A Shift in the American Dream: Sprawl to Sustainable Mobile High-Density Living

Quality Row Newburgh 1

A new movement is starting. Have you noticed it? It really is not a new idea, but cities are becoming popular again; cities of all sizes. The exodus to the sprawling suburbs of post WWII America is shifting. Remember when the thought of Brooklyn conjured images of riots and the shore of the East River was littered with abandoned cars and containers? Things have certainly changed since those days. However, it is not just NYC that is seeing the change, it is cities across America as well. The American dream is now encompassing other preferences that include sustainable, compact housing in high density areas. The new preference is not just for mega-cities anymore. How do we know this and what does it mean for the City of Newburgh?

Four national surveys have all found trends for reduced preference for unattached, large-lot, single-family homes in an isolated suburb (Nelson 2012). A study by Meyers and Gearin found that by 2015, 17% of American households would like the option to live in a townhome. Another study by Nelson synthesized from other surveys found that 38% of Americans wanted the option to live in an attached home (apartment, townhouses, condominium and cooperatives), 37% wanted a single family home on a small lot, and least of all – only 25% wanted to live on large lots. These findings have repeated themselves in other surveys. Young Millenials and Baby Boomers want to live near city centers in neighborhoods that are walkable and near amenities. They also want smaller homes because they do not have large families and don’t want to spend their free time maintaining them. Seniors who are downsizing from their large homes and empty nesters will account for 19 million households (Nasser 2012).

A recent study by Case Western Reserve University found that Cleveland’s inner city is growing faster than its suburbs for the first time (Naseer 2012). The American Dream could be changing because we are living differently than Americans did 60-70 years ago. Allison Arieff (2012) quotes from an article saying, “sweeping demographic changes…are transforming the way Americans want to live.” Americans are waiting longer to get married, longer to have children and are living more transient lifestyles that simply do not support or warrant buying a large home (Hart Research Associates). Not everyone needs or wants a large house out in the suburbs. As Nelson (2012) says, “The days of planning communities substantially to meet the needs of households with children are over” (p. 15). Gregory Vilkin, president of a real estate investment company says that the shift is not temporary. “It is no longer the American dream to own a plot of land with a house on it and two cars in the driveway”(Naseer 2012).


The National Association of Realtors (NAR) found in their 2011 survey that 59% of Americans would choose a small house on a small lot if the commute to work were less than 20 minutes over a large house on a large lot if the commute is more than 40 minutes. Americans want to be able to bike or walk to work even if only a small percent actually do it. However, when work or errands are within a mile of home, more Americans will use a bike or walk to perform these duties (Nelson 2012). This shows that demand is shifting. People don’t mind living in smaller quarters if they can spend less time in the car commuting. This is very different from the idea of “driving till you qualify”. If people are given more options that can suit their lifestyle, they will utilize them.


If the American Dream is changing, metro regions of the future will see change also, including Newburgh. The dense grid network system of the City of Newburgh makes the community walkable and bikeable with the potential to have many amenities close by. With the second largest historic district in New York State, there are hundreds of buildings that fulfill the smaller living quarters so many are starting to view as desirable again. Not only that, but Newburgh also has a mix of larger homes with land for those who have a different preference as well. The city also has enough storefronts, upper floors, and warehouses to support local businesses that local residents can commute to.

The City of Newburgh has the ability to function as it did at the height of its day- a place where people can live and work. Communities that serve both of these functions usually have healthy economies and are are often quite expensive to live in. Residents have long been priced out of NYC boroughs. They are heading south and west, but many are heading up north to the Hudson Valley. It might not happen as quickly as we like, but it will only be a matter of time before people realize that they don’t have to create the mobile high-density environment they are seeking from scratch. We already have it here in the City of Newburgh.


