A brief history of your neighborhood

Seven key forces that tilt the playing field in favor of sprawl

How did our communities become what they are today? As we drive to the store, park at the office, or take the dog around the block, it’s easy to forget that our neighborhoods have evolved into the places they are over time. Their design reflects years of decisions, policies, and layers of investment and reinvestment. We may think that the way our communities developed – from the old strip mall to the new subdivision down the road – is because they were sculpted from an unfettered free market based upon pure consumer demand.

But the real story is quite different. The market has played a role, but it has done so under the influence of many forces. These forces – some small, some large – collectively and dramatically influence the shape of our communities. While we may love our communities, every so often it makes sense to step back and ask ourselves whether the same development rules and public investments we made in the past still make sense. Are they allowing the market to flourish, so that consumers are afforded the sort of choices they want?

“A brief history of your neighborhood,” is a series of illustrated essays that examines some of these issues, and identifies the key public policies – such as land-use regulations and infrastructure investments – that shape the location and type of development we see in our communities. These policies impact the decisions we make about where to live, shop, and work. Ultimately, they determine the range of choices we have about where we put down roots and how we live our lives.

Some of these forces have deep historical roots, most of them are happening right now, but it is clear that they, on balance, tilt the playing field in favor of conventional suburban development. There is asymmetry in the land use and development market, and as a result, the market is anything but free.

We do not suggest that communities eliminate all the government actions that influence the market – that is simply not realistic, and it’s not good public policy either. Governments, especially at the local level, have an important role to play in protecting public interests, such as taxpayer dollars, the environment, and community character. Some government policies are necessary, and they are bound to influence the market in one way or another.

But we think community leaders need a clearer view of two things:

The first is mentioned already: the market today isn’t free. It hasn’t been for a long time and believing that it is not only false, but it leads to bad decisions. The fact is that most of what we build has been influenced significantly by the policies and spending we discuss in this series. It’s time to evaluate our current course of action to see if it still makes sense.

Second, like our society, market demand has changed dramatically in the past few decades, and it’s important to make sure that our public policies evolve to meet these changing conditions. If we do that, we might find that our communities start to look and function better than they do today, and we could save a whole lot of money at the same time.

The more we understand the history of our key federal, state, and local government policies, the better we’ll be at assessing their appropriateness in the present. Brief History helps us take those first steps toward understanding how we got to where we are now, and how to build better communities today and for decades to come.

Click on an episode below to get started:

What is parallax?
‘A brief history of your neighborhood’ is a parallax-scrolling presentation (learn more about parallax here). Illustrations and animations guide you through our essays, highlighting key points along the way.Parallax pages are best viewed on a laptop or desktop computer.

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Just one email per week through May, letting you know a new episode is out.

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7 Responses to A brief history of your neighborhood

  1. Kristin M Costanzo says:

    This is a fantastic series. As the city planner for a small city, I have to provide hours of continuing education for my Planning Commission members, and I wanted to be able to print this and give a handout if possible. Is there a way you could send me either a PDF of the slides so it prints or a link to a printable version perhaps? I appreciate your consideration in advance! If not, no worries. I’ll just try to piece it together. THANKS!

    • John Lavey says:

      Hi Kristin, thanks for getting in touch. We are working on a shareable PDF version of this series after all the essays are posted. So some time in May. Until then we wont have a printable version. I hope that’s a timeline that will work for you – we want your PC members to have it too.

      • Anna Darian says:

        Yes, please. I would love a pdf as well. Any updates on when that might come out…now that we’re in May?

  2. John Whitton says:

    Good project! Keep it coming.

  3. Dianne Morrison says:

    I would love to have a pdf also. This is great information and you all have presented it in a way that is very understandable.

  4. Julie Black says:

    Consider this your fourth PDF request. Thanks for putting this together!

    • Tom Boyd says:

      Thanks Julie we are really looking forward to the release of the Brief History pdf and hope to have that coming out soon! In the meantime we’re all hard at work on the launch of our new report: RESTORE: Commercial and Mixed Use Development Trends in the Rocky Mountain West. It launches June 25, 2014 and details will be available at

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