Americans have always dreamed of owning their own home. The decades after 1945 saw citizens leaving downtowns for the green spaces of suburbia. With their increased mobility and Americans’ desire for more consumer goods, suburbs swelled—accounting for a third of the nation’s population by 1960. Innovations in the single-family housing market contributed to the phenomenon. William Levitt began a national trend with his use of mass-production techniques to construct a large "Levittown" housing development on Long Island.
"Master-planned communities enabled a rapid expansion of the postwar economy as Americans built their lives around great neighborhoods, schools, and suburban amenities," says Steve Duffy, managing principal in the Orange County, California, office of Moss Adams Capital. "The most successful master-planned communities were designed to combine a live/work/shopping environment within easier proximity that generated broad consumer and business demand, which in turn created an environment for above-average schools. This integrated approach made these communities successful over multiple business cycles, to stand the test of time."
To meet demand for a growing population, more and more suburbs sprung up, taking advantage of the availability of large tracts of inexpensive land and increased investment in U.S. road and highway networks. "During this time, the form of communities changed dramatically from the pre–World War II notion of fine-grain design in the building of neighborhoods to a more monolithic application of production housing that also responded to Americans’ love affair with the automobile," explains Douglas C. Smith, managing principal at Fort Lauderdale–based EDSA, an international planning and landscape architecture firm. "This resulted in major design changes. The front porch was largely abandoned in house design, which effectively removed a significant contribution to the social fabric of many communities. Garages increased in size and moved from a rear-of-lot alley position to join the house on the street. Neighborhood patterns moved away from connected urban grids and toward limited access cul-de-sac configurations."
In the 1930s, a comfortable home cost $4,000
Over the past 50 years, tract housing developments evolved to include open-space amenities such as golf courses, and the sense of developing a village core has become increasingly evident in master-planned communities. The most significant shift in community development patterns in the past 30 years has been a movement back to the traditional patterns of prewar community building, particularly with the "new" traditional neighborhood design.
In the coming years, communities will continue to be comprehensively planned, but implementation will be in smaller increments, experts predict. Large land deals will give way to smaller developments and to infill and redevelopment sites in cities and inner suburbs.
"It is hoped that quality, not quantity, will lead the way," says Smith.