1. Question from Reader: What About the Suburbs?


    I definitely agree with you that the worst thing planners and policy 
    makers can do is to “throw up their hands in frustration” in regards 
    to making cities more desirable to people, like young families, that 
    may not want to move into or stay in a city. My question to you, 
    however, is this: considering that not everyone will want to move to a 
    dense urban area (and if we try to fit everyone into dense urban areas 
    without sacrificing quality of life we are going to have to make major 
    environmental sacrifices to continually expand these urban areas), how 
    do we make rural or even suburban areas more sustainable places to 
    live and work?

    I feel like this is the most avoided question in all 
    of planning, because it doesn’t have an easy answer. Planners and 
    policy makers see relatively simple solutions in creating dense 
    walkable areas, focus on those, and pretty much condemn everyone who 
    doesn’t want to live in a dense urban area to car dependency and 
    unsustainable living. Do you think it is unrealistic to think that 
    rural and suburban areas can be sustainably designed without 
    developing them to mirror urban areas, or do you think that it is 
    possible, and worth losing sleep over, to analyze an areas needs and 
    strengths to develop unique environmentally conscious design plans for 
    for rural and suburban areas?

    I know that was a lot in one email, but 
    I am really interested to hear your thoughts on this dilemma I have 
    been facing as I am finishing my undergrad and deciding if I want to 
    pursue a regional planning degree to tackle these very issues. Thanks 

    Alex Jeffers


    Thanks for writing - this is a deeply important question! You’re absolutely right that suburbs will continue to exist, people will still want to live in them, and therefore we must re-design them. 

    In America, our thinking has become rather binary when it comes to urban development; you either live in a Manhattan high-rise or a suburban house in Phoenix. The suburbs will have to densify in some way in order to be sustainable - that is a fact. The problem is how we’ve framed it.

    Tell a middle-class suburban family that you’ll be densifying their neighborhood and cover your ears before their shriek does irreparable damage. They’ll haul out the NIMBY organizations, dump money into campaigns to stop you, and even makeup catchy bumper-stickers for their minivans.

    I wouldn’t blame them; they moved to the suburbs for peace and quiet, some space, a safe environment for their kids, and relatively comfortable living arrangements. You’re taking that away from them, or so they think. It is important to note here what they didn’t move to the suburbs for: to drive a lot, to isolate themselves from other people, to make their children wholly dependent on them in order to do anything, and so on. These are simply trappings that came along with the program, the bad with the good.

    In order to successfully redesign suburbs in a sustainable way, we need to eliminate those trappings (which are a much bigger problem than those families initially suspected) while maintaining the better qualities of the suburbs that those families desire.

    Let’s break it down:

    1. Sell the idea of proximity, not density.

    We don’t need a psychologist or marketing expert for this: density = bad, proximity = good. This is about perception. Density means living in a 300 sq ft apartment on the eighth story of a high-rise. Proximity means walking down the block to the grocery store for flour when you decide to bake a cake on a whim. Density means congestion, noise, pollution. Proximity means a park is never more than half a mile away. Of course, we can have the loveliness of proximity without the caricature of density. 

    2. Re-create the grid.

    A slight densification (excuse me, proximitification) is just a small part of the puzzle. In many suburbs the density is just fine as it is, but automobile dependence remains because the street grid has been mangled into an endless maze of of cul-de-sacs. People living 500 yards from their children’s school will drive over two miles to pick them up because the lack of a traditional street grid forces them to. This is an easy fix. A redesign will have to include reconnecting streets; we will measure progress in intersection density rather than population density. I imagine it will begin with small links being formed between cul-de-sacs and strips malls. Here’s a rather ambitious version of what further change may look like:

    3. Use that all that extra space to your advantage.

    Wide streets, low density, separate uses… bummer, right? Actually, this may be an easier fix than the cities, which are already built up and in to maximum capacity. The suburbs are practically a blank canvas! For example, the suburbs are a perfect place to build bicycle networks - the distance that can be quickly covered by bikes doesn’t demand much density, and wide roads mean plenty of space to roll out nice cycle tracks. Even in the suburbs, most automobile trips don’t exceed 5 miles - an easy distance to cover by bike if the infrastructure is built. All that idle space also means the implementation of light rail and the land for necessary transit centers shouldn’t be too much trouble either.

    4. Create a “there” there.

    The suburbs of tomorrow will need to re-establish traditional town centers, little epicenters of commerce and community. Some small towns that were swallowed by metropolitan sprawl still have some traces of old centers, other suburbs will have to create town centers for the first time. The current formless expanse of strip malls is already obsolete. 

    Suburbs will need to exist as satellite villages connected to the city by transit. I like using the term “villages” because it has a positive connotation with suburbanites while still conveying walkability and proximity. Tell a suburban resident that you want to build a corner store down the street and their mind races to images of a horrible 7-11 and the decline of their property values. Take them to an old German village with this exact configuration (and more), and they’ll fall beside themselves with how beautiful, quaint, and lovely it all is. This transformation begins with the creation of pedestrian friendly, mixed-use town centers.

    In short - go to planning school Alex, we need you! In the meantime, I’d highly recommend reading Ellen Dunham-Jones & June Williamson’s Retrofitting Suburbia (and watch Ellen’s TED Talk). I’ve only expanded on a few ideas being discussed here, there are many more waiting to be dreamed up by eager young people hell-bent on tackling these challenges. Take care and keep asking tough questions.




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