This excerpt is republished with permission from Suburban Remix: Creating the Next Generation of Urban Places. All rights reserved.
North America is in the midst of “suburban remix.” A perfect storm of challenges has broken apart a 70-year-old suburban growth model shaped around car-focused, relatively affluent, and dispersed development. But as this model falls apart, another far more resilient model is taking shape: walkable, dense, diverse, compact—and urban.
The storm’s disruptive power is real. The core market for suburban single-family houses—families with kids—represents roughly half the share of North America’s population that it did in 1970. This share will continue to shrink through the 2030s, just as the share represented by households over 65—net sellers of single-family houses—grows rapidly. Meanwhile, younger, educated workers are moving into urban cores, and knowledge industry office demand and investment are following. (Downtowns and dense, walkable suburbs fill Amazon’s list of finalists for HQ2.)
Unsurprisingly, suburban housing and office values have lagged their urban counterparts since 2000. And, in a dramatic reversal, more people living in poverty now call suburbs home, while affluent households are relocating to cities. This has slowed tax-base growth, battering local budgets. Demographic and economic trends suggest that these dynamics will grow more disruptive over the next two decades—reinforced by the arrival of shared autonomous mobility (see sidebar below).
On the green fringes of Washington, D.C., Fairfax County, Virginia—long an archetype of affluent, prosperous suburbia dominated by single-family subdivisions—demonstrates the stresses these trends have unleashed. Since the Great Recession, poverty across the county has grown by more than 50 percent; county revenues have not kept pace with the accompanying costs; and residents have watched as housing values have risen 300 percent faster in nearby Washington.
Yet Fairfax County is anything but broken. Spurred by the region’s Metrorail transit system, Fairfax has emerged as an early leader in replacing sprawl with a new urban growth model. Over the past decade, the county has approved more than $20 billion in higher-density, walkable, mixed-use centers that replace millions of square feet of malls, strip retail centers, and office parks. More important, places like Tysons, Reston Town Center, and the Mosaic District aren’t emerging as “developments” but as lively new suburban downtowns and Main Streets that function as the heart of their increasingly diverse communities. Similar transformations are underway in other D.C. suburbs, such as Arlington County, Virginia, and Bethesda, Maryland.
Indeed, suburbs across North America are following suit—even without transit as a catalyst. Consider Dublin, Ohio, on the outskirts of Columbus. Dublin’s leaders worried that its expensive subdivisions and prize-winning golf courses had not stopped high-wage knowledge workers—along with jobs and investment—from heading to more urban settings. So the town launched a two-year planning process to create a new mixed-use, walkable downtown that would eventually grow to 10 million square feet (929,000 sq m). Developer Crawford Hoying took a financial risk with the first phase, Bridge Park, by sandwiching innovative “cool office space” between shops and lofts. The concept has been so successful in attracting startups and entrepreneurs back to suburbia that Crawford Hoying will build even more as they expand Bridge Park.
Elected officials in Sandy Springs, Georgia, took a political risk that paid off in this conservative Atlanta suburb, once profiled in the New York Times for privatizing government services. The mayor and city council used eminent domain—not without controversy—to help create a downtown, City Springs, where none had existed and ensure that it would include a lively mix of civic and cultural activities and a critical mass of housing and office development.
While Dublin and Sandy Springs represent examples of de novo downtowns in postwar suburbs, the Northland Company took an infill approach. In the mature Boston suburb of Newton, Northland is redeveloping a smaller strip center along a commercial corridor, transforming it into a new “village center” serving nearby 19th- and early-20th-century neighborhoods. The project preserves an 1860s mill building by adapting it as state-of-the-art office space—across from 21st-century lofts and cafés.
Following decades of outward expansion on the fringes of Kansas City, Overland Park, Kansas, established a vision plan and regulations, guided by extensive community engagement, that promise a more walkable and livable community focused on mixed-use nodes and higher densities. The city’s downtown has emerged as a central gathering place built around a growing and diverse residential population, a mix of uses—and, unexpectedly, a lively food scene. Home to a culinary center, specialty food shops, and an array of local dining options, Overland Park’s emergence as a more walkable suburb builds on emphasizing authenticity and creating a true heart for the community.
In contrast to these examples drawn from relatively affluent suburbs, Miami Township, south of Dayton, Ohio, represents a middle-income suburb in a region hit hard by factory closings. Seeking to jump-start economic growth, the township created a plan to retrofit a vast area of car-focused development around the Dayton Mall. It has launched the redevelopment of 1,000 acres (405 ha) of excess surface parking and outmoded retail and office buildings into a lively mixed-use Main Street known as Miami Crossing. Sears Holdings became one of the first landowners to express interest in redeveloping land it owns at the mall.
And in Canada, the province of Ontario is several steps ahead of all these communities. In 2005, it adopted the first Places to Grow Act, which sets density targets for residents and jobs in multiple urban growth centers. In response, Greater Toronto Area suburbs like Cornell and Mount Pleasant Village have created higher-density, mixed-use developments reminiscent of traditional, walkable urban neighborhoods that line streets with an animated mix of uses.
While each of these suburbs offers unique lessons, they share a common DNA of process, policies, and placemaking. Each started with civic leadership—a local official, advocate, or organization that stepped forward and made the case for change. Each community launched a transformative planning process built around inclusive engagement that used education to build strong local support in places where terms like “dense” and “urban” had long been anathema. All market-driven, these initiatives also rely on innovative public/private partnerships to fund an “urban” infrastructure of streets, parks, and structured parking. They grow upward, not outward, creating a compact critical mass that supports the people (and disposable income) essential to bringing life to their new streets—without touching a single blade of grass on nearby residential lawns.
These examples also embody shared placemaking principles. Above all, they are walkable—distinguished by lively sidewalks and animated by a wide variety of shops, food, entertainment, and other amenities that invite meandering. They connect to their communities in multiple ways: by bike, on foot, by bus (and sometimes transit), and, of course, by car—they’re suburbs, after all. They feature a multilayered public realm, from “active” squares to places of quiet reflection, and they often include a “town green” and other civic spaces that invite their increasingly diverse populations to come together. They offer a plethora of choices for living, working, shopping, and playing, geared to increasingly diverse lifestyles. And they remind us what the overused term authentic means—not a mimicking of historic forms, but an expression of the living cultures and the history, climate, and ecology that distinguish their communities.
Suburbs are in transition. A perfect storm of accelerating demographic, economic, social, and technological changes has produced unfamiliar challenges. But these are challenges to sprawl, not suburbs. Qualities that began reviving cities 20 years ago—walkable density, placemaking that builds a sense of community, a mix of uses geared to a diverse population—are bringing new life to North America’s suburbs. As we enter an urban era, expect it to be as much about suburbs as it is about cities.
This excerpt is republished with permission from Suburban Remix: Creating the Next Generation of Urban Places. All rights reserved. Available for purchase at Amazon.