Forget smart cities — smart suburbs could possibly be the next great frontier of urban design with better planning and retrofitting.
While some claim the end is near for suburbs, others are taking cues from cities and redeveloping suburbs to become a more appealing places for people to live.
"Virtually every American city has the same story," said Robert Alan Ping, executive director of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute. From New York City to St. Louis, cities started with a compact downtown that eventually was surrounded by sprawl and suburbs that many now want to see retrofitted to look and feel more like those downtowns.
These retrofits cover everything from making a city more walkable, increased mixed-use planning, improving public transit, and sometimes creating an urban center that combines all three. It can also mean taking underutilized malls, strip malls or department stores and turning them into useful spaces.
"It can take a bucket of paint to get started," Ping said.
The Walkable and Livable Communities Institute takes city officials and stakeholders on walks to get a feel for the work that needs to be done in their communities. "One of the first things we do is think of what we can do on roadways; make them quieter, slower, safer so businesses feel better about setting up there," he said.
Stakeholders are then given short-term solutions, like lowering speeds, along with medium and long-term ideas, like bike lanes and traffic calming infrastructure. Areas that are walkable can command a 74% premium in rent prices for commercial properties and 70% for residential.
Much of the work being done in suburbs owes a debt of gratitude from New Urbanism, a design moment started 25 years ago to improve urban living through better design and planning. Suburbs started mostly as bedroom communities before malls and then offices started popping up in them in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet zoning didn’t adjust with the changing use.
"There was growing recognition that the suburbs were getting a mix of uses but it was illegal to have them mixed," said Ellen Dunham-Jones, coordinator of the M.S. in Urban Design at Georgia Institute of Technology, where she also teaches architecture. New Urbanism supporters helped change zoning laws, which sometimes made it illegal to do things like have on-street parking or have buildings come up all the way to the sidewalk.
Cities have plenty to learn from the work being done in their surroundings. Some cities have suburban form, like Manhattan with its gas stations on corners, Dunham-Jones pointed out. But outside of Manhattan, a lot of cities have surface parking lots, underutilized malls and other suburban forms.
"The divide between cities and suburbs is getting blurred all the time," Dunham-Jones said.
Urbanism as the new amenity
Suburbs may have been developed without much public transit, green spaces and mixed-use in the past, but that doesn't mean they aren’t being done thoughtfully the first time around now.
"A suburban development can be done great, and there are a lot being done around the country," Ping said.
Stapleton, CO was one of the first "green redevelops" with its first residents moving in almost 15 years ago. According to Ping, Stapleton didn’t quite get it all right due to the suburb not being as walkable as he’d like to see. Since then, however, other developments have gotten it right.
"Daybreak seems to knock it out of the park," Ping said.
Outside of Salt Lake City, Daybreak, UT positioned all its homes within a five-minute walk or bike ride of a park, the lake or the shopping area, reducing the need for cars. All of the homes are Energy Star-certified and many of the commercial buildings are LEED-certified.
Bethesda, MD is upheld as a suburb that’s focused on smart growth with a downtown area off of the metro station that takes riders into Washington, D.C. New shops have popped up as parking lots have been repurposed, and new mass transit is already being planned.
"What’s been happening is the retrofitting has been getting smarter, more ambitious and integrating even more systems,” Dunham-Jones said.
In Wayzata, MN, on the site of a dead mall, a mixed-use development with seniors was part of a project to refresh of their main street. The senior housing had a wait list even before construction was finished. With medical facilities, shopping and housing all close together, the project lets seniors have the chance to explore without having to worry about driving.
New developments are thinking about future retrofitting too. In Los Angeles, a developer is future-proofing a downtown residential complex by considering a time when ride-sharing services and autonomous vehicles reduce or get rid of car ownership and parking places. AvalonBay Communities Inc., the developer, is building a parking garage that can be retrofitted for other uses. Parking garages, with low ceilings and sloping floors, are hard to retrofit typically but planning ahead could make the project more cost effective.
New Urbanism started in greenfields, or areas without any development or zoning laws, because that was where it was easiest to try new models of living. But Dunham-Jones doesn’t see the point in building more new suburbs when there is so much retrofitting that already needs to be done.
"We’ve paved the planet,” Dunham-Jones said. “There is not enough market to rebuild on top of the parking lots we got.”
There will be plenty of grayfield sites like the Wayzata mall and brownfield sites, or land previously used for industrial or commercial purposes, that come up for redevelopment too. Union Point, a new suburb outside of Boston, was formerly a naval air station. Kyle Corkum, co-founder and managing partner at LStar Ventures, the company behind Union Point, said they were approached to redevelop the site and decided build something different.
"We’ve paved the planet ... There is not enough market to rebuild on top of the parking lots we got."
Coordinator, MS in Urban Design at Georgia Instituted of Technology
First, they spent a year gaining permission from the three towns around Union Point to have full control of the development and rezoning. When it came to build, they didn’t try to redevelop the wheel.
"We probably haven’t had a single original idea," Corkum said. “We had no ego..."
Being a 20 minutes transit ride away from Boston, the city became the ideal to build toward. They set out to create a mini-version of Boston, with quirky streets and parks. Union Point is turning 10 acres of developable land into a lake, and Corkum said they are putting in sand trenches instead of concrete so they and be dug up easier and laid with new technology.
"Were looking for those little ways where we can leave options open in the future," Corkum said.
Like the Los Angeles project, parking garages are being built so they can be retrofitted later if and when parking needs are reduced from autonomous vehicles. So far, there are 1,000 homes built with 3,000 more planned. And on top of all of the work, a robotics company is setting up its offices in Union Point instead of Boston. Corkum said that other developers are already coming through to see what Union Point is doing.
"We feel a greater sense of stewardship," Corkum said. "If it takes 25 years to build this, we don’t care, there is one chance to do this right."