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When Less is More

When a family's price range enables them to live in a mixed-use town if they downsize, which criteria -- place or space -- drives the decision? High density and mixed-used town design can mean less space than conventional housing developments. From the Washington Post's August 9, 2004, article on the Huntfield community of Charlestown, W.V., "Investing in Sprawl: The Price Commuters Pay," by Peter Whoriskey, comes a familiar story: "The Renehans have one child and moved because they wanted space for more."

"I'd like to live in Loudoun County," Loudon schoolteacher Sharon Renehan states in the article. "If things were more affordable, we'd still be there."

That space holds top sway in the family housing market is an unsurprising observation. In The Progress Paradox (2003), Gregg Easterbrook says that builders report the "leading complaint of home buyers is that there is not enough space for their possessions."

Easterbrook says that less space can promote freedom from having too much because it requires a family to differentiate between necessity and desire. "The more you want, the more likely you are to feel disgruntled; the more you acquire, the more likely you are to feel controlled by your own possessions," wrote Easterbrook. So that in spite of the fantastic material gains of the past few generations, the "trend line for happiness has been flat for 50 years."

A storage-challenged townhouse can be a natural restrainer -- and liberator. After returning from England, the MacKeith family bought a 2,800-square-foot home in Maryland with a country view. Marge MacKeith soon realized their spacious retreat could never make up for what she and her son needed most: parks and people.

"I barely lasted a year in our 'rural experiment,'" laughs MacKeith, now living in Old Town Alexandria, Va., in a 1,200-square-foot townhouse. MacKeith says that getting rid of stuff was no problem because of the numerous positive trade-offs. "I'd be willing to part with so much more," she said.

A thoughtful attitude to what we have promotes good stewardship and the enjoyment of what one does possess. Family psychologist John Rosemond noted in an article published in the Columbia Daily Tribune on February 20, 2004 that it is unreasonable to expect kids to pick up after themselves when today's kids have so many toys. "The obvious solution is to buy young children few toys," said Rosemond. "I've been preaching this 'less is more' toy philosophy for most of my professional life, and those parents who have adopted it have never failed to praise the results."

Lack of inside space can prompt life outside of the home, thus connecting people and place. George Gounares, founder of Tannin, a traditional neighborhood development in Orange Beach, Ala., says, "When you live in a typical subdivision the only thing you may have in common with your neighbors is that you could afford to live there." Gounares, whose kids are grown, exchanged his 2-acre beach home -- where the people milling around in the area were tourists -- to live in Tannin where "the old-fashioned idea of community really happens with all income brackets getting along." He says that in Tannin the private home and public space are interdependent.

Jonathon McLelland, a new land owner in Tannin, agrees. "Good design fosters relationships," he says. McLelland says that typical suburban developments don't allow for what used to be second nature -- the enjoyment of sidewalks, streets, retail, restaurants, parks and the natural mixing of kids and adults. "We've forgotten how to live this way," reflects McLelland, father of two.

Empty-nesters Viki and Bob LaChapelle of Indiana are renting in the Village of WestClay, a new town in Carmel, Ind., before they move to North Carolina to be near their children. WestClay's walkability made it a natural choice because of their dog Max's need for frequent walks. But the LaChapelles, who recently sold their 8.5-acre home of 34 years, now recognize the overall advantages the village holds and are considering a similar new type of living in North Carolina.

"Everyone is so friendly and it's easy to get to know people because we constantly see each other around the village," Viki LaChapelle reflects. She also finds that having neighbors who represent every age-bracket greatly enhances life. Interaction with young families gives LaChapelle a sense of connection with children while so far from her grandkids.

In a time of making significant decisions, the LaChapelles are aware of the advantages of their small quarters on the village square of WestClay. LaChapelle remarks, "Living with a lot less and having less overall to be responsible for is good."