Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The American Dream?

What's the American Dream? Is there a single ideal that can be identified as "the" American Dream?

Well, we're a place where diversity is celebrated, where everybody is expected to formulate and pursue his or her own dream.It's part of each and every American's birthright, isn't it, to discover his or her identity and live it out?

In this age of interconnection, power-politics, and marketing, many Americans consider it vital to know what other Americans are dreaming about. Take a look at a couple of examples...


First, L. Brooks Patterson, Oakland County's controversial Executive: In a recent blog entitled "Sprawl, Schmall... Give Me More Development" (links below), he asserts that sprawl is the essence of the American Dream and the epitome of the good life. I'm sure many people agree, and it's certainly pleasant to live in a quiet, semi-rural environment with lots of green around. A suburban house is like a mini feudal domain, where the family are lords of the manor. Remember that wonderful high school musical, Little Shop of Horrors? The heroine sings about wanting to live "someplace green" (the suburbs, of course). She gets her wish, sort-of: she ends up being eaten by a carnivorous plant. Is this an allegory of the American Dream turned nightmare?

I won't go head-to-head with Brooks on every point. I'll point you to Christpher Mims' article in Grist, where he does the honors. It's called, "World’s worst elected official makes the case for sprawl". (I think Mr. Mims has overrated Mr. Patterson. There are many more worthy candidates vying for the title "world's worst elected official"...) Two points to make, though: (1) sprawl depends on massive amounts of fossil fuel, so it's a dead-end that costs the nation and the world more than future generations will be able to pay in terms of CO2 emissions; (2) it ignores the unhealthiness of auto-everything living, which results in obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, the associated health-care costs, and most important, physical and emotional suffering.


But there's ongoing social research gauging the American Dream. Good (the online magazine) summarized much of it in a February 7 article titled, "Most Americans Want a Walkable Neighborhood, Not a Big House". The first study they link to is the National Association of Realtors'® "The 2011 Community Preference Survey: What Americans are looking for when deciding where to live". The realtors wanted to know what the effects of the housing bubble and recession have been on the kind of housing Americans now want. Here's their own summary:

The 2011 Community Preference Survey reveals that, ideally, most Americans would like to live in walkable communities where shops, restaurants, and local businesses are within an easy stroll from their homes and their jobs are a short commute away; as long as those communities can also provide privacy from neighbors and detached, single-family homes. If this ideal is not possible, most prioritize shorter commutes and single-family homes above other considerations. ...

After hearing detailed descriptions of two different types of communities, 56% of Americans select the smart growth community and 43% select the sprawl community. Smart growth choosers do so largely because of the convenience of being within walking distance to shops and restaurants (60%). Those who prefer the sprawl community are motivated mostly by desire to live in single-family homes on larger lots (70%).

But the American Dream still includes a "manor house": "Living in a single-family, detached home is important to most Americans. Eight in ten (80%) would prefer to live in single-family, detached houses over other types of housing such as townhouses, condominiums, or apartments." The demographics are interesting, too: those who prefer suburban or rural living tend to be conservative and middle-aged; younger and more liberal people go for the urban and "smart growth" dream, as do older folks. And Trulia Real Estate Search found that Americans' dream house is getting smaller and builders are now planning homes with fewer square feet of space.

Interestingly, both income extremes prefer "smart growth" living, while middle-income groups tend more toward the suburbs.

As my children's generation matures, their dream is becoming more realistic, more modest. Perhaps that's because they're more aware of the environmental - as well as financial - debt my generation has left them. I really hope they'll manage my debts wisely.

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