse means that you've come to except things are not always as they appear. And when your plans include plans to limit potential abuse, they migrated from optimistic and benevolent to pessimistic to malevolent. Even if you're fight for good, you're still fighting the fight.

You are battling corrupt practices with corruption. Optimism is for people who don't have problems. It's a nice sentiment, Steven, but it unfortunately does not exist.

May 13, 10 4:32 pm

Urbanist, i appreciate your skepticism. Downwardly mobile is a perfect encapsulation of this experience. It hints at our communal sense of entitlement. I hadn't heard downwardly mobile... if you coined that, i would get on that T-Shirt ASAP!

Anyway... the upwardly mobile concept required no optimism, it was a perceived inevitability. So, now that perception is gone, and just as there is no optimism required for entitlement, there doesn't need to be pessimism involved in the rearranging of our priorities and perceptions.

For our generation, spoiled rotten by boomers, it will be a shock. But for our children, it will be less a shock. And for our grand children, perhaps the static state of things will be their perceived inevitability. not-wardly mobile? .... yeah thats terrible i know...

As to this whole debacles impact on architecture. A realignment of priority towards denser development seems to be on the way. Beyond the ecological impact of the life style you describe, the economic impacts will render sprawl mostly obsolete soon enough. When/If that happens, there will still be a huge role for planers and architects, and when that time comes, i side with steven. The practice of building is inherently optimistic and positive by the sheer fact that it is a plan made for the future.

basically, i guess im saying lets hold off emoting about this impending restructuring. It does little good. Lets accept that our lives will not be like our parents, and begin in earnest a new type of trend, and perhaps a new type of mobility.

May 13, 10 4:45 pm
Optimism is for people who don't have problems

Hahaha that's one of the funniest mis-statements I've ever heard!

Nice post, lletdownl.

May 13, 10 4:53 pm

it sounds like unicorn is confusing optimism with morality and ethics. you can be immoral, inethical, and still be optimistic.

May 13, 10 4:59 pm

I think that's right lletdownl.

I didn't intend my question to be pessimistic or optimistic. It's going to happen. For those of us who grew up in middle (or upper middle) income America, there's almost no way we're going to have either the energy footprint, the land footprint or the monetary resources (relatively speaking) of our parents' generation... and our children will likely have less. The first two is simple math - more people, no more resources or land. The last one reflects the state of our economy.

This is not pessimism but rather a recognition that the change will give rise to new ways of living, and, ultimately, new design requirements (see those links I referenced upstairs). My interest, wearing a futurist's hat, is what we think those new requirements might be... as well as what we think some of the solutions may be.

Let's banish the pessimism about the new reality to the kill-all-illegals-architectonic-xenophobia thread a few below this one.

May 13, 10 4:59 pm

I thought this description of space at the Hub in Atlanta is interesting (it's a membership-based temp office complex for under-employed knowledge workers):

"Open Workspaces & Dedicated Desks: a variety of desk situations are available from the more publicly situated and interactive desks in the Open Workspace area to the option of a Dedicated Desk for full-time members in a quieter part of the Hub. This offers the flexibility of choosing your seat based on your particular tasks for the day or always knowing where you will be. Members have the option to purchase file moveable file storage to take where the go each day."

"The Open Workspaces are situated in the largest part of the Hub with furniture that will collapse or be repurposed for Events and Gatherings... Living Room area with sofa seating. This is a space for interaction with work."

"In the core area of the Hub, we have support spaces for members use with a Kitchen, Conferences Rooms (2), Coat Room Storage and Bathrooms (2). This includes a shower for Bike Commuters. Within this area, we have 4 impromtu meeting areas with smaller tables... As we develop, we would like to provide a communal table for lunches and a library of reference material based on topics of interest to the members..."

May 13, 10 5:27 pm

Isn't the big question here one of perception? If I live downtown, drive a motorcycle/moped/take the bus, live near work, and have a 1 or 2 bedroom condo/apartment, vs living 90 minutes away from work, driving and paying insurance on 3 gas guzzlers, having a huge house and lawn to take care of, why is the person living downtown "downwardly mobile."

"But in 20 years, fewer people will be able to afford that mcmansion, the average work week will fall to, say, 34 hours a week, and that moving between multiple jobs/consulting assignments, and I probably will live closer to work. And work will be different too, since it is highly likely that I will work by myself or in temporary collaborations on projects with other independent contractors (one vision)."

