Understanding Why People Like Where They Live

By Bob Soron, Copy Editor, REALTOR® Magazine

QUICK SKIMthe_geography_of_nowhere

Do you love where you live? Or is it just where you landed, where you happened to settle? When you meet a potential client, can you tell whether they’re just focused on the house, or do they seek a home that’s part of a vibrant community? For some time, many Americans have felt that community planners lost sight of the need for pleasant, lively neighborhoods, designed and built for people. These people have talked in code words such as “walkable,” “sustainable,” and “people-friendly.” And recently they’ve started to push their ideas to civic leaders, to green industries, and to the real estate trade, seeking communities that support a lifestyle centered on the neighborhood.

Fifteen years ago, novelist James Howard Kunstler wrote his first nonfiction book, The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape (Touchstone Press, 1994), after wondering why he had always loved some of the areas in which he had lived and so strongly disliked others. At the time he had no training in urban or community planning; he wanted to explore the effect that cities, towns, and neighborhoods had on their residents’ quality of life. But he communicated his answers so well that he gave voice to those who agreed, and his book — which inspired a sequel, Home from Nowhere: Remaking Our Everyday World for the 21st Century (Touchstone Press, 1998) — has become a staple among people who care where they live.



1. The car isn’t the enemy: People always need reliable transportation, whether it’s walking, cycling, driving, or public transportation. Above all, the car made America accessible, whether for the simple pleasure of a drive in the country or for the need to move and seek a better life during hard times. But many urban planners have ignored other transportation in favor of the automobile. Kunstler doesn’t spare his contempt for the worst excesses, but his focus is always on spaces that allow people easy access to all their needs.

2. People want to like where they live: This seems obvious, but it’s often defeated in small and unexpected ways. From homes that support their families, to town centers with all the businesses and amenities they need, people want to enjoy their places. Something as simple as a building with a blank wall dotted with HVAC grating can ruin the quiet pleasure of walking down the street to run errands.

3. Often a new trend is an overreaction to an old trend: As the American economy has shifted back and forth since the great expansion following World War I, the American landscape — and tastes in housing — have followed. But because development times are so long, it’s easy to believe a trend can last beyond its momentum. Keep a close eye on signs of change.

4. The subconscious is a source of comfort: People often can’t verbalize why they like or dislike a room, a house, a street, even a neighborhood; it’s not because of any one feature but a cumulative effect of many features. Study your clients to discover all of the many little reactions and feelings that add up to their positive and negative decisions.

5. Get involved: When you work at the civic level to make your area a better place to live, you can reap both financial and spiritual rewards as the quality of life in your hometown increases.


“The elements that make Charleston, S.C., so pleasurable are anathema to traffic engineers — specifically, narrow streets that end at a T-junction. The marvelous thing about T-junction streets is that they have natural focus points. In the past, the building lots at the junction of the T were reserved for important public structures: a church, a post office, a college. Human beings love focal points. The restless human mind loves to have a goal in view, to savor the approach, to enjoy the reward of reaching the destination, and to then get on with the next thing. People love breaking up their journeys into smaller increments. That is why the interstate highways are such terrible bores, and why people who have time often prefer to take the back roads through small towns. In a city street where the houses stand shoulder-to-shoulder, a T-junction adds to the sense of enclosure that makes the street a big outdoor room. And if the buildings do not exceed a scale of five or six stories, the intimate effect is especially pleasing.”


James Howard Kunstler has written three books about the urban landscape, other studies of the issues faced by Americans in the 21st century, and eight novels. Born in New York in 1948, he worked as a reporter and feature writer on many newspapers and magazines before settling as a staff writer for Rolling Stone. He left that publication in 1975 to work full-time on his book career. He has lectured at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Dartmouth, Cornell, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the University of Virginia, and many other colleges, and he has appeared before many professional organizations such as the American Institute of Architects, the American Psychological Association, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He lives in Saratoga Springs in upstate New York.

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This post was contributed exclusively for REALTOR® Magazine.

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