The American Dream is Alive and Well in California

Californians not ready to embrace "smart growth"

Are the days numbered for the American Dream of detached homes and automobility, as some “anti-sprawl” activists would have us believe? Apparently not in California, according to a recent survey conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

A commonly held belief in popular culture is that there is widespread discontent among people frustrated with urban sprawl, “cookie cutter” subdivisions, and endless commutes. Advocates of “smart growth” and “new urbanism” have latched onto this notion to try and sell an alternative vision of high-density, mixed-use development combined with regulatory schemes to preserve open space, discourage automobile use, and promote public transit. Proponents often argue that such an approach would produce more “livable” communities, implying that many existing communities and neighborhoods are unlivable in some sense.

But the PPIC survey paints a very different picture. It asked over 2,000 California residents for their views on land use and development issues. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it found that most Californians are actually quite satisfied with their homes, neighborhoods, and commutes. This suggests that their communities are indeed “livable” and that “smart growth” may be a tough sell.

Some of the more salient findings of the survey follow:

  • Most Californians are satisfied with their current housing: Sixty-two percent of respondents were “very satisfied” with their current housing, while another 29 percent were “somewhat satisfied.—” Of this total, 96 percent of homeowners and those living in detached, single-family homes were “very” or “somewhat” satisfied with their housing, compared to 82 percent of renters and 77 percent of apartment dwellers. The PPIC press release for the survey sums up this finding accurately and succinctly: “the American dream remains strong in California.”
  • Most Californians prefer detached, single family housing: Eighty-six percent of California residents stated that they would prefer to live in detached, single-family homes, though only 65 percent of respondents actually live in this type of home. This indicates that, despite high satisfaction levels with their current housing, roughly 20 percent of Californians are not currently living in their preferred type of home.
  • Most Californians are satisfied with their neighborhoods: 89 percent of respondents claimed that they were “very” or “somewhat” satisfied with the neighborhoods they live in. The most important factors in choosing a house or neighborhood were safety (37%), followed by living space (20%) and schools (16%). Far fewer respondents felt that parks and open space (9%), length of commute (9%), and stores and shops (4%) were key considerations when choosing a neighborhood.
  • Most Californians drive alone to work and are pleased with their commutes: Seventy-five percent of employed residents said that they drive alone to work, while 11 percent carpool, 6 percent use public transportation, and 5 percent walk or bike to work. But perhaps the most startling finding of this study, and one diametrically opposed to conventional wisdom, is that 82 percent of Californians said that they were “very” or “somewhat” satisfied with their commute to work.
  • Most Californians prefer low-density neighborhoods: Sixty-six percent of Californians would choose to live in low-density, auto-dependent neighborhoods, compared to only 31 percent that would opt for high-density neighborhoods with convenient public transit.
  • Californians are split on the preferred type of neighborhood and the tradeoffs between home size and commute: Californians were almost evenly split between those that would opt to live in residential-only neighborhoods, even if it requires driving to schools, stores and services, and those that would choose mixed-use neighborhoods with schools, stores and services within walking distance. Residents were also evenly split between those that would opt for a small home with a small backyard and short commute and those that would opt for a large home with a large backyard and long commute.
  • Californians are split on where new development should occur and the role of the state in local land use planning: When asked where new development should occur, 50 percent of survey respondents felt that growth should be steered towards already developed areas to preserve open space and encourage public transit, while 44 percent felt that growth should occur in undeveloped areas to avoid high densities and traffic congestion. Also, respondents were evenly divided on whether the state should be involved in local land use planning (49%) or should not be involved in local land use issues (45%).
  • Californians believe in regional cooperation in land use planning, but they also want to make local land use decisions at the ballot box: Seventy-four percent of respondents felt that local governments should cooperate to create regional land use and development plans, but almost as many people feel that local land use decisions are best made by local voters at the ballot box. These results seem somewhat incongruous; apparently, the public places enough trust in local officials to make land use decisions on a regional level, but not at the local level. Yet, there is no assurance that voters will take regional considerations into account as they vote on local planning issues.
  • Despite the general satisfaction with their own circumstances, Californians perceive many regional problems that are in some way related to growth and development: Majorities of respondents felt that traffic congestion (81%), the availability of affordable housing (69%), population growth and development (63%), air pollution (60%), and opportunities for well-paying jobs (59%) were at least somewhat of a problem in their region. Interestingly, 67 percent of respondents felt that the availability of parks and open space was not a problem in their region.
  • There is no consensus among residents regarding potential solutions to the regional problems identified above: Thirty-four percent of residents believe that too much growth and development is the main cause of perceived regional problems associated with traffic, housing, air pollution, etc. Others place the blame on current economic conditions (17%), lack of public funding (16%), and poor local land use planning (15%). However, there is no agreement among respondents regarding the best solutions to these problems. Twenty-two percent believe the solution is to slow growth and development, as opposed to increasing coordination between local governments (19%) or improving local land use planning (18%). Others felt that changing economic conditions (16%) or increased public funding (15%) offer the best solution.