^ Honestly, that doesn't sound like a bad situation to me and is closer to lifestyle I'd prefer, vs. the traditional baby boomer ideal. I understand we're talking about a loss of spending power, but I and a lot of my coworkers choose to live in small apartments in denser, walkable areas rather than the suburbs (whatever those are in a place like LA).

Also, we should define more specifically what we mean by "having less." Maybe we can't consume as many perishable goods, but maybe we have access to more technology, more local events, cheaper local education or art initiatives, more interest in our communities. Perhaps we can be upwardly mobile through social recognition or simply having more leisure time.

May 13, 10 5:29 pm

I think those terms like "downwardly mobile" are sociological labels, intheloop. Good and bad things can be the result. Right now, the lifestyle you describe is relatively uncommon and a matter of choice for the bulk of, say, 10 to 15 million of the 140,000,000 American "middle class" workers. As our generation ages, that lifestyle (and other versions to come, where footprints and resources will even be more diminished), those lifestyles will become commonplace for, say, 100 million.. say, by 2050.

That would be a sea-change, requiring fundamental redesign and reprogramming of our cities. Suburbs may die altogether, the centers of cities may become things that can not yet imagine (right now, the centers are far too expensive psf to support the types of lifestyles they will eventually have to). Re-housing and providing new work environments for, say, 100,000,000 incremental people, with minimal resources and financing at hand, is a tall order for any society.. that space will by necessity require higher design components than what has come in the past.

For clarity, we would, in that scenario, be talking about the repurposing and reprogramming of 25 billion square feet in employment space and, say, 75 billion square feet in to-be-built housing. Assuming we have 40 years to do this, that's 2.5 billion square feet a year. I know this is making numbers up, but you can get an idea of the shear enormity of the task at hand... and this assumes that 2/3rds of the population stays put.

The questions here relate to the repurposing of vast population aggregates, not smaller adjustments to the lifestyles most of us, today, live by choice.

May 13, 10 6:16 pm
Justin Ather Maud

Unicorn Slaughter,

Damn, I think you've gone over to the dark side friend! Your posts are always so inspiring and intelligent. Hang in there! I'm upset, and feel like I have been in a coma for the last year, without the benefit of having lost my sentience.

Jail might be better, but I'm not sure.

May 13, 10 7:00 pm

Some of the previous posts focused on the negative/positive spin of the word choice "downwardly mobile" but I see all along you've wanted the discussion to be more projective, moving along then...

Wouldn't it be useful to look at other cities as case studies to see what works and doesn't and help decide what type of future we want to envision?

We could look at Tokyo or Hong Kong for visions of more efficient transport but at the same time ask how to create more used, public/private space to encourage social interaction. Or we could talk about overcrowding and unstable constructs in the favelas of Brazil, but also talk about how the density and focus on localism creates more social cohesion...

There will be a requirement for new construction to focus more on longevity. Could we talk about the design of public policy to encourage developers to build with an eye towards longevity? A crude example would be to tie the financial longevity of the developer to the project for a long time, but at the same time create incentives so they can still raise money and build. We could also start talking about public housing again.

I'm assuming with your posts above that you'd like to talk about addressing the design of new typologies? How do we repurpose or build new places that allow for more dynamic human interaction and can be more fluid.

One idea that's hot right now is providing wi-fi to the public. The blog City of Sound provides some insight into this. This post on Emergent Urbanism ( and this one on Creative Clusters ( provide some interesting ideas. The idea of using soft infrastructure to create adaptable places is useful since it can be done with more cost effectiveness and speed than the creation of large, more traditional infrastructure projects which take forever to build and are already obsolete by the time they're completed.

Of course, soft infrastructure won't solve "hard" problems like increased waste and the real need for more usable square footage. I think, however, the idea of creating multivalent clusters of people and services in existing urban fabrics that can be more easily linked via public transport will be one way to approach the problem.

Another interesting idea is to create a 3rd infrastructure of pathways, composed of existing roads, which become the exclusive domain of bicycles, mopeds, tut-tuts, etc. In the US especially, using existing infrastructure will be crucial.

May 13, 10 7:18 pm
Distant Unicorn

No. I'm not confusing optimism with ethics and morality. By definition alone,

Donna is right... it is a mis-statement.

The root of the word optimism is from the latin root "optimum." So, logically, optimism is the philosophical belief that every is or can be optimum.

In the world of planning, optimism leads to what is referred to as a planning fallacy due to optimism bias. The housing bubble was the result of optimism bias where the performance expectations were far too high and the perceived costs and benefits are poorly defined.

