There has been a good deal of hand-wringing lately about our society’s loss of community. Gone are the days where you might walk your children to a nearby school, chat frequently with your neighbors, go to the end of the street to pick up milk from the dairy, and enjoy a good ol’ neighborhood block party. This, we are told by planning experts is what community is all about. And the only way to get it back is to move into that prototypical neotraditional neighborhood. So, planners have spent countless hours and public money trying to figure out how to do just that.
Despite their most fervent efforts, these old style neighborhoods aren’t likely to return, even in manufactured form. Consumerism has taken over and it seems people were quick to drop the old urbanist neighborhood for a newer, bigger house, a bigger lot, a nature path, access to Walmart, and shiny, new roads and parks. But while the old definition of community is disappearing, a new one has emerged in the form of master-planned communities (MPCs). MPCs are doing their part to offer their version of the good life.
Master-planned communities are suburbia’s response to the boring, cookie-cutter, detached globs of housing that still make up much of America’s suburban nation. They offer numerous amenities without losing the lower-density, suburban feel that attracted so many people to the suburbs in the first place. Residents get quality infrastructure like parks, schools, and new roads, shopping close to home, community services, a “city inside a city” feel, and neighbors that genuinely feel connected in some fashion.
Maybe the best thing about master-planned communities is that they are not some government version of utopia, but rather a private sector innovation. As planners, environmentalists, and smart growth advocates have been bemoaning suburban development for many years, developers have been doing something about it. Planners have interpreted growing frustration with suburbia as a desire for selling your car, taking the bus, and moving downtown. All the while, developers have learned that it is something less dramatic. It is the convenience of suburbia with the most cherished benefits of city life like sense of place and belonging, and nearby services.
Master-planned communities are not new concepts. They have been around for a while. Maybe the grandest vision for a MPC was the Rouse Company’s building of Columbia, MD, a new community, in the 1970’s. Columbia has a mix of housing, shopping, dining, recreation, and almost every conceivable service. It was revolutionary for its time as it provided residents a self-sustaining community located in an urban fringe location. While the town of Columbia still thrives, today’s MPC developers continue to learn from their predecessors and innovate. They have recognized a growing distaste for traditional suburbia and are improving upon it.
While the prototypical MPC has higher than average home prices, there are numerous MPCs throughout California and indeed, the country, catering to a variety of lifestyles and clientele. Del Webb has developed several active-adult retirement communities in Arizona and California serving seniors and empty nesters that may not want to move into a city apartment or take care of that big yard. Serrano, an upscale MPC in El Dorado Hills, east of Sacramento, provides larger homes, foothill living, mountain views, and access to recreation and jobs in Folsom. Conversely, Ladera Ranch in Orange County conveys a more traditional neighborhood concept by offering a series of interconnected villages including some smaller, more affordable homes on smaller lots with a town center.
The benefits of MPCs don’t stop with the residents’ housing options. Recognizing that infrastructure development and financing has long been an issue, developers routinely include public infrastructure in their developments such as schools, parks, roads, water and sewer service, and even police and fire protection in some cases. The service provision and quality typically far exceeds what you could expect from other developments.
Although MPCs offer numerous benefits, many in the smart growth and planning community are not convinced. A consultant summed up a recent smart growth and development conference stating the consensus was that “master-planned communities are bad and infill development is good.” Unfortunately for smart growth advocates, consumers aren’t listening. While public subsidies such as downtown development, rail transit, and infrastructure financing skyrocket to move us back into older city centers and out of our cars, MPCs continue to grow and prosper. Maybe we’ve understood a sense of community is a good thing, as long as its common sense.
Chris Fiscelli is a senior fellow in urban and land use policy at Reason Foundation