"In the Bay Area, where there are plenty of older neighborhoods with historic architecture, mature landscaping and pre-car, pedestrian-friendly urban planning, you're often not buying just private square footage, but access to a public realm, a place full of diverse people, culture, street life. In this distinction between old and new, I couldn't help but think of something my mother said in describing the limitations of the American way of life. After she returned from a trip to Mexico, where she'd fallen in love with the town squares, she said, 'We have private splendor, but we have public squalor.' "
Even in urban areas, new developments are often divorced from the surrounding communities. And in too many suburbs, homes and private yards are lovely while public space is largely strip malls. In too much of America today we do have nice private space but little if any attention to the shared space beyond our block. There's a big difference between a town square in Mexico (or much of Europe) and a typical suburban strip mall, although we do have communities here that have managed to keep their sense of place. It's a theme I've touched on before.
I don't buy claims that "market forces" alone are responsible for all the McMansions being built these days. It's at least as much due to the fact that current local zoning makes it easier for developers to build large houses on big lots in most suburban communities (just look at all the hassles involved in any kind of cluster zoning project in Framingham, including the risk that you spend gobs of time and money seeking approval that may not come). When almost 9 out of 10 Better Homes & Gardens readers say they value walkable neighborhoods more than large rooms or acreage, I'd argue that zoning hasn't caught up with current trends. And here in Massachusetts, that's exacerbated by local funding of schools, where cash-strapped communities fear any development that might increase school costs more than Proposition 2 1/2 would compensate.
If you want to see how market forces value sense of place and public splendor, consider how much square footage $500K could buy you in a desirable community outside of Rte. 495 compared with, say, Concord center or Beacon Hill.
(See also, "It's Almost Impossible Not to Make a Friend Here").