The reason I was reactionary to your post Steven is that planning should be, for the most part, devoid of pathos appeal. If a problem exists, the problem should be identified and resolved with out necessarily involving emotional appeal.

Instead of breaking down what are essentially urban planning issues with emotionally charged terms like optimism or pessimism, we should be looking at these issues in terms of yesterday, today and tomorrow (past, present and future).

People who don't necessarily have many financial burdens or who aren't stuck in cycles of poverty are afforded the ability to look at things 5, 10 or even 20 years from now. People who are impoverish or at-risk to becoming impoverished don't generally have realistic plans for the future as many of them are too busy or too burden with their problems of everyday.

May 13, 10 7:18 pm

In downtown LA, you have a lot of buildings that are zoned for industrial use, but the code also lets you use them for as both residencies, retail, and office space. As people have started to move downtown, many of these spaces, which had sat empty or little used for years, are able to be adapted according to the wants of specific people. So you have a large, abandoned storage building that's been reappropriated to house people, production studios, metal fabricators, and movie stars. The building itself is an adaptive infrastructure that market forces manipulate and change over time.

As a result of this gentrification, the rents for these places go up and up and that's where the discussion really starts. How can we craft policies or design spaces or develop properties that will address the needs of people moving in but also the people already there.

I mean, this is something we've been talking about for a long time that's occurred all over the US for the past 15 years or so. And also, how projective can we be about these issues in a large abstract sense before we have to address each metropolitan region on its own terms?

May 13, 10 7:33 pm

Has anyone else had to lower their definition of success, compared to their parents generation?

I had a single mother, raising two children, including my sister who was mentally disabled. Without a college degree, she owned her own home, had a car, a job with health benefits, vacation, etc, and has been able to save for her retirement.

I thought I was doing the right thing, took out loans to go to school, graduated with a college degree in architecture, was the president of a student architecture organization, sat on the board of directors of a statewide architecture organization, taught AutoCAD seminars when my school dropped it from the schedule (I've used AutoCAD since 1998), learned the things that I thought were "good" to learn in school.

I'm currently looking for minimum wage jobs at places like Barnes & Noble. Companies that I thought I would be applying for after graduation want people with Masters degrees, or prior office experience, or both. Companies that I have been working for pay minimum wage or just above, no health or retirement benefits, the most vacation days I've ever had were 3 days a year, I can't afford to buy a house, nor save for retirement or pay for health insurance. Having kids is out of the question. All of my money goes to rent, food, electricity, car insurance, and student loans. I have no hope of being able to retire, which is why I still smoke, I'd rather die of cancer at 50 than be forced to work in my 80's.

May 13, 10 7:56 pm

Seen Richard Wolff's "When Capitalism Hits the Fan" ? It helps explain how we got to the place M08 speaks of.

One possible advantage of lower building budgets -- not to hint of desperation in the planning and execution of structures -- might be that a long-time goal of modernism will be met: the stripping from space-enclosure of the luxurious materials we have come to expect. More bare concrete, brick, block, and [?] in place of stone and burl veneers. . .? Recycled pallet lumber as interior and exterior finish ? Load-bearing masonry made of used paving concrete ?

May 14, 10 12:13 am

sprawl has been around for at least 2000 years, and in its modern form is more than 200 years old. not sure why things going on today will mean urban forms/patterns in north america will change much. there is just as much a chance that suburbia and exurbia will simple get a bit denser and we will continue on our way towards USONIA. that is neither a pessimistic nor an optimistic thought to me. i imagine any urban form can work environmentally/socially/morally if we want them to...

as to downwardly mobile, my mum never had the opportunities i had. not even close. we are talking moon to earth gaps in potential here. and i can see my daughters have more opportunities than i did too, already. there will be change, but nothing about our current circumstances says it will be for the worse automatically.

May 14, 10 2:46 am
Distant Unicorn
May 14, 10 4:17 am
Distant Unicorn

Way to mess up a stacked bar graph, uni.

May 14, 10 4:27 am
Isn't the big question here one of perception? If I live downtown, drive a motorcycle/moped/take the bus, live near work, and have a 1 or 2 bedroom condo/apartment, vs living 90 minutes away from work, driving and paying insurance on 3 gas guzzlers, having a huge house and lawn to take care of, why is the person living downtown "downwardly mobile."

lolz@intheloop's yuppie moped driving lifestyle !!

you're lucky to have a job. Your life is not downsized just gentrified.

many of us can't afford even these basics after years of advanced training.

