Cause and Effect: Residential Housing in Natural Environments

As residential housing developments turned away from the urban and suburban sprawl during the 1950s and 1960s, developments that emphasized landscape features became appealing to developers.


| November 2014



Residential Housing In Natural Environment

During the second half of the twentieth century, residential housing developments turned toward the open west to develop projects that capitalized on beautiful landscapes.

Photo by Fotolia/jpldesigns

Since the 1950s, a growing number of people have been moving into the once-rural landscapes of the West and transforming them into neighborhoods. In Wilderburbs (University of Washington Press, 2014), author Lincoln Bramwell tells the story of how roads, houses, and water development have transformed the rural landscape from wilderness into suburbia. He introduces readers to developers, homeowners, and government regulators who have all experienced environmental problems while designing and building residential housing in remote locations. This excerpt, which explains how and why these types of communities began, is from the Introduction, “Moving into the Woods.”

Moving Residential Housing into Natural Environments

In the summer of 2000, motorists driving north on New Mexico Highway 14 on the picturesque Turquoise Trail, between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, encountered a billboard depicting a golf course and homes nestled among the trees. Turn off the road, the billboard encouraged, and “live where you play.” Paa-Ko Communities, a luxury master-planned housing development on the eastern slope of the Sandia Mountains, was conceptualized in the late 1980s for people “looking for high quality living in a setting of unsurpassed mountain beauty.” The sales literature promised “a rare, harmonious mix of privacy and community, nature and culture, tranquility and excitement.” Nestled among pinyon-juniper trees and designed to maximize the scenic vistas and natural vegetation, Paa-Ko was a departure from the traditional, more homogenous subdivisions that ringed Albuquerque. The development represented the apex of a residential housing trend that had been growing for some time throughout much of the West.

In the 1950s residential housing development in the western United States began to turn away from urban and suburban sprawl to projects that capitalized on landscape features. Developers targeted relatively isolated areas of scenic beauty by designing what I call “wilderburbs”— clusters of homes on mountain slopes and ridges that lay within commuting distance of city and town centers. People moved to these developments to live amid the beauty and freedom of natural surroundings while maintaining suburban security, protecting their investment, and controlling their environment. Wilderburbs became a new kind of landscape, where middle- and upper-class people could live beyond the urban fringe and still feel safe. But these wilderburbs were neither truly wild nor completely suburban. My term “wilderburbs” reflects the juxtaposed competing desires of homeowners' surroundings with the hard reality of the natural environment.

Wilderburbs are easily recognizable yet difficult to define. I coined the term “wilderburbs” (and also use the more familiar “rural development” and “ex-urbia”) to describe low-density developments built into the forested hills and mountains surrounding many towns. In decades past, many westerners were acquainted with someone who lived far outside of town, where he or she had built a relatively isolated home and had taken responsibility for grading a spur road and obtaining well water. Increasingly, more and more people are moving beyond the ring of subdivisions into developments that are comparable in size but look much different. Typically this new form of housing is lower density and utilizes natural vegetation and topography rather than fencing to separate homes. Developers have worked hard to design wilderburbs that use natural landscape features and vegetation to give homeowners more privacy, at a healthy price tag.

In some ways it is useful to describe wilderburbs by the features they commonly lack, such as fences and lawns as well as the home density found in traditional suburbs. Although some home models offered by wilderburb developers are just as homogenous as those found in any subdivision, one distinctive feature of wilderburbs is the natural vegetation between home lots. Most often these developments are not built on flat valley floors; instead, they crawl up slopes and ridges to maximize views and draw on previously undeveloped land. Water and electricity services are not as easily obtained in wilderburbs as in traditional suburbs; electricity is usually available yet vulnerable to storms, and water delivery can be particularly difficult.

The terminology used throughout this article is important. To distinguish the wilderburb form from more common types of residential housing, I use the terms “wild,” “rural,” “suburban,” and “urban.” Wild forests, rural counties, and urban population centers are physical places, but I employ these qualifiers to describe animals, county zoning codes, and the expectations of homeowners. Although scholars have debated the efficacy and precise definition of these terms, I use “wild” to describe landscapes where there is little to no land management and even less evidence to the untrained eye of past human impacts on the flora and fauna. “Rural” describes traditional ranching and farming areas— whether it is the landscape or the culture in a predominantly agricultural and ranching-reliant population and economy. “Suburban” and “urban” describe the metropolis and its settlement ring, which the majority of Americans call home. I bring these terms into play to describe the security and service expectations found in both locations that many homeowners try to import to the wilderburbs.

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