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Create a range of housing opportunities with a strong sense of place


Why should cities offer a diverse range of housing types?

There are various reasons that cities should offer a diverse range of housing types for their citizens. Some of these reasons are fairly common sense, and others are more strategic. As a city plans for its long-term future, it should be concerned with maintaining the current population by keeping the current residents happy as well as encouraging future growth by attracting new residents. Obviously the local housing stock plays an important role in both.

When cities only focus on one type of housing, usually the single-family home, it creates a number of issues. Those cities only attract one type of resident, which does not create a diverse population in terms of age, income-level, families and singles, etc. These types of cities typically have very limited options for rental properties, which limit the number of young professionals, recent graduates, and young families locating to that community. Basically cities that only offer one type of housing opportunity are solely dependent on one type of resident for growth.

This approach does not create a sustainable community that will survive through multiple generations. Successful communities attract a variety of residents from new graduates to retirees and low-income to affluent. These communities are able to “weather the storm” through recessions, down economies, and demographic shifts much better than the less diverse communities. If a surgeon, nurse, teacher, and convenience store worker are all able to find adequate housing opportunities in the same city, then a true resilient community will exist.

Also, everyone does not desire the same type of residence. Just like everyone does not want to live in an upper floor loft apartment, everyone does not want to live in a single-family house on a cul-de-sac. In his book Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, Andres Duany explained that some people want to live above the store, some want to live 5 minutes from the store, and some people want to live 5 miles from the store. There is no right or wrong preference of housing, which is why cities must offer a variety of options to their residents.

Variety allows residents to “age in place.”

If cities want to maintain their current population, then their residents need the option to “age in place.” People’s opinions of their ideal homes tend to vary over time depending on various factors including age, income level, family structure, and other desires. Sustainable communities allow their residents to “age in place” as those factors shift throughout the resident’s life. For example, when John Doe graduates from college, his entry-level salary will only allow him to rent an upper floor apartment downtown. After a few years, he and his spouse are able to afford a single-family house with a yard as they prepare for a family. As their family and income grow, they move to a larger home with a larger yard area. Then the children leave home, and the empty-nesters are ready to downsize to a smaller home. Finally, as John and his spouse near retirement, they are no longer able to care for the yard and house, so they downsize to a townhome or upper floor downtown apartment. A successful and sustainable city would allow John to make all of these transitions without leaving the community. In larger cities, residents are able to transition throughout life without leaving the same neighborhood.

An abandoned Borden Eagle condensed milk factory has been converted into a large mixed-use development offering restaurant space, commercial condos, and luxury urban-style residential condos. The residential condos offer smaller-scale living quarters with no lawn maintenance within walking distance to Downtown Starkville, Mississippi, and the campus of Mississippi State University. The living conditions offered by these condos contrast greatly with a typical single-family home in a cul-de-sac neighborhood. These condos appeal greatly to young professionals and retirees. (Photographs: ©2011 Jeremy Murdock)
These luxury townhomes are within walking distance to the historic downtown square in Oxford, Mississippi. The architecture and scale of the buildings blend seamlessly with the surrounding historic neighborhoods and provide a great alternative for residents who do not want to live in a suburban-style subdivision. Higher density, multi-family developments can enhance the surrounding property values and work well within established neighborhoods when done in small increments and the style matches the existing neighborhood. (Photograph: ©2009 Jeremy Murdock)
Many young professionals, families, and retirees are choosing to live in denser, walkable neighborhoods like the above development in Collierville, Tennessee. Many residents like the small yards and sense of community that these developments offer. It is obvious that this neighborhood values the quality of the public realm rather than an abundance of underused private space. (Photograph: ©2013 Jeremy Murdock)
A new mixed-use development in rural Taylor, Mississippi, followed the principles of New Urbanism, which values walkability, sense of community, and a quality public realm. New Urbanism utilizes design and planning principles that have been successfully used for centuries. (Photograph: ©2009 Jeremy Murdock)

But I thought the “American Dream” was a house with a white picket fence?

