Toward a New Suburbanism

In attempting to turn back the clock, urbanists have spent a generation looking for a means to revive city centers as the core of American economic, political, and social life. Yet in seeking to build the urban future, they have largely ignored the one place that clearly represents the predominant form of urbanism in the twenty-first century: suburbia.

Conventional wisdom—particularly among the media—has it that traditional cities are enjoying a massive resurgence. In 1999 the Economist suggested that “more Americans [are] abandoning their love affair with far-flung suburbs and shopping malls.” The recovery in some downtowns, suggested Jonathan Fanton, president of the Minneapolis-based MacArthur Foundation, heralded a new “urban renaissance.”

But this may be more a case of wishful thinking than actuality. Since 1950 more than 90 percent of all growth in U.S. metropolitan areas has been in the suburbs. Nor is this trend showing any sign of turning around. Census data show that since 2000 even healthy urban centers like New York, Boston, Portland, and San Francisco have experienced slowing or declining population growth. Meanwhile suburbs in those regions and elsewhere have been capturing an ever-expanding percentage of both people and jobs.

The simple fact is that most Americans—including 86 percent of all Californians, according to a recent survey—express a great preference for single-family homes, which for most means choosing suburbia. Unless there is some radical and unexpected change, most new population growth and expansion of the built environment (which is estimated to grow 50 percent by 2030) will take place on the suburban periphery, particularly in the sprawling cities of the South and West—places dominated by low-density automobile-dependent growth. For developers, builders, planners, and public officials, the key challenge will be to find ways to preserve the advantages of relatively low-density suburban living while addressing legitimate concerns about the environment, lifestyle, culture, and family and spiritual lives.

These realities suggest it is time to recognize that the solution to the problems of “sprawl” must lie in the sprawl itself and in improving the quality of life in these dynamic places—call it “new suburbanism.” The approach starts with the notion that suburbs are not static places but are evolving quickly, becoming more varied, dense, and progressively less reliant on metropolitan centers. This leads to a greater demand for “place-making” and village environments that can serve as core identity-providing centers for suburban regions.

This is particularly true in places like Arizona and California, the fastest-growing regions of the country, where suburban densities are increasing the most rapidly. The greater Los Angeles area, for example, now has a higher average density than metropolitan New York, even though it is made up primarily of suburban-like communities. Suburbanized cities like Phoenix are increasing in density far faster than older places such as Philadelphia.

As suburbs become denser they naturally seek to take on more of the characteristics of the traditional city or village. This is a point often missed in critiques of suburbia from academic and media critics. To Virginia Tech professor Paul Knox, for example, suburbs constitute a kind of “vulgaria” dominated by excessive self-indulgence, monster SUVs, and McMansions. Knox’s conceit portrays suburbanites as far more alienated from one another than enlightened urbanites. In fact, most survey research reveals that suburbanites, particularly homeowners, are more involved in their communities—as measured by voting, church attendance, and membership in neighborhood associations.

It is also critical to realize that today’s suburbs are quite different from the prototypical homogeneous bedroom communities of the past. In 1970 nearly 95 percent of suburbanites were white. “In some suburbs,” complained urban theorist William H. Whyte in the 1960s, “[you] may hardly see a Negro, a poor person, or for that matter, anyone over fifty.” Today more immigrants in metropolitan areas live in suburbia than in cities, and this trend is increasing. Many of the most diverse communities in America are suburbs like Fort Bend County, Texas; California’s San Gabriel, Santa Clara, and San Fernando valleys; and large swaths of northeastern New Jersey.

One obvious product of these demographic shifts can be seen in cuisine. Suburban food options were once largely limited to fast-food and chain restaurants, but now some of the best ethnic food exists in quite distant suburbs. The shopping malls of the San Gabriel Valley have become meccas for Chinese food mavens, and the most authentic Mexican food in Houston is usually found in the sprawling city’s strip malls. Much the same is true for Indian food in New York, the best of which increasingly resides in the shopping centers of New Jersey’s Bergen and Passaic counties.

These expanded culinary choices are increasingly reflected in other measurements of culture. The old suburbia was frankly on the philistine side, with little to offer other than church socials, miniature golf, and soccer leagues. Today some of the largest cultural-development projects in the nation have been built in suburban areas, including the massive Orange County Performing Arts Center, in Southern California, and the new $100 million 1,976-seat Music Center at Strathmore, outside Bethesda, Maryland. The latter will serve as a second home to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which has been struggling to find subscribers at its downtown venue. Neal Cuthbert, arts program manager for the McKnight Foundation, points to these developments as part of a “quiet arts revolution” taking place on the fringes. “There’s a rush of amenity-raising in suburbia,” he notes. “They [suburban leaders] are trying to find an identity for themselves.”

Cultural institutions represent harbingers of another, more widespread trend toward building new suburban commercial and residential cores. To a large extent the market for these new centers is being shaped by the worst defining feature of suburban life: traffic. Faced with long commutes, suburbanites increasingly prefer to locate their businesses, and find their essential amenities, closer to home. It is unlikely that transit, such as light rail, will make much of a dent in this process. Despite the initiation of many new transit lines, the overall percentage of Americans using trains has continued to drop. The more effective means of cutting commuting, according to recent studies in Palm Beach County, Florida, and Wellington, New Zealand, lies in clustering services—shopping, recreation, schools—in a definable town center.

The emerging suburban village has many faces, but three expressions predominate. One—as seen in older suburbs such as Fullerton, California; Naperville, Illinois; and Arlington, Virginia—focuses on the successful redevelopment of town centers, many of them dating from the late nineteenth century. The old-fashioned Main Street now hosts specialized retail, art galleries, jazz clubs, and restaurants to serve ever more sophisticated suburban populations.

Such places, however, represent only a minority of potential sites for making suburban villages. A greater challenge, and arguably opportunity, exists in the sprawling “production suburbs” of the postwar era. Many of these areas—think of places like Levittown, New York—were developed without downtowns. In some, new centers are being created in old industrial parks, strip malls, or even deserted shopping centers—which now include housing, specialized retail, and restaurants as well as more commonplace chain stores.

Some cities dominated by this kind of development, such as Anaheim, California, have already taken steps to encourage villagelike infill development. New housing is often still the single-family variety, but it’s being built in greater densities, including both town houses and detached homes on lots of less than 5,000 square feet. In Denver efforts to transform the former Stapleton Airport into a “network of urban villages” represents a major step in this direction, with a mixture of single- and multifamily homes, schools, shopping outlets, and other facilities.

However, the most rapid growth in America is taking place not in older suburban centers, or even postwar housing tracts, but on the farthest edge of the metropolitan periphery. This trend can be seen in virtually every area of the country, from the outskirts of Salt Lake City to southwest Florida. In these newer areas, town centers, walkways, bikeways, and other amenities mix with homes. Office, retail, and hotel development is often within easy reach of housing tracts. Some of these places are more like planned cities than traditional suburbs. At the Woodlands outside of Houston, waterways connect office, apartment, and hotel neighborhoods with a pedestrian-oriented shopping district resembling a village. Major effort was also made to preserve the bucolic nature of the area. Residents on a hike or a bike ride can easily feel as if they are in the middle of an East Texas forest.

From a long-range perspective, we might view the current builders of suburban villages as modern equivalents to those who in previous eras created our great cities. For today’s builders the challenge is turning the dull, unvaried, and undistinguished into places that are diverse, habitable, sustainable, and sustaining. The suburban experiment, launched in earnest in the 1950s, is still in its Deadwood phase; the refinements are only now being developed.

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