The findings of this study present an interesting challenge to planners and policymakers and should serve as a cautionary tale for those who aim to dramatically reshape future forms of growth. The type of growth and development most palatable to consumers is not the “new urbanist” vision promoted by many “smart growth”advocates, but one that more accurately reflects the realities of consumer demand and lifestyle preferences. Most California residents prefer to live in detached, single-family homes in low-density neighborhoods, and most prefer to drive alone to work. It is not unreasonable to expect that similar surveys conducted elsewhere in the country would produce comparable results, so “smart growth” advocates may face an uphill battle in convincing Americans to abandon their well-established housing and commuting preferences.

Other survey results also cast serious doubt on public support for “smart growth.” For example, roughly half of Californians feel that the state should not involve itself in local land use planning. This finding is sure to rattle the American Planning Association, whose primary mission over the last several years has been to encourage states to scrap their existing planning enabling legislation in favor of “smart growth” legislation that would give states far more control over local land use planning.

Next, Californians were almost evenly split on whether growth should occur in undeveloped areas or should be steered towards already developed areas to preserve open space and encourage transit use. This is not exactly a ringing endorsement for growth containment, especially considering that almost 70 percent of respondents felt that there was no lack of parks and open space in their region.

And while many people tend to support the idea of public transit, it is obvious that they want someone else to actually use it. Only 6 percent of respondents commute to work via transit, and most expressed satisfaction with their own transportation arrangements. This certainly calls into question the wisdom of spending enormous sums of public money on transit projects that may have little or no effect on decreasing automobile use.

So does this survey spell doom for alternatives to the traditional subdivision? Not at all. While Californians definitely show a strong preference for detached homes in low-density neighborhoods, the results suggest that that there is also room in the housing market for compact, mixed-use developments. Californians were evenly split on whether they would be willing to choose smaller houses and yards in return for a shorter commute and whether they would choose to live in residential or mixed-use neighborhoods. But in showing a clear preference for low-density, auto-dependent neighborhoods, respondents are effectively rejecting the two central pillars of “smart growth” – higher densities and increased reliance on public transit.

Of course, some “smart growth” advocates are already dismissing the results of the PPIC survey as merely a reflection of a collective lack of awareness on the part of the public. They speculate that people might change their minds if only they could see more examples of high-quality, high-density developments. Some advocates may even believe that since consumers are not willing to make the “correct” choices about the homes and communities to live in, “smart growth” should proceed in spite of them.

But the message from California is clear: people are not yet ready to embrace a vision of —smart growth— that would deny them the opportunity to live in neighborhoods and communities that best meet their needs and preferences. Rather, the results of the PPIC survey suggest the smartest way to grow is the way that respects consumer choice and allows the market to provide the types of living environments that people want.

For further information:

Public Policy Institute of California. 2002. PPIC Statewide Survey – November 2002: Special Survey on Land Use.

Dave Downey, Smart Growth Out of Step With Public?” North County Times (Escondido), November 29, 2002.

Leonard Gilroy is a senior fellow in urban and land use policy at the Reason Foundation