May 14, 10 8:50 am

markuse raises a good point. I think the type of urban lifestyles many of us live by choice are only the beginning. Imagine long-term, sustained underemplyoment for large numbers of knowledge-workers and others.. without even getting into the issue of what will happen to the 2/3rds of the population that don't get college degrees. Many may have to make do with the equivalent of what today might be $20,000 TO $50,000 per year indefinitely, well into their thirties, forties or beyond.

New types of living and new types of spaces will have to be built (or adapted) for these people. For example, neighborhood near-home work spaces might be developed where shared desk space could be leased for $20 to, say, $50 per month, with extra for a shared file cabinet or locker (from the Hub, Toronto Knowledge Centers, and other emerging work typologies cited above).. with all the front end amenities of a real office. Urban living has to get a lot cheaper. Obviously, cities and densities will become much more important, but rents have to come down significantly, with decent living accomodations (in shared accommodatons, perhaps) available for, say, $200 to $500 per month, even in major metropolitan centers.

You already see ad hoc adaptations of this type of thing in NYC neighborhoods like Crown Heights, Greenwood, Ditmas Park, Sunset Park, south Red Hook, etc. ($300 to $400 for shared loft living space, work at cafes). Also, how can suburban typologies (where parents live) be retrofitted with quarters for children who may be living at home until their late 30s)?

I think it's important to bear in mind that a lot of inner suburban housing stock in America's major cities was built mid-century and, thanks to some pretty flimsy standards, much of this is approaching end-of-life anyway... what they get redeveloped into, profitably for developers, is part of the question I'm asking here.

May 14, 10 9:51 am

Another part of the story is, of course, the expansion of the role for intentional communities - groups of likeminded people who functon as quasi-families, sharing resources and pooling funds - Seth Godin's "tribes" if you will.

These communities already have real implications for the design of new housing in cities like San Fran and Portland, and with implications for adaptive reuse strategies in LA and NYC.

May 14, 10 9:59 am

Essentially I think the US will become more like the rest of the world. Educated people will have to scrape by on 20,000 a year from things like driving cabs and other odd jobs, potentially in the black market.

Life will lose some of modernity's compartmentalization between labor and leisure, but it will be due to struggle not some sort of pure self actualization.

As far as architecture goes I think you will see more of the live/work type spaces you seen in Latin America and Asia. This would obviously lend itself more to denser living conditions than the US has.

Suburbs that cannot or will not densify will perhaps see a return to agriculture or heavy industry?

I've been having this conversation with different people in Scandinavia and the US, and David Harvey often comes up. Maybe some sort of political movement could emerge from these conditions. Ramifications for architecture could be unconventional ownership conditions or squatting.

Maybe architects could play a role here.

May 14, 10 10:32 am

I think this emerging realty we talk about is generational and for us people born between 1975 - 1985 its phenomenal. I grew up in a borough of NYC, went to college in NYC and left after I graduated. I just recently returned and the differences are un-real. the neighborhoods once filled with immigrants and international flavors have taken on this generation. These neighborhoods have a new identity, including, housing, culture, leisure, retail, and work.

Gentrification is part of this downward mobility. City centers will not exist... they cant exist, the cost of living in them for the average person is unreasonable. The majority of people will not reproduce, city centers will be more frequent with greater identity, we will work more for less, pay greater taxes, never have the luxury to retire or travel, the dollar will be worth less than the peso, the health of the country will continue to decrease as long as its run privatively and traded publicly. Its pretty amazing watching it all unfold... I will start smoking too.

May 14, 10 10:41 am


Mario Cucinelli's Euro100,000/unit townhouse

May 14, 10 11:03 am

"lolz@intheloop's yuppie moped driving lifestyle !!"

^ said the guy wandering northern Europe who went to an expensive art school and gets to wander around on a fellowshop. Yeah, you are so poor and downtrodden.

May 14, 10 11:45 am

Anyway, markuse & urbanist, despite the fact that I'm a yuppie and you guys are the salt of the earth, I don't think we fundamentally disagree on the direction that urban places are heading in.

Might we see more work by developers like Aravena's Elemental, where new construction is a basic shell that people have to finish out themselves? Again, there's already a lot of places in US inner-cities that exemplify your principles of having shared loft space, sharing of resources, tools, and labor with flatmates and neighbors, etc. It's already here.

May 14, 10 12:11 pm

haha touché...

