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In the chronology of housing construction trends, Arlington is a product of the 1920s (and 1980s), Greenbelt is a Depression baby, and Reston owes its heritage to the 1960s. And D.C.? It’s a child of the here and now.
At least according to Builder Magazine. The magazine of the National Association of Home Builders has a nifty feature on America’s changing housing trends over the decades, highlighting the historical context that gave rise to them and the geographical areas that embraced them. The 1920s saw the emergence of mass-production homes, ordered from Sears catalogs. Arlington, the Chicago area, and Cincinnati were among the primary adopters of the Sears home trend.
In the 1930s, the Great Depression led Franklin D. Roosevelt to implement a program of “green” towns, which would provide construction work for the unemployed and housing for the poor. Modeled on English garden cities, three such modest rowhouse communities were created, among them Greenbelt.
The archetypal housing trend of the 1960s, according to Builder, was the Reston townhome. Spurred largely in response to the low-density, cookie-cutter Levittown houses of the years following World War II, the Reston townhomes promoted greater density and proximity to work and community institutions. (Click here for a list of fun things to see and do on one of Reston’s main drags.)
The 1980s were once again Arlington’s decade. It’s no surprise that Arlington was an epicenter of the 1920s housing trend: The city’s population was at the beginning of a major spike that would see it double in the 1930s and again in the 1940s. After slowing in the ’60s and declining in the ’70s, the city’s population took off again in the 80s, as higher defense spending brought jobs and the neighboring District was decimated by the crack epidemic. And so with McMansions beginning their ascent as suburbanites sought the trappings of wealth without the price tag, Arlington was a logical candidate to get in on the action.
And finally, we come to the 2010s, the decade of walkable urban dwellings. “While real estate development following World War II was based on the use of automobiles,” writes Builder, “the market is shifting away from car-centric communities toward what industry experts call ‘walkable urbanism.'” People want to be able to get to work by foot, bike, or public transit, and to be near places to eat and shop. “Production builders across the country,” Builder continues, “have responded with single- and multifamily projects in cities like Washington, D.C.; Denver; Atlanta; and Columbus, Ohio. It’s a market that will continue to grow, industry watchers say, because walkable urban living is highly valued by two groups of home buyers who don’t want to spend hours each day in their cars—millennials and baby boomers.”
Of course, much of D.C.’s housing stock that makes it walkable comes not from the past few years, but from a century ago, when rowhouses built by the likes of Harry Wardman sprung up in residential neighborhoods. The 1910s, however, fall before the start of the Builder feature—-and besides, the feature’s not meant so much as an attribution of various cities’ housing styles to certain decades as a catalog of housing types that emerged in each decade and a list of cities where they occurred. It’s an obviously incomplete list, but still worth a perusal; find it here.
Map by Aaron Wiener