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The 5 American lifestyles

Cartoon by Doug Savage

Cartoon by Doug Savage

Toyota's Model Selector

Toyota's Model Selector

Smart businesses know that customers come in many different stripes. An example I used to use is that of Toyota, which at one point had 20 different models of cars in addition to its upscale brand Lexus and "hip" brand Scion. Toyota wasn't trying to make one or two cars and assume people will like them - it understood that it needed a product to fit the wide variety of potential buyers.

In housing and real estate, we've tended to be much more uniform and not appreciative of the differences in customers. If you are a two parent, two kid family, it's clearly understood that you want a four bedroom house with a lot of land. If you are a single person you obviously must want a loft apartment in the city.

Nuance is rare.

It's even worse with public perception and the media. Since journalists tend to simplify every argument into an "us" versus "them" mentality, we get the reductionist city person or country person phenomenon. Occasionally (if we're lucky) that broadens to city or suburb or country.

One of many Transect diagrams produced by DPZ Architects & Planners

One of many Transect diagrams produced by DPZ Architects & Planners

For years, the New Urbanism has used the Transect as a framework to graphically portray the different living environments humans might undertake. Ranging from rural to urban, the 6 categories have become common lingo in the planning world.

I've liked and used (and likely will continue to use) the Transect often - it's a giant leap forward in bringing some intelligence to the world of planning and development. This has been critical since so many of our rules and laws are simplistically set up for only one or two categories of physical environment. It's been terrible for both rural and urban areas, since we've imposed so many one-size-fits-all solutions. The Transect has been a great tool to add variability to everything from storm water practices to housing types to street design and more.

As the practice of planning and form-based coding evolved, however, the theory of the Transect has devolved more into zoning speak, since the categories translate quite easily to regulatory language. That can actually be useful (though there's wide disagreement on this) but I'd like to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

As I critique demographic studies and look at what the market is for urban living, I'm a bit obsessed about wanting to understand the different kind of living environments that people really want. What are our true lifestyles, not what we might idealistically draw or imagine? An "apartment building" is one thing, but it's never isolated. It's part of a true lifestyle. The same is true for a house, a loft and more. What are the true lifestyles present in America and can be understood with some study?

The Transect makes for a great theory, but like most theories has trouble translating well to reality. How many "hamlets" are there in the US? How many areas with truly protected lands? The rural end of the scale fails a great deal, pervasive suburbia is left out (there's a joke about the suburban transect here) and something about the differentiation in the urban end always bothered me. That's also not to mention there's just something kind of quasi-religious about the ubiquitous use of "T zones" as a language that rubs me wrong.

So, since I aim to offer solutions, not just critique, here's my thinking on the five different lifestyles that exist in America. These are the place we actually live in, the real human habitat in 2014. Whether we are discussing a large metro area or a rural region dotted with small towns, this is my suggestion. The only difference is in the size of the potential market.

  1. Big-city urban. We really only have a handful of environments like this, but these are characterized as bigger than walk-up living. Lots of commerce and lots of street life. 
  2. Small-city urban. Much more common than big-city urban, these are places that the scale is walk-up. Buildings are mostly attached or have a diverse mixture of both attached and detached. Commerce is extensive, but not nearly as much as big-city urban.
  3. Small-town urban. Taking a step down in scale, these are the many neighborhoods and subdivisions built mostly with detached housing but still in a walkable place. They are generally great for biking but not as convenient for walking since the population density is too low to support much commerce. The commerce that does exist is small scale, essentially serving the neighborhoods. What makes this category interesting is that it runs the gamut from late 19th century streetcar suburbs through early 1960's suburbia. The streets are largely a gridded network and the scale is generally modest for everything.
  4. Late suburbia/exurbs. This is really everything built from generally the mid 1960's through the early 21st century. They are characterized by disconnected networks of places, a hyper segregation of uses and larger-scale everything. Whether it's office parks, shopping, subdivisions, apartment complexes, parks or more - it's all big. And, most importantly, you'll need a car to get anywhere. 
  5. Rural. The rural lifestyle is everything from large lot houses and acreages to farms. They're generally not part of a town or city even though some might be in an incorporated area. Driving is a requirement, but since lots are large it's also possible to easily grow food and have animals. There's very little to no commerce.

Big-city urban

Small-city urban

Small-town urban

Small-town urban

Late suburbia/exurbs

 

Rural

 

There you have it - my analysis of the 5 American lifestyles. I'll be exploring this in much more detail as time goes on, especially as I look at real data for cities and towns.

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