I had a streak of luck but I was looking at 6 months of unemployment and i would still trade it for $60,000 a year and a 40 hr workweek.

also ill be back in the market afterwards

May 14, 10 12:23 pm

yes.. it is already here and growing quickly.. the interesting question to see is how fringe proofs of concept get deployed on a vast scale, in both inner cities and suburbs, and for customers/users accustomed to their conservative suburban lifestyles. Understanding the nexus of the formal consequences of structural underemployment for an entire generation and the management of expectations is what makes this topic compellnig and interesting.

How do you design imperial contraction and diminishing expectations?... in a way that will help give rise to a new set of expectations, that'll take us toward whatever comes next.

I see this as a problem as large-scale and complex asthe post-war mass-housing movement (to create suburban homes for tens of millions of households coming off the GI-Bill).

May 14, 10 12:23 pm
Distant Unicorn

I didn't feel like writing an explanation at the time but my above graph shows a few things.

When it comes to interference by the government, you have to pick your battles. Unfortunately or fortunately, it is going to be difficult to change the spending habits of general Americans. My assumption is that altering how we live and travel would effect less of the overall economy than where we go, what we buy and we spend our money on. The U.S. is predominate a service-based economy with a deep consumerist culture.

That explains my break down of budget (information I've gathered from the Bureau of Labor Statistics [specifically Consumer Units data]):

Housing-- includes not only just housing but taxes, furniture, maintenance and clean supplies

Transportation-- includes owning or leasing a vehicle, fluids, gasoline, maintenance

Utilities-- power, heating oil, water, sewage and communications

Cash Expenses-- entertainment, alcohol, tobacco, apparel and travel

Non-negotiable-- health care, personal care products, personal insurance, savings, education

Without changing the dynamics of the local market, the only two that are interchangeable is essentially transportation and housing.

And at a nominal $337 dollars a month, you can't rent very much housing in the U.S. for that. Transportation-to-housing expenses are at something like 65% which is completely unreasonable. By reducing the VMT (vehicle miles traveled), we can adjust the amount of income from transportation to housing with a basic 50% reduction in VMTs for increases in densities.

The ratios depict that at the moment, nominal development patterns stipulate that this age group spends roughly 27% of their income on housing. This is surprisingly low since the average for the United States is around 35% (closer to the ratio seen in New Urbanist budgetary expenses for this age bracket).

The fundamental problem here is neglecting changes in local real estate costs, the only way for someone to theoretically afford housing would approach hardline urbanism.

The last graph depicts the number of tools already used by the government to manipulate rents without necessarily affecting the amount of rental income generated from the property (i.e., changing the base cost but not affecting the markup). Remember, $150,000,000,000 is given out in the form of tax breaks for low-income housing every year (that's enough money to build 150,000 $300,000 1500 sq.ft. homes).

This group despite living at like 30% below poverty level is approximately 88% white, Asian or Hispanic and 72% of them have college degrees. This, aside from one other income bracket, is the highest educated bracket... it also seems to be both the whitest and poorest demographic in the United States!

This is a big issue right now is how to build $500 a month one bedroom apartments that allow individuals to keep buying what they would normally buy while eliminating their need for personal transportation.

However, since this age group and the age group after it make no capital purchase, make no furniture purchases and spend relatively little amount of money on appliances-- the economy of the United States will ultimately begin to suffer unless we find a way to either increase incomes or decrease personal expenses.

So, free housing? minimal transportation? No expenditures on lattes and healthcare? It's not my call but the real estate industry certain isn't spending their trillions of dollars in profit in reinvesting into a segment of society who might need their services in 5-10 years. Of course, they'll be to broke by then!

May 14, 10 12:39 pm
Distant Unicorn

Also, the $13,000 income bracket applies to senior citizens and single mothers (and single fathers). So, there's good motivation in helping the very-low-income bracket as helping young people will also help old people and disadvantaged families.

"How do you design imperial contraction and diminishing expectations?"

No offense... but HAHAHAHAHAHAHAH.
I'm not laughing at your question. I'm laughing at history.

I don't think there's ever been a society that has ever successfully pulled this off. In fact, national contraction tends to be the downfall of most societies. You could do what the Romans did from ~400 C.E. onwards and fractionate the nation into different states and then constantly move the administrative centers around.

The United States (and Canada) is tricky in that regard because of the near constant settlement. People have often permanently settled land that was supposed to be only temporarily settled-- i.e., resource extraction, temporary agriculture (grazing) and support services related to the two.

