Cause and Effect: Residential Housing in Natural Environments

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During the second half of the twentieth century, residential housing developments turned toward the open west to develop projects that capitalized on beautiful landscapes.
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In “Wilderburbs,” author Lincoln Bramwell explores how the movement from the city into neighborhoods in natural environments have affected American society and impacted the environment in the West.

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.

Wilderburbs investigates rural development in the West by focusing on a range of specific communities and locales. Although different from one another, these places were chosen to represent the variety of styles and experiences offered to homebuyers who have moved beyond the suburban edge. Wilderburbs range from 1950s-era summer cabin retreats at the edge of ski towns to contemporary master-planned rural communities with community centers, equestrian areas, and open space surrounding championship golf courses irrigated by gray water expelled from the adjacent homes. Between these two kinds of wilderburbs is a range of diverse rural development types, illustrating varied homeowner expectations. Taken together, these characteristics typify wilderburb phenomena.

Settlement Patterns in the American West

The establishment of wilderburbs represents the logical extension of settlement patterns that have long characterized the American West. The problems faced in wilderburbs, particularly in relation to the natural environment, are concentrated incarnations of challenges that westerners have faced for generations. Before the first wilderburb was developed, most mountain areas in the West had ample resources to support human populations for centuries. Across the region indigenous communities managed forest ecosystems and landscapes for multiple economic, environmental, and cultural benefits. Early inhabitants sought the best natural resources, as did successive waves of Euro-Americans, which by the nineteenth century had displaced Native peoples. As they sought to advance their empires in North America, Spanish, British, French, and Mexican adventurers explored much of the West for possible natural resource wealth. Once the United States took possession of the region through a series of purchases and treaties in the nineteenth century, the federal government encouraged settlement through various means of land disposition. When the region became relatively safe for Euro-American settlement, the first generations extracted natural resources out of the mountains and centered their communities in the valleys and plains below.

Generations of land use practices formed patterns found throughout the West. The Snyderville Basin near Park City, Utah, for example, sits on the slopes of two adjoining mountain ranges and enjoys temperatures ten to twenty-five degrees cooler than the nearby Salt Lake Valley. For thousands of years, before Euro-American trappers began to frequent the area beginning in the 1820s, the Utes lived comfortably in the basin. By the late 1840s Euro-Americans— in this case, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (known as Mormons)— immigrated to the area and permanently settled in the basin. After decades of using the land for ranching, the discovery of a huge silver vein prompted miners to create the town of Park City seemingly overnight. Mining brought wage workers and their families to Park City proper while the Snyderville Basin attracted settlers interested in agriculture and in ranching the low hills and mountains around the basin. Park City mining eventually petered out, and many second- and third-generation ranching families who had little interest in the business sold their land to developers after World War II.

In New Mexico, from at least 1200 AD, the Tanoan people built pueblos and farmed on the higher elevation and wetter east side of the Sandia Mountains outside of Albuquerque. Spanish conquistadors referred to the pueblo as Paa-Ko, and after colonial rule the Mexican government declared the area a private land grant to one of its citizens, which the United States recognized when it took possession of the area in the 1840s. Throughout the Spanish, Mexican, and U.S. territorial periods, timber extraction as well as herds of goats and sheep were the only agricultural pursuits that survived into the twentieth century. In the 1930s a land development partnership bought thousands of acres and used the land primarily as credit for federal agricultural subsidies, establishing a fallow period that lasted decades. By the 1980s, long after the subsidy had expired and attempts at mining and ranching on the property had failed, developers sought to convert their landholding into cash. They found a ready buyer in Albuquerque Federal Savings and Loan, the area’s largest bank, which set its sights on developing the east side of the Sandia Mountains for residential use.

These examples of land sales in Utah and New Mexico are representative of a fundamental shift in land use across the region. Until the 1950s most landowners in rural mountain counties made their living from the land, extracting trees and minerals or raising crops and animals for profit. They valued the land for what they could pull out of it or raise on it. When many of these landowners and families no longer found interest or profits in their lands, a new category of buyer readily purchased their ranches and farms to try to profit from residential development. Instead of looking at what they could extract from the mountains, the first wilderburb developers viewed the land’s scenic beauty and the nature experience it provided as the keys to unlocking new profits. What began with tentative forays by a few intrepid developers midcentury evolved into a popular development phenomenon by the late twentieth century.

The Growth of Edge Cities

In his 1985 synthesis history of suburbs, scholar Kenneth Jackson defined American suburbs as places where “affluent and middle-class Americans live in suburban areas that are far from their places of work, in homes that they own, and in the center of yards that by urban standards elsewhere are enormous.” This definition encompassed the diverse and ubiquitous residential settlements where the majority of Americans lived when Jackson published his book. Despite the ubiquity of suburbs, however, their shape, size, and location varied widely by that time. Earlier in the century, following the dramatic increase in post– World War II federal highway construction, suburbs spread farther from the urban core and grew in size. Soon, multiple core areas developed in convenient hubs that residents from several suburbs could reach easily. In the 1960s “edge cities”— a term coined by journalist Joel Garreau— grew into autonomous municipalities where wealth was made and spent.