Following WWII, various factors led to the creation of the “American Dream” being defined as a single-family home with a yard and a white picket fence. At that time most everyone lived in overcrowded cities that were filled with dangerous pollution from nearby factories. WWI, WWII, and the Great Depression had also financially ravished the country, which had not seen significant growth for decades. So the United States government and the citizens were desperate for a change. Government incentives, subsidies, and the invention of the Ford Model T provided Americans with an opportunity never before possible. Residents now had the freedom to choose where they wanted to live. They could move out of their apartment in the polluted cities and into their own home located in the clean, green suburbs. As the country’s economy began seeing the impact of this new growth, the concept of the “American Dream” was born.

For two generations, the idea of the single-family home and yard was viewed as “success.” Suburban American was born in the 1950s and continued to grow for the next five decades. The suburbs symbolized freedom, and advancements in the automobile, construction materials, technology, and other factors made it more successful. By the 2000s, the American landscape was covered by cul-de-sac neighborhoods, shopping malls, office parks, and strip malls. Baby Boomers raised their children in the safe, quiet suburbs and abandoned the city cores where their parents grew up.

This trend was not only seen in large cities. Many Mississippi cities saw this same trend at various scales. Many larger cities like Greenville and Meridian saw their downtown cores abandoned by long-time residents. Other cities like Madison, Ridgeland, Olive Branch, and Southaven capitalized on the abandonment of other cities like Jackson and Memphis.

Since the 1950s, two generations have been raised in the suburbs: the small Generation X (born between the 1960s and 1980s) and the incredibly large Generation Y, also known as the Millennials (born between the 1980s and the early 2000s). Now that the Baby Boomers are reaching retirement age, many corporations are shifting their attention to the next generation of consumers. In order for corporations to be successful in the future, they must understand the demands of their future market, which in this case is the Millennial generation. If cities are going to be successful, it is crucial that they follow the same approach.

Practically every piece of research has determined that the Millennial generation does not want to live in the suburban style that they were raised in as children. They see the suburbs as isolating and lacked the freedom that they desired during childhood. The majority of the Millennial generation does not see the house with the picket fence as the “American Dream” but rather walkable neighborhoods and Main Street America.

Those in the next generation long for a community similar to the one that their grandparents and great-grandparents created. They want to be able to walk to their daily needs, enjoy fresh local food, and support small local businesses. They would rather support a local retailer than a big box corporation. They want a community that is open to diversity and open-minded to new ideas.

The good news is that many Mississippi small towns have a Main Street surrounded by walkable neighborhoods, which is exactly what this generation longs for as they choose their community. Small communities must realize that the dreams and needs of the next generation do not mirror those of the previous two generations. Cities must adapt to the new American Dream in order to attract new residents in the future.


In order to create a sustainable, resilient community, cities must attract a diverse population. Having a diverse housing stock is a crucial element in supporting a diverse community. Cities must examine what each generation of residents view as the ideal housing option and offer a range of opportunities that will appeal to everyone.

Encourage various housing types

Even utilizing their existing zoning methods, cities are able to provide for different types of housing within the community. Although traditional zoning practices typically do not encourage mixed-use development (See Smart Growth Principle 1: Mix Land Uses), cities can still create various “zones” of housing types. Ideally cities would use some principles of Form-Based Codes to mimic historic patterns of city development where dense development occurred around the city core and transitioned to less dense and rural development along the edge of the city. A diverse housing stock would offer upper floor apartments in mixed-use buildings, townhomes, apartments, duplexes, and various sized single-family homes.

Do not segregate low-income residents

At some point this country decided that it would be a good idea to cluster all of the low-income residents in one area of the city. Sometimes that took the form of dense housing projects, and sometimes, as commonly seen in Mississippi cities, it took the form of subsidized housing developments. Affordable housing options are extremely important to make sure that all residents have an option for adequate housing. However, by segregating our residents into rich, middle class, and low-income, we have created a very unbalanced community system.

Through land use zoning and housing development practices, cities have segregated residents based on their income levels. In addition, all of the residents lived within walking distance of each other. Rental properties were located adjacent to owner-occupied houses. Low-income residents rented small apartments in granny flats behind the main house or in upper floors above downtown stores or offices. Living in such close quarters allowed residents of different income levels, backgrounds, and beliefs to interact with each other on a daily basis. The wealthy were fully aware of the issues facing the poor, and the poor were able to learn from the actions of the wealthy. Everyone in the community, regardless of income, was able to find adequate housing depending on his or her situation or interests.

