Redesigning the American Dream by Dolores Hayden

Redesigning the American Dream” starts with a case study of a shipbuilding “company town” rapidly assembled during WW2 for “Rosie the Riveter” with 24-hour childcare centers and take-out food service on a straight line connecting homes and ship-building sites.

Vanport City, Oregon housed about 40,000 people at its peak, offered affordable housing for a variety of household types, and was racially integrated with 40% African-American residents. Reading the case study,  I couldn’t tell if it was real or science fiction.

Part of Vanport City was dismantled after the war – the town was built under the federal Lanham Act which allowed publicly subsidized housing for the wartime emergency under the condition that the program would be temporary.

Dolores Hayden’s Redesigning the American Dream analyzes housing and land use from the perspective of women and gender roles. The book concludes that single-family detached houses (which accounted for 60% of homes when the book’s second edition was published in 2002)  “encode Victorian stereotypes about a woman’s place, while single-family neighborhoods sustain the separation of the household from the world of jobs & public life. Together, houses and neighborhoods form an architecture of gender unsuited to twenty-first century life.”

Hayden uses an analytical framework with three types of housing, the “haven”, US-style suburban detached houses, the “industrial” strategy of large apartment blocks, and the a “neighborhood” strategy with medium-density housing and common space.

Catharine Beecher (sister of the abolitionist) designed prototype suburban houses in the 1840s, designed to create a haven where women would nurture children and men, far from the harsh competitive arena of urban workplaces.   


Hayden shows how separation of home and work was reinforced by later policy decisions. After WW1, the labor “family wage” campaign was intended to help returning veterans displace women who had entered the workforce during the war, by providing men enough money for their wives to return home (p.49). At the time business and labor leaders agreed on a strategy to promote suburban home ownership, in the interest of contented workers with economic stability, wives to manage the home, consumption to drive the economy (p.50).

A seemingly opposite model was promoted and took hold in state socialist economies in the 20th century. August Bebel, a German Marxist, advocated in favor of industrializing household work: cooking, laundry, childcare; freeing women to work in factories; people would live in large apartments with dining halls and childcare centers  When the Soviet Union put some of these ideas into practice, childcare was provided and 90% of women were in the paid workforce, but housing had neither Bebel’s imagined industrial-scale services nor American-style appliances, so women still worked 17 hours per week more than men. (p. 89)

A third alternative was provided by the “material feminist” movement with leaders including Melusina Pierce and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Material feminists advocated for daycare, public kitchens, and communal dining spaces that would enable women to be active participants in public life (p. 44)

The material feminist movement promoted ideas of smaller-scale neighborhood designs which incorporated courtyards and public space, ideas which influenced “Garden City” movement planners and designers (173/4).  In the United States, this third stream of neighborhood organization created a variety of small-scale developments following these principles, but never grew to become mainstream.

The dominant model in the United States remains the standalone, single-family dream house, surrounded by private landscaping.  Though seemingly opposite to Soviet apartment blocks, the outcome for women is similar. “in both cultures (US and Soviet), the majority of married women had 2 jobs, worked 17-21 hours per week more than men and earned about 60-75% of what men earned” (p. 105)

The American Dream House, argues Hayden, “carried unacknowledged costs: they wasted available land; they required large amounts of energy consumption; and they demanded a great deal of unpaid female labor.”

Dream home havens and stressful commutes

Gender role ideas of “separate spheres” contributed to spatial land use patterns separating homes from workplaces, contributing to the difficult childcare commutes experienced by everyone especially working parents (128).  But the cause of the resulting stress isn’t always recognized. Hayden writes: Americans often say “There aren’t enough hours in the day” rather than “I’m frantic because the distance between my home and my workplace is too great. (p. 57).. we think of our miseries as being caused by personal problems rather than social problems.

Hayden connects the dots – she cites economist Ann Markusen showing back in 1980 that trends toward gentrification and revival of small cities were influenced by two-earner households choosing locations requiring less travel time.

By insufficiently considering the needs of women, planning and policy decisions continue to maintain the problems. For example, more women use transit than men in the US, and just over 50% of transit trips are non-work trips; the focus of transport data on journey to work hides opportunities to improve travel patterns common to women.

Nowadays, it is recognized that the separation of homes, services and workplaces not only wastes time and land, it is even more harmful to the environment than recognized when Hayden was writing – will awareness of climate change will help to repair the damage.

Solutions – more land use flexibility, services and public space

By 2000 when Hayden was writing the second edition, it was clear that the stock of standalone houses was not a good fit for contemporary needs, with growing housing affordability challenges, and a mismatch between housing types and changing household structures.

As remedies, Hayden supports more flexibility to modify suburban houses and neighborhoods for different needs, household types, stages of life. She cites large older houses turned into apartments for younger people, and assisted living facilities for frail elderly residents.

This line of thinking has started to make progress since Hayden wrote the book, with liberalization of policies regarding second units in various cities.  But reversing single-family zoning is still cutting edge, Minneapolis being the first major zoned city to re-legalize duplexes and triplexes citywide.

Hayden also brings examples of the book has interesting and examples of programs in Switzerland to carve out new common space by sharing formerly private back yards (p.207).

In line with the philosophy expressed in Stewart Brand’s “How Buildings Learn”….since learning is good, overly restrictive rules against change make buildings, places, and communities less intelligent at keeping up with the times.  It’s better allow buildings and places to learn.