By the 1980s residential development shifted once again. Many businesses chose to relocate to rural areas to reduce capital expenditures and obtain tax incentives, taking their employees with them. Communication technology played a major role in enabling people to live in more remote locations while still participating in the global economy. Capital and information became extremely mobile in the late twentieth-century postindustrial economy. By 2000, 19.6 million workers across the nation telecommuted to work. The combined communication and transportation advancements helped make wilderburbs possible for those seeking a certain lifestyle. These new developments did more than merely leapfrog over the outer ring of planned suburbs; wilderburbs leapt far beyond the suburban fringe and climbed up the hills, allowing people to completely separate spatially from previous residential developments.

Studying the now popular wilderburb phenomena casts a spotlight on a number of pivotal issues surrounding growth in the modern western United States. Foremost among these is the sharp population growth in recent years outside of metropolitan areas. Western cities and rural spaces have experienced rapid growth, outpacing every region in the United States, but people pursuing a novel type of amenities-based lifestyle especially flocked to rural areas. Areas prized for their environmental aesthetics, such as undeveloped mountain slopes and valleys bordering public lands, were developed first. The size, structure, and location of these housing developments inevitably impacted the environment and the rural character beyond their borders. Data from the U.S. Census reveal that ex-urban settlement from 1950 to 2000 increased fivefold to sevenfold nationally. In addition, by 2000 wilderburbs occupied fifteen times the area of higher-density residential settlements. Between 1992 and 1997 the rate of annual forest conversion to development accelerated from six hundred thousand to more than one million acres per year. A study in California, Oregon, and Washington states found over a million new homes were constructed in ex-urban areas in the 1990s, comprising 61 percent of all new home starts in that three-state region. The loss of forestlands, croplands, and ranchlands to development often meant the loss of agriculturally sustained residents and communities along with rural character. This trend shows no signs of abating: demographers and geographers have predicted the rapid loss of wild landscapes in the near future across the West.

At its essence, each wilderburb represents a different means of controlling and selling a wild landscape. Whatever type of rural residential development homebuyers choose, wilderburbs echo a shift in attitude about consuming nature. As urban historian Sam Bass Warner reminds us in Urban Wilderness, developments do not exist in a vacuum— they reflect the “fashion and feasibilities” of the population. Increasing numbers of Americans are no longer content to visit national parks and other wild landscapes a couple of times a year; eventually they want to live there. Exactly how new rural subdivisions balanced developers’ visions with homeowners’ ideals of suburban service and security (and their equally idealized notions of wild landscapes) inevitably created a quandary. Striving to strike the right balance between preserving environmental attributes and built comforts, three primary stakeholders operated within these rural subdivisions: real estate developers seeking profit through home sales, homeowners searching for a sylvan retreat from the city, and government officials trying to regulate orderly land use in rural areas. Each group experienced obstacles to achieving its goals. Developers had difficulties bringing suburban amenities to mountain landscapes, government officials struggled to enforce outmoded land use statutes and regulations, and homeowners ran into unforeseen environmental problems such as unpredictable water supplies, threats from wildfires, and haphazard encounters with wildlife.

Despite the tranquil surroundings promised in beautiful marketing materials, wilderburbs are messy ecological spaces. Exploring the relationship between humankind and the environment, environmental history forms the basis of this inquiry into wilderburbs. The locations extend so far beyond the urban and suburban borders that residents are thrust into complex and often unanticipated interactions with their natural surroundings. These interactions take primacy in the home-owning experience. Living in the undeveloped West left residents vulnerable to environmental forces such as wildfire and necessitated a reliance on groundwater trapped in the mountains’ fractured geology to satisfy domestic water needs. Constructing rural subdivisions in previously undeveloped land profoundly affected the natural environment. The establishment of roads and new homes fragmented the ecosystem, claiming space for humans that animals had previously inhabited. These developments interrupted wildlife migration routes and disrupted seasonal ranges for many species. When ecosystems fragment, they cannot support the wildlife species that require large undisturbed areas. Wilderburbs leave smaller, more isolated patches suitable for generalist species, such as coyotes and raccoons, which can adapt to and even capitalize on land disturbance.

Wilderburbs’ impact on the environment highlights the paradox of living in the woods. Homebuyers moved because they enjoyed nature and valued the experience they found on the forest edge. However, building dream homes in the woods destroyed many of the environmental characteristics that attracted residents in the first place. This contradiction is at the heart of this book because it illustrates the efforts of late twentiethcentury westerners to reconcile their affection for nature with their desire to consume and commodify the land. I begin by thinking critically about this attention-grabbing trend in suburban development. Central to this housing style is environmental change over time because the developments are designed and marketed as worry-free retreats where harmonious life between humans and nature is achieved. But this claim could not be further from reality. Wilderburbs are untidy places where human desires and culture produce numerous points of friction with the environment, creating conciliatory landscapes between both worlds.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Wilderburbs: Communities on Nature’s Edge, written by Lincoln Bramwell and published by the University of Washington Press, 2014.

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