And that's a big issue with the placement and development of cities is more often than not, many of them were suppose to stop existing but stubborn people have stuck it out.

May 14, 10 12:46 pm

Yeah, I realize I sound like a bit of a d-bag on some of those posts. The fact that I'm employed has more to with luck than with any type of skills or foresight I have. I think we're all seeing this, most of my friends have been laid off and I've been waiting for the shoe to drop on me for awhile, trying to save up money while the going's good.

In other words, for those of us with work (and I realize I'm very fortunate) a lot of us are "downgrading" ahead of time in anticipation of what's to come. That being said, living with more people and pooling resources, taking public transport, sharing what I've got with other people are all things I should've been doing in the first place.

Long term, most of us (myself included) will be forced into this kind of situation permanently. I guess what I'm saying is it will tough on many ways but also makes you think more collectively, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Urbanist, might Jump have a good point about things simply becoming slightly denser? If you look at the early development of LA, efficient public transport initially enabled the sprawl of the city. I mean, if communities allocated less resources to cars (because they will become unaffordable) and more to buses, and in really large areas, light rail, then won't a lot of people be able to bike and take the bus? There's already a large housing stock in the US in the form of suburbs. There's the very real possibility that people (in the US) just stay put, watch their lifestyles slowly (or quickly) decline, but choose to downgrade in this way.

On another note, are cities in the US growing right now? Large metropolitan areas like LA, NYC, and sunbelt cities are shrinking, right? Urbanist, you're arguing that this is a temporary condition and dwindling resources will force us all to come together and pool resources. Jump is arguing (channeling Bruegmann perhaps?) against the doomsday predictions. What if people stay put in their suburban homes and slowly learns to deal with less, or tempered their downward mobility with new technology?

Lots of points to consider here, it's always hard to predict the future. Markuse, congrats on your success. Those Navir guys are not just part of the future but a little bit of the present.

May 14, 10 12:54 pm

unicorn slaughter - where is your source for those graphs?

In copenhagen its very interesting to see the rise and fall of the squatting movement with economic trends. Seems like this is our "housing boom" and the question is how do we react as architects.

As unicorn points out the usa is in a different situation than europe. Perhaps this is also why you see more of the "back to the land" new age organic farming culture in the US than in europe.

May 14, 10 12:56 pm

right Unicorn, a lot of people in the US simply will not leave their homes, no matter what. There's a lot of pride in owning some land, no matter how unattractive the lifestyle that comes with that ownership might be to others.

We're either headed to a state closer to Brazil, where you have even higher income inequality that in the US (or China for that matter) or there will be some kind of redistribution of the wealth, be it through increased labor organization, new industries that require skilled labor that can't be offshored for a long period of time, or high taxation on extremely wealthy individuals.

Also, remember the US economy contracted markedly during the Great Depression 1 and also there were a lot of large boom and bust cycles in the years leading up to the Civil War. I mean, the depression of 1839 sound like it was pretty shitty (I wasn't alive then so I can't be sure) and the economy after that continued to go up and down until the War. There seems to be a rough trend (it's only happened twice) where we get in a rut and it takes a war to bring us out of it. Hopefully this time we can find another way to drive growth or somehow acclimate ourselves to dimished standards rather than going the traditional route.

May 14, 10 1:07 pm

plz post more people like elemental who are exploring new modes of operating in this coming era!

May 14, 10 1:09 pm
Distant Unicorn

They're derived from the BLS Consumer Units. The under 25 Consumer Unit is technically two people at ~$29,000 a year. So, I split it into two to illustrate what the general budget of a single young American is.

I then manipulated the transportation expenses (based on reductions in vehicle miles traveled per living pattern) to adjust what could be allocated towards housing if personal transportation expenses dropped.

I did not adjust what the real costs where (that's like 8 excel spreadsheets worth of fun!).

In either situation or scenario (and I don't know if there is where I live or not) but a person cannot rent anything for $400 a month. Maybe $600 or $700 ... and those are really rough neighborhoods. When you don't have people continuing the housing cycle, the housing cycle slumps. And we all known what a slumped cycle feels like!

But without high occupancy rates and new home purchases, this affects the real estate market as a whole. A derailed housing cycle leads to blight which further turns into decay. While urban housing markets have always been the sterling example of this, someone in this thread has pointed out that many suburbs are reaching their end-of-life age. In another decade, one of the largest housing booms (the 1980s) will also be hitting its end-of-life cycle.

