The Backyardigans Save America’s Suburbs

My four-year-old loves the Backyardigans, the wonderful children’s series in which the characters (anthropomorphic animals, of course), develop adventures that they then act out–and maybe more so–in their backyard (thus the name).

But little does she realize that the show might have a partial solution for American suburbs.

Key to the whole concept is that the characters’ families share a backyard: at the end of each show, they all go into one of their houses for a snack. But I couldn’t help noticing that the backyard is all of theirs (or at least three of theirs). So who cares, aside from preschoolers (and their wonky Dads)? Well, anyone who cares about cities, or making neighborhoods transit-friendly, or reducing NIMBYism.

Whenever anyone wants to increase density, increase housing stock, etc., people scream because, among other things, this is seen as destroying the single-family neighborhood. But the Backyardigans shows that this doesn’t have to be true.

You can easily have single-family neighborhoods with greatly increased density, and the walkability and transit accessibility that comes from that, if you reduce lawn size and share some of that open space. No, this isn’t an apartment building: all the kids (animals?) live in single-family, detached homes.

When you think about it, the front lawn is somewhat of a relic of 1950′s family structure: Dad goes to work and the kids play on the lawn, supervised by Mom. But now, Mom is at work, too, and the kids are in child care. It is completely wasted space from a planning perspective–not to mention the extraordinary waste of water that comes from everyone having to manage lawns that they never use, gasoline from mowing, etc. Ditto with backyards.

So why don’t more neighborhoods have this? Becuase in most suburbs, it’s illegal: you can’t share a lawn–there are setback requirements, fencing requirements, lot size requirements, etc. Developers won’t build what they can’t entitle. And so we assume that single-family neighborhoods mean far lower density, and transit accessibility, than we should.

This is why in the planning context, it’s a little silly to talk about what “the market” wants: the market doesn’t exist, because it is so horrifically overregulated. And then developers don’t have the business models and expertise to do it, because they can’t. It’s a vicious circle. Ditto with lots of smart growth plans. I believe that lots of people want this, but don’t take my word for it: let people determine it for themselves.

So do yourself and your kid a favor: watch the Backyardigans with them. You’ll both have a good time.