Leaving the picket fence behind

Original Reporting | By Kevin C. Brown |

June 6, 2012 — “The world splits” between two types of neighborhoods, Christopher Leinberger, a researcher on cities and a “smart growth” developer, recently told Remapping Debate. On the one hand, there is “drivable suburban, where you have to use your car to get most places,” and on the other, there is “walkable urban,” neighborhoods defined by a mix of apartments, townhouses, and single-family homes, with accessibility to public transit and with shops, restaurants, schools, and a library nearby. Walkable urban neighborhoods can be found today not only within cities in the U.S., but also in parts of older, “first ring” suburbs.

While the drivable suburb enjoyed a long period of dominance in the decades after World War II, some evidence now suggests that the allure of the auto-dependent suburb is wearing off (see bottom box), though Leinberger himself admits that “there are still a lot of people who want drivable suburban.”

It is well known that marketing and related practices can shift consumer preferences in connection with items ranging from laundry detergent to automobiles. In view of the positive features of walkable urban neighborhoods — said to include greater environmental sustainability, less isolation, a greater sense of community, and easy access to amenities — Remapping Debate wanted to explore the extent to which the same kind of marketing techniques could help build consumer demand for new or existing walkable urban neighborhoods.


It is well-established that consumer preferences can be changed

“Preferences, really, I would say, are quite malleable; they’re not hardwired,” said Jonah Berger, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. Consumers “use the context in which they are making their decision to influence their preference.” As Berger told Remapping Debate, a person may start with the pattern of preferring chocolate cake to vanilla cake. But, he continued, “if I give you those two options and I also give you fruit salad [as another dessert choice]…suddenly the introduction of a healthy option may change the way you think about those [other] not very healthy options…The context can greatly shape what we prefer.”

Preferences are “quite malleable; they’re not hardwired,” said Jonah Berger, assistant professor of marketing at the Wharton School of Business.

Berger also cited price, the attitudes of friends and family, taxes on certain goods, and advertising as factors known to be shapers of consumer decisions. Advertising, especially, Berger suggested, helps to establish context: “What is a big car? I don’t know what the answer is to a big car. Advertising helps me figure out whether a car is big or small.”

Matt Herrmann, director of strategy at BBDO San Francisco, a large advertising firm, agreed: “The truth of advertising is that it can generally change peoples’ perceptions as long as the product that you are selling delivers on the perceptions in some way that you want them to deliver.” When a group of people are not especially attracted to a brand or product, Herrmann continued, a key for advertising is being able to determine what “barriers that people might have and address those, alleviate those, or maybe give them a different context to be seen in.”


Neighborhood choice is malleable, too

According to Berger, there is no reason why these widely-shared observations about the malleability of consumer choices could not be applicable to current preferences for neighborhood types.

Robert August concurred. He owns North Star Synergies, a real estate marketing and consulting firm based in Denver, Colorado, and is a former chair of the National Sales and Marketing Council of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). In a discussion with Remapping Debate, he said that marketing could “without question” help shift many buyers and renters to a preference for neighborhoods more urban and dense than the typical suburb. Focusing consumers on that type of option, he said, would be no different from other marketing that “revolves around education and teaching and stimulating consumers…When we do that effectively, what we are really doing is…making our ideas other peoples’ ideas.”

What are current preferences for neighborhood types?

In 2011, the National Association of Realtors (NAR) released an extensive community preference survey. One question asked participants to choose whether they preferred a “smart growth” community much like Leinberger’s “walkable urban” neighborhood, or a “sprawl” community characterized by single family homes spaced further apart, and with no sidewalks or access to public transportation. 56 percent of respondents selected the “smart growth” community, while 43 percent picked the “sprawl” community.

Participant response, Joseph Molinaro, the project manager for the survey and the manager of the Smart Growth Program at the NAR, was quick to point out, “all depends on how you phrase the question.” 80 percent of respondents, for example, initially indicated a preference for single-family detached housing. However, when respondents were asked whether they would prefer to “own or rent an apartment or townhouse, and have an easy walk to shops and restaurants and have a shorter commute to work,” or “own or rent a detached, single-family house, and have to drive to shops and restaurants and have a longer commute to work,” the number preferring the detached, single-family home option fell to 59 percent.

To Molinaro, these results suggest that there is a “swing voter” in terms of housing preferences, because about 21 percent of participants who prefer single-family detached homes “are so interested in the benefits of smart growth” that when the survey gave them the option of living in an apartment or townhouse to gain the amenities of this type of community, they came to prefer it.

A Brookings Institution study, authored by Leinberger and Mariela Alfonzo and released last month, showed that urban, walkable places in the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area carry a significant price premium over automobile-dominated neighborhoods  in the region with low “walkability scores.”

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