Without support for the young of this country into moving them into stable housing situations, there will be fewer individuals from purchasing homes or refurbishing homes in these potential blight prone areas.

May 14, 10 1:16 pm

A couple off the top of my head would be Caracas Think Tank who did work on the new gondola up a hill in Caracas.

Herzog & deMeuron's new parking structure in Miami, while not necessarily intended to benefit the downwardly mobile, provides an interesting case about potential reappropriation of parking garages. You've got these large solid structures that could become redundant if people aren't driving cars as much. All you need is some drywall and exhaust and you could live in them.

Teddy Cruz is pretty popular, that "design like you give a damn" guy,

These guys in Caracas did a phenomenon map of ways Caracas residents have adapted to their perilous situation:

May 14, 10 1:16 pm

i like urban think tank and teddy cruz alot, but I'm interested in a north american context....perhaps there isn't an equivalent here yet?

Also both those guys exist in academia...

May 14, 10 1:18 pm

Yeah, it's hard to find examples in a north american context. There's a lot of nonprofits that do work on affordable housing, but it's not often very glamorous, interesting work so you don't hear about it much.

I wish I knew more about this, but there's some kind of free market (at least in California) where developers exchange tax credits in an effort to make their affordable housing projects more attractive to investors. If anyone knows more about this, it'd be cool to get a good explanation of how it works.

But again, there's really a problem here with everything being profit-based. I'm not against this type of development, per se (it keeps me employed) but a shift towards some type of public housing, which has been a dirty word and concept for so long, might be appropriate and offer a counterbalance. People forget that there was a time, before the late 60s - present when government wasn't a bad word.

May 14, 10 1:27 pm
This is a big issue right now is how to build $500 a month one bedroom apartments that allow individuals to keep buying what they would normally buy while eliminating their need for personal transportation.

I don't really understand the emphasis on people living alone - I've always had roommates and this allowed me to live cheaply in one of the most expensive cities in the country. the first several years I lived here I paid $300/month on rent (and $200 more on expenses) - only because I shared a 4 bedroom apartment with 7 other people. Not many people can live this way, but I think this ideal of individualism even when it comes to living/transit has really got to change. It's much cheaper to share expenses - and the reason why you see large immigrant families living under the same roof. when you have several individuals in the household bringing in income at a little above minimum wage and grandparents providing childcare, it makes a $2000/month rent seem far more manageable.

personally - I think middle-class white americans need to make a major cultural shift and start living like the rest of the world in terms of family - meaning, multiple generations sharing a single residence. One of the big shocks for people coming to this country is homelessness - the common response is "why would a family let that happen?" - There isn't this emphasis on people going off on their own immediately after graduation elsewhere. moving back in with parents? I don't see how that is a big deal - in many other countries people live with their families until they get married - although the difference is that their families still live in or near the city and they can get around pretty easily.

also - large families living together can support higher levels of systemic unemployment in the workforce - unfortunately healthcare in this country prevents people who'd rather contribute domestically from not working (i.e. family members other than a spouse or non-adult child). you cannot take time off work to care for an elderly parent - you have to continue working and ship them off to a nursing home. same thing if you have kids - you have to keep working and ship them off to daycare. Our entire society is set up to force us to work and pay for things that would have historically been taken care of by family.

of course we'd all believe that this is unproductive - that we'd have a large adult population not contributing to the GDP and mooching off of the rest of us, but isn't that the point of automation? that entire families wouldn't have to work in order to make ends meet?

if "downward mobility" forces us to place more emphasis on family and staying put than the individual heading off on their own, I cannot see how this is a bad thing.

and in terms of architecture - I think the emphasis should not be on cheap housing for the individual, but on affordable housing and services that promotes multi-generational living. of course this won't be as profitable for developers (as they make more money the more units they sell), but it's far more sustainable.

May 14, 10 2:19 pm
Distant Unicorn

Well, one issue is with the one bedroom apartment is that so few of them actually exist (and those that do exist are incredibly expensive).

About 40% of all single-family homes in the U.S. are currently being rented by singles or couples. If one obviously has the income, does renting a $700-900 apartment a month make any sense when you can buy a 1,500 sq. ft. home for the same price?

When you have singles (or couples) buying up large amounts of family home, it puts more strain on families for many reasons:

It drives up the price of real estate which in turn drives up property taxes. School districts may benefit from singles but an area that has a lot of childless households will not get the kind of education budget that an area with more families in it might. There's a variety of other issues in involving densities and funding. Not to mention, developers might be getting misappropriated tax money for meeting density bonuses despite the number of actual residents inhabit a construction project.