Arieff, A. (2012, June 18). The American Dream: Phase II. Opinionator The American http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/18/the-american-dream-phase-ii/?_r=0

Hart Research Associates. (2013, April 3). How Housing Matters: Americans’ Attitudes Transformed By The Housing Crisis & Changing Lifestyles. MacArthur Foundation. Retrieved December 14, 2013, from http://www.macfound.org/media/files/HHM_Hart_report_2013.pdf

Nasser, H. E. (2012, May 15). Subdivisions go urban as housing market changes. USATODAY.COM. Retrieved December 13, 2013, from http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/money/economy/housing/story/2012-05- 5/housing-fills-in-urban-areas/54979594/1

Nelson, A. C. (2012). The Mass Market for Suburban Low-Density Development Is Over. Urban Lawyer, 44(4), 811-826.

*Second Image by Jillian Elder, Victory Photography

8 Comment

  • Excellent article! I believe that Newburgh is in a good position, people will move here if we can develop a walkable and sustainable community.

  • I am encouraged by the idealism that exists here at times and at the same time daunted by it. Please note where the article says “59% of Americans would choose a small house on a small lot if the commute to work were less than 20 minutes over a large house on a large lot if the commute is more than 40 minutes. ” . The article goes on to mention that short commutes by car were also desirable. Commuting to work is a HUGE problem for Newburgh.

    Newburgh is NOT Brooklyn or its environs. Aside from Brooklyn residents being able to find work in Manhattan. Brooklyn developed its own economic base by attracting JP Morgan Chase (to name one), which opened their Metrotech plaza there with tons of technology jobs. Who do you think helped revitalize Park Slope and those areas?

    Let’s take a look at Long Island City which is across the East River from Manhattan where folks can easily find work. Yet LIC attracted Citibank, Metlife and now Jet Blue to its area. The LIC waterfront is now dotted with high rise condos starting at $1.2 million. For decades it was a slum with empty factory buildings frequented by prostitutes and drug dealers at nights. In fact the Jet Blue building used to be a factory bldg I think.

    My point is simple – Newburgh needs jobs and economic development FIRST. The small companies help, but they will not bring the huge tax revenues, name brand recognition and type of residents you need. You need an auto plant, an IBM like Beacon has, etc. Small cities all over the US are luring US companies back from overseas with cheap real estate, cheap energy and a falling USD. Why isn’t Newburgh?

    For goodness sake people, get this romantic notion of quaint streets, cutesy signs, cafes on Broadway and the east village out of your heads. You need to create a robust local economy FIRST to generate tax revenue to pay cops to drive out the criminal element and keep you safe. Tax revenue to clean up the city and improve the school system. Then the people will come.

    Unfortunately, I see no steps in that direction. I have not heard anything from the much vaunted Economic Development committee since its formation. Has anyone else?


    • Peter, this article was not an analysis of Newburgh’s economy nor was it a comparison of Brooklyn or Manhattan’s economies. The point was to show that people’s preferences are changing in regards to the types of homes they would like to live in…a preference that matches Newburgh’s housing stock. Many developers will seek to create the compact model from scratch when the template already exists in Newburgh. This is something positive the city has to offer when compared to other aging cities and towns with similar economic difficulties.

  • I love this Cher! This is exactly what Newburgh has to offer! Thank you for all you do.

    • Agreed. The conversations and activities are starting. There is no reason that a big firm like an IBM needs to be the ONLY way to approach development.

      • Starting? These conversations and activities have been going on for years to the extent that you have reams of documentation as a product of conversations and activities sitting somewhere in a library compliments of grant money. IBM or an auto plant doesn’t need to be the only way to approach development, but what is your suggested approach other than more activities and more conversations to add to the more than 10+ years of activities and conversations you have in the library?

        • ‘And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.’

          ‘What is essential is invisible to the eye,’ the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.

          ‘It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.’

          ‘It is the time I have wasted for my rose–‘ said the little prince, so that he would be sure to remember.

          ‘Men have forgotten this truth,’ said the fox. ‘But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose . . .’

          ‘I am responsible for my rose,’ the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.'” —-Le Petit Prince

          Of course talk is not enough, Peter. We are responsible to take action. And we are. Join us.