In excavating the poorly remembered work of material feminists in creating alternative visions and models of housing and domestic services, and the successful examples of women and family-friendly policies and public space in European social democracies, Hayden provides welcome models for re-envisioning and transforming home, place, and service design in the US to be more friendly for women, families, and diversity in households and identities.

And, in remembering the work of innovators whose ideas did not become mainstream, Hayden provides a good reminder that the models we’re familiar with are not the only possible options.  Hayden leaves unanswered questions about why some of these models did not grow at the time, and what changes might it take to revive some of the models in the future.

Relative weaknesses and questions: affordable housing, race and class, car-dependence, causality

Hayden supports public and nonprofit affordable housing, but spends much less space on these strategies for housing affordability.  These strategies were less politically popular in the Reagan/Bush/Clinton era when the book was written and revised. If Hayden was asked today, I wonder if she would be more vocally supportive of affordable housing.

Hayden acknowledges and routinely opposes racial and economic segregation, but her writing seems oriented toward middle class and affluent readers, and doesn’t always call out racial privilege. For example, in supporting the subdivision of standalone suburban houses, she references younger adults who might want a home carved out of their parents large house; appearing to take for granted a social model where wealth is passed down and harder to accumulate for people whose parents did not benefit from postwar access to home loans and to housing in the suburbs.

Similarly, Hayden attributes the preferences of upwardly mobile buyers for “things we didn’t have” growing up, such as “a large backyard, a gas-fired barbecue, swings and slides.” and assesses that “things we didn’t have” is also a euphemism for a private life without urban problems such as unemployment, poverty, hunger, racial prejudice, pollution, or violent crime.” (P. 34)   Racial prejudice is arguably in the wrong place in this list. The reasons for poverty, pollution, and crime in cities traces back to racism and the creation of ghettos.

The analysis in the book somewhat underplays the role racism and car-centric policies, and focuses on more on the motives of commercial developers in creating sprawl subdivisions.   Several times in the book she mentions that developers want to build greenfill developments and do not want to build infill developments. This assessment is true for the time, but it underplays a raft of policies that hampered financing of infill development (redlining halted commercial loans not just individual mortgages), and that encouraged low-density car-dependent development with policies considering auto delay as a valid reason to downsize proposed infill projects.

Hayden seems to take these policies for favoring greenfield development for granted. For example, she writes sympathetically about the urban design movement that took hold in the 90s, favoring a return to mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods. “No one would fault these ideas [of New Urbanism]… though the goals were hard to achieve for designers working for developers in car-dependent suburbs where “traditional” zoning and traffic engineering rules prevailed.” (p. 186)  The “traditions” that Hayden cities were several decades old at the time of the book’s initial publication, with origins identifiable at the time, some within living memory.

Hayden attributes the preference for sprawl and the reluctance to build infill to the preferences of developers. For example “While greenfield is favored by developers, infill is more practical.”  “The American spatial patterns of deteriorated ghettos, skyscraper congestion, and low-density dream houses are inextricably related to land speculation and depreciation.”

It is true that the real estate development and sale industries were largely supportive and encouraging of the segregationist policies that excluded black and brown people from suburban postwar developments, and that replaced explicit racial segregation with zoning-based economic segregation once racial segregation was outlawed by the courts.

But the there are intertwined relationships between the commercial motives of developers who thought that black residents would diminish the value of buildings, the prejudiced motives of white homebuyers who wanted to live in exclusive neighborhoods, and the support of politicians and administrators happy to increase and entrench segregation.

William Levitt, the builder of the archetypical postwar tract suburban housing developments, claimed that his houses were sold only to white people not because he felt any prejudice, but because he was following his customers preferences and contemporary policies. (p. 23). Levitt was an active party to segregation, in a system that included developers, customers, and policymakers.

Similarly subject to question is the concern correlating housing affordability problems with “unchecked development.”  While at UCLA (if I’m understanding the timing in her bio correctly), Hayden founded a Los Angeles-based non-profit arts and humanities group called The Power of Place which was active from 1984 to 1991. Coastal California has underbuilt housing compared to population growth since the 1970s, a trend which has resulted in the nation’s highest housing prices.  If California had been building housing in proportion to population growth when Hayden was there, the housing built in the 80s would be more affordable by now.


The Color of Law very clearly lays out the racist motives of policies that entrenched segregation went further than the motives commercial gain.  There are additional sources I haven’t read that explore the the relationship of developer-influenced policy on patterns of disinvestment and re-investment, and the relative role this business interest dynamic plays in housing affordability.

The broader question –  economics of women’s labor

The issues that Hayden raises, but I don’t think have been well addressed to the best of my amateur knowledge, are broader questions of the role of women’s work in the economy. Hayden notes that in 1920 when it was chartered, the National Bureau of Economic Research made a fateful decision to exclude women’s household labor from economic statistics (p. 125). This absence obscures understanding of the roles women play in the economy and society. For example, when women’s participation in the paid labor increases, the GDP appears to increase, even though there is a corresponding decrease in other unpaid work that women are not doing during the time they are earning wages.

European social democracies have done a much better job with policies around family leave and daycare allowing women to participate in the labor force and public life, but fundamental questions about household labor remain as blind spots in the self-understanding of modern societies.

Summary – recommended reading

While there are stronger books on the broader range of causes of suburban development patterns (Crabgrass Frontier, Dead End, Color of Law), Hayden does an excellent job in tracing the sources of suburban sprawl in ideas about women and gender roles that were enforced in building and neighborhood design, and uncovering models of more egalitarian and woman-friendly living that have been relatively poorly remembered in history.  I strongly recommend the book.

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