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Leaders see shift away from suburbs to pattern of urban centers, open space

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North County's future landscape and real estate market will likely be defined by increasingly dense urban hubs surrounded by protected open spaces.

Although new development must continue in order to accommodate the region's growing population, the sun is setting on the age of suburban sprawl in California, according to economists, developers and elected officials at the annual Conversations '09 housing forum at California State University, San Marcos on March 6.

Younger populations will shift toward urban hubs, away from suburban homesteads.

"I think the master-planned community is a dinosaur and we will be seeing more urban development," said Mick Pattinson, chief executive officer and principal of Barratt American.

While Generations X and Y may not have large back yards and 10 to 20 feet of separation between their living room and their neighbors', they will spend less time on yard maintenance and other care-taking duties. Younger generations place more value on the free time and living a sustainable lifestyle, said John Tuccillo, former chief economist for the National Association of Realtors.

"These are people for whom green will be more than a concept," Tuccillo said. "It will be a way of life."

Single-family homes cannot approach the efficiency of denser housing. In addition to its intrinsic efficiency, multifamily housing eliminates the amount of car trips residents are forced to make. Many people are surprised to learn that New York City actually produces fewer greenhouse gases than other large cities, due to the density of its population, said Dan Silver, executive director of the Endangered Habitats League.

"Multifamily buildings are inherently more energy efficient," Silver said.

In addition to creating more energy-efficient housing, urban infill provides homes near jobs, reducing the volume of people commuting from more affordable bedroom-communities in Riverside and San Bernardino.

"We were exporting people from North County and forcing them to live in places like Blythe," Pattinson said.

In some places, such as Riverside County, construction of multifamily housing was altogether prohibited throughout much of the past decade. As a result, there is a large untapped market for apartments and condos, Pattinson said.

In order to make city dwelling more affordable, builders need to see reduced developer impact and permitting fees, Pattinson said. The high cost of attaining the necessary permits to build has prevented the development of affordable housing in the past.

"We're going to need simpler, more affordable housing and I would love to build that," he said.

With new development concentrated in the region's existing urban centers, open space will be left in between. Such a development pattern adds value to communities by creating clear character and boundaries, while the wilderness in between is preserved for wildlife, Silver said.

"What I see is more of the European idea where you've got cities and you've got countryside," Silver said. "I hope that North County will be able to keep that feeling."

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