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4 Principles for Re-Designing the Suburbs for the Future

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.

So how do we begin the re-design? Here are four principles to consider;

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 strip 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.

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.

This post is an adaptation of the original post "Question from Reader: What about the Suburbs?" by Kasey Klimes at his blog Secret Republic.