Backyard Appeal

Tory Gattis of the excellent blog Houston Strategies makes a great point about the push against backyards in favor of communal open space, a sentiment prevalent in smart growth and new urbanist schemas. Here’s the whole thing (links omitted):

At David Crossley’s Livable Houston meeting yesterday at HGAC, David introduced us to a century-old conceptual model of an “ideal” garden city. The essence of the concept is to replace lots of small parcels of open space – essentially peoples’ yards – by combining them into large blocks of parks, greenbelts, wilderness and farmland, while people would live in moderately high-density urban/town cores. The benefits are lots of large, accessible green spaces while making pedestrian and transit-based trips easier (because of the residential and commercial density). While an interesting concept, I think it runs up against some very powerful desires people have for their own private backyards over public parks:

  • Safe place for the kids to play unsupervised
  • Makes owning a dog much less hassle (almost a quarter of all households)
  • Substantially fewer homeless and panhandlers
  • Backdoor accessibility
  • Privacy
  • Customizable to personal tastes (pool, hot tub, deck, fountains, plants, hammock, etc.)
  • Gardening is one of the most popular hobbies in the world (ironic that the widespread desire to garden would work against a “garden city”)

As they would say in the marketing biz, the backyard is a product with a “compelling value proposition”, which is probably why people are buying so many of them (aka “the suburbs”). Sure, there are plenty of people who consider a yard one big maintenance nightmare, and they’re good candidates for high-density urban living with nice nearby parks (clearly a growing sentiment). But you have to wonder what the realistic long-term market share trends are.

I’d say that the ubiqitous presence of kids and dogs in the modern American family places a natural limit on the market demand for yard-less living. Personally, I’ve never been a big fan of having a yard to maintain, despite the pleasure I derive from amateur gardening. But having a kid instantly changed that appeal for me. While it’s always fun to hop in the car to hit a local playground, I often think that it would be nice to just shuffle my daughter out the back door to hit the backyard swingset, followed by some splashing with the garden hose. Same thing with messy paints — much more difficult in an apartment. These may seem like trivial matters, but these are precisely the kinds of intangibles that drive homebuying decisions, once you get past the basics like number of bedrooms and baths, kitchen quality, etc.