Single people (and unmarried couples) pay higher taxes, get less tax benefits and more often than not rarely qualify for any meaningful welfare. For this segment of society (and especially for people aged 25 and under), cheap housing maybe the only effective form of welfare. Most middle-class and upper-middle-class children are often deemed dependent on their parents for much of their early adulthood and therefore cannot apply for or qualify for welfare, housing and financial aid programs.

Let's not forget to point out that obvious-- many people absolutely loathe their families. My family? I'd rather die in a fire than live with them for "10 years of the best part of my life."

May 14, 10 2:52 pm

Thanks for the personal finance analysis, Unicorn.

One factor to consider though is that, for those lucky enough (because it's nothing more than that) from generous boomer parents, that relatively low income is often supplemented by parental handouts (often in the form of a rent subsidy). This type of wealth transfer (handouts, rent subsidies, allowances, trust funds, inheritance, beggery, guilt-tripping, whatever form it takes) has to be considered, until that particular gravy train runs out. Wealth transfers will cushion the transition for many, perhaps providing enough financing to catalyze the type of transitional development that's needed.

I think as a whole, intotheloop is right about morphologies at a whole becoming slightly denser, but remember 3-4% of the housing stock is replaced every year now, and that will accelerate as the first two generations of suburban sprawl approach end-of-life. The question is, do we build more of the same or, with personal finance difficulties, does the next iteration look different. Americans are conservative. Many people I know, in their thirties, choose to live in small condos and apartments in the same neighborhoods they grew up in, where their parents still live in their childhood mcmansions. They recognize that they will never be able to afford a mcmansion of their own or even to pay the taxes on their parents' mcmansions should they eventually inherit, but they still stay around for nostalgia's sake, or something.. or just to be in a clean, well-lit, safe part of town.

Tell me if I'm wrong, but weren't the mid-century European experiments with mass housing about designing for decline? Dutch housing unit sizes fell by something like 40% at some point in the 50s to 70s.

May 14, 10 4:26 pm

Great thread!

May 14, 10 4:41 pm

In CA, Single Room Occupancy units - circa 150-300 sq ft apartments with shared bathrooms and other facilities - are now being commercially developed as new products (primarily in San Diego and San Jose). In San Diego's downtown, SRO's actually have a 0 parking space per unit requirement.

May 14, 10 5:05 pm

Urbanist, you've had a really good point throughout this thread about the short-term shelf-life of most of suburbia. Most of these spec homes are only designed to last 20-30 years. So you've got this system in place that's designed to perpetuate waste and keep itself lumbering along.

At the same time, there's an opportunity here, since we haven't been building for longevity's sake, to really reinvision how we live. And a large part of that is one of taste and cultural preferences.

When the GI's came home from the war and the US started the mass production of houses, it was somewhat inevitable that many people would have to live on these large suburban tracts. Instead of thinking about it in a negative light, mass marketing and government programs were able to make the transition pretty smooth.

What I was trying to allude to in my posts above, beyond just sounding like a yuppie defending his privileged lifestyle choices, was that the "choice," which could likely become a need, need not be seen in a completely negative light, and perception is pretty huge if we're talking about mass demographic shifts and even consumer spending as a whole. If people perceive the move to shared housing or the consumption of less physical goods as an "upgrade" in some ways, then the transition could be smoother, consumer spending could shift from goods that damage the environment to more intangible "soft" goods, and that's assuming that the nature of consumption as we know it doesn't shift in the process.

The practice of building for short-term profits is very likely unsustainable. I think we've got to figure out how to craft new types of policies, be they public or private or a mix of the two, that encourage building for the long-term. What comes with that, and I think what gets to the heart of Urbanist's questioning, is that it becomes much more important to think about the ramifications of our urban and infrastructure planning, since we won't just be building for 20 years, but closer to 50-100.

Do we sit back and let market forces decide how we're going to live and hope things turn out ok, or do we try to craft some policies to guide development, or do we turn back to public housing as a way to mediate the change?

May 14, 10 5:23 pm

cool, thanks for posting those projects urban.

May 14, 10 5:23 pm

are these public or private projects?

May 14, 10 5:24 pm

nm now i see firsthousing is a nonprofit

May 14, 10 5:27 pm

1st housing is a non-profit. I've worked recently with a couple non-profit developers doing similar work, although it's less design-oriented.

May 14, 10 5:28 pm

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