Rather than developing large clusters of low-income housing projects, the addition of small amounts of affordable housing options into other neighborhoods is encouraged. Sometimes “affordable” is directly related to the size of the residence. Perhaps duplexes resembling the surrounding structures could be scattered throughout a neighborhood. Granny flats should be built as rental properties behind single-family homes. Rental properties, when implemented in small amounts, can enhance the viability and resiliency of a neighborhood or city.

The primarily residential areas within the mixed-use Cotton District in Starkville, Mississippi, are very quaint and appealing. These areas demonstrate that multi-family, high-density, and affordable housing can be done in a manner that creates a quality environment and enhances the existing neighborhoods. When multi-family and affordable housing units are done in small increments within existing neighborhoods, they become an asset to the community rather than a liability and blighted area. By providing these units in small increments, it also allows the developers to focus more on the quality of the design and ensure that the buildings blend with the surrounding properties rather than focusing on the lower-cost, fast construction of cookie-cutter apartment complexes. The small size of these dwellings will likely retain a lower rent cost, but the overall quality of the structures will appeal to a wide range of potential tenants. (Photograph: ©2013 Jeremy Murdock)
This duplex is located in the center of a historic neighborhood in Starkville, Mississippi. The character and form of the building mimics the surrounding neighborhood, so the visual impact on the community is minimal. The small size of the two units keeps the rental prices low enough to provide some much needed affordable housing options to the area. This example demonstrates that rental and/or affordable housing options can successfully co-exist in established neighborhoods if the character and form of the properties are complementary. (Photograph: ©2014 Jeremy Murdock)
All types of housing should contribute to the overall fabric of the neighborhood

Another trend caused by modern zoning practices is the segregation of multi-family housing. Historically, multi-family housing was a normal part of the traditional neighborhood fabric. Duplexes, townhomes, and other structures were commonly seen mixed with single family homes and commercial businesses. The multi-family structures were developed in small increments rather than large complexes and mimicked the architecture of the surrounding neighborhood. Single-family and multi-family dwellings were able to exist on the same street without a problem.

Modern zoning practices force different housing types to be segregated from one another. For example, single-family homes are placed in one zone and multi-family structures are placed in separate zones based on their density. With large zones being dedicated to multi-family dwellings, developers began constructing large apartment complexes rather than a single building or two scattered within the neighborhood. Oftentimes these large complexes do not relate to the surrounding neighborhood and become a distraction to the neighborhood rather than an amenity. In addition to destroying the physical structure and fabric of the neighborhood, creating large multi-family complexes lead to similar social issues discussed above.

Unfortunately multi-family or affordable housing developments are typically done in large complexes. This commonly results in simple, cookie-cutter buildings that do not create a high quality environment for its residents. These areas do not evoke a sense of pride for the tenants and often detract from the surrounding properties. (Photograph: ©2011 Jeremy Murdock)
Although this multi-family residential development is located in a historic neighborhood, it does not follow the traditional pattern of development. More value was placed on the location of the dumpster than the creation of a successful public realm. Simply orienting the buildings in a different manner so that they faced the street and created a sense of enclosure would have drastically improved the appearance and function of this development. (Photograph: ©2013 Jeremy Murdock)
High-density row houses in Alexandria, Virginia, work together to create a very inviting and successful public realm. Although these buildings are over 100 years old, they continue to create a sense of place that is welcoming to residents and visitors alike. High-density and multi-family housing can be done in a manner that improves the residents’ quality of life, enhances the public realm, and increases property values. (Photograph: ©2011 Jeremy Murdock)
The above images illustrate a variety of high-density housing options working together to form a successful public realm in a mixed-use district in Downtown Oxford, Mississippi. The newly constructed townhomes and high-density apartment building transition seamlessly to the historic courthouse square in the background. A variety of housing options ranging from owner-occupied, rental, and condominium-style units all co-exist nicely within the same block. In addition, the character, style, and form of the new development blend appropriately with the 100+ year old historic buildings along the square. Within this one block, options are available for retirees, adults, young professionals, and college students. (Photographs: ©2009 Jeremy Murdock)
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