Offering an alternative to wasteful suburban sprawl, the Greenbelt-Towns Program was a Government-led urban planning approach that began in the late 30’s. Although short-lived, lessons can be drawn from the goals, scope and reaction to the suburban demonstration towns that embodied a mix of housing, walkability, and a traditional downtown.
As the scale of testing increases, the potential of driverless cars to transform our lives is becoming clearer. Fewer parking spaces, reduced road space, deliveries on demand, demise of strip malls, longer commuting distances, and a need for flexible parking structures, among others, have major implications for our urban and suburban development patterns – not all are necessarily positive.
Millennials seek the live-work-play lifestyle, but evidence suggests they are no longer solely focused on compact, diverse urban centers. In an attempt to attract this valuable demographic “suburban villages” are being created in larger developments. Lakewood Ranch is sighted as an example, with its Main Street cluster of condos, shops, restaurants, theaters and employers nearby. The investment appears to be working as millennials are buying homes in large numbers, and their preference shifting towards mature and emerging suburbs.
A new technique called a pattern zone can be used by cities and towns to make good urbanism a natural outcome of their local real estate market. The concept itself isn’t necessarily new as Matthew Petty, a planner and developer in Fayetteville, AR, discusses.
Before zoning codes and land use lawyers, cities were built from pattern books containing construction plans for the building types in common use. However, a municipal pattern book with pre-approved plans is at the center of the latest pattern zone concept. It changes the market activity because it lowers those barriers in ways that are valuable to developers: time and money. Matthew explains “For a missing-middle project, the savings can equal thousands of dollars per unit, once again making middle-scaled buildings as economical as single-family subdivisions and large-scale developments.”
These fascinating maps challenge our perception of sprawling America – the urbanized area seems compact in comparison to all other uses, 3.6 percent of the total. However, the urban area is growing at an average rate of about 1 million acres a year and sprawl is still winning the numbers game.
“The last time Americans fled the cities for the suburbs, from the 1950s to the 1980s, they were driven primarily by fear of crime. This time the migration is the consequence of the cities’ success, not their failure. Housing
and rental prices in many of the country’s largest metro areas have soared, inspiring residents to pack up and move out.
As more young people decamp from the cities to the suburbs, … a hybrid might develop, where people who leave cities—especially the most vibrant and expensive ones—will gravitate to places with similar amenities. Or transform them—as is happening in San Marcos. Though it has its fair share of cookie-cutter homes and strip malls, its well-preserved old downtown boasts a brewery and beer garden, a yoga studio and, now, a bootcamp boutique.”
Authors of the new book Suburban Remix, by Jason Beske and David Dixon, describe the challenges we face as a result of sprawl growth patterns in effect since WWII. The book details examples of unique and successful sprawl repair in several communities through common themes and techniques.
“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.
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.
[Several suburban case studies offer unique lessons, while utilizing common] 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.”
The Policy Watch section of the National Association of Home Builders’ quarterly magazine featured our new article on Sprawl Repair – The next frontier in residential innovation.
Changing demographics, retail trends and lifestyle choices are establishing a new frontier for Home builders interested in helping to transform our suburbs, with actions targeted toward establishing urban centers.
Home builders play a key role in delivering desirable, livable products and can remain competitive by leveraging existing infrastructure, location, and market needs to create value out of stranded real estate assets. By including housing within auto-centric commercial development, sprawl repair promotes economic diversity and vitality.
Form-based zoning is a necessary tool that the home building industry should know well and take advantage of. It enables options and flexibility to transform single-use parcels into more diverse and resilient urban nodes that accommodate different people, incomes, and ages, and serves the suburban population at large.
It is becoming more apparent that the suburban pattern of development created imbalances and burdens on society, the economy and the environment. In a very worthwhile article, Alan Greenblatt describes the revolution that is taking place and gaining steam. The most valuable and successful communities will be those that are developed around diverse town centers and transit. SmartGrowth and Sprawl Repair will be the key.
“All over the country, suburbs are rushing to develop new mixed-use corridors, complete with dense, walkable shopping areas, often attached to a town hall or performing arts complex, as in Shirlington [VA], and usually surrounded by mid-rise apartment or condo buildings.
Mixed-use developments like these are becoming kind of a cliché in American metropolitan areas — but that doesn’t make them any less revolutionary.
“People who don’t have kids in their houses eat out a lot more than people who have kids,” says Ellen Dunham-Jones, director of the urban design program at Georgia Tech University and a leading authority on suburban evolution. “Suddenly,” she says, “you see the suburbs have way more restaurants than they used to, even bars and nightlife, which used to be anathema.”
“The downtown housing has gotten absurdly expensive in those cities that have revitalized,” says Dunham-Jones. This explains to a large extent the denser development taking shape in communities such as Shirlington and Rockville [MD].
An increasing number of developers want to appeal to people who prefer to live and work in places where they don’t have to drive for everything they want. “The suburbs that have gotten that are going to be the winners in the future,” says Ed McMahon, a senior resident fellow with the Urban Land Institute. “The way people work, shop and move around is changing. Those that have figured that out are going to prosper, and others are going to decline.”
“The privacy that the aging boomers really valued while raising their kids, now they’re beginning to question that,” Dunham-Jones says. “Do I really want to mow that big lawn? If they’re retired, suddenly that privacy can seem lonely.” Or, to put it another way, the ability to conduct much of one’s life on a cellphone may be generating a desire for in-person contact, perhaps the only thing the phone cannot deliver.
You’ll pay at least 25 percent more per square foot for housing in Reston, Va., which is built around a town center, than in nearby Sterling, a postwar cul-de-sac suburb that’s the same driving distance from Washington.
The most in-demand suburban developments are being built around transit, and this is true even where the share of commuters using transit is still low.”
Michael Mehaffy explains how the ‘drive-through’ lifestyle, started in America and exported throughout the world, involves a lot of other patterns of consumption that feed off each other, exacerbating problems of sprawl and global degradation.
The point is, this is a global inter-locking system, working as a kind of “operating system for growth.” We call it “sprawl” for shorthand—but as most of us recognize, it’s not just low-density development, but an entire inter-locking, now international system of physical and economic development. It includes all the economic practices, lending rules, engineering standards, zoning codes, and all the other “operating system” elements, at local, national and international scales.
The other important thing to note about this system, as most of us know but tend to forget, is that it didn’t just happen: it was planned. The system of sprawl, the current “operating system for growth,” was not the natural outcome of American consumer tastes or inevitable market evolution, as some mythology still holds. It was created consciously by businesspeople, politicians, architects and planners, for what seemed like good reasons at the time. It was and is a choice, one that is now being made on a global scale, as the McDonalds examples show. And it was and is immensely profitable. Of course, the problem is that it is fundamentally unsustainable, and it incurs other catastrophic costs—like climate change.
We have the option of a truly more urban model—with more transportation choices, more diversity and mix of uses, more walkable streets and public spaces, and more vitality and “critical mass.” Those things are all very good for climate change.
“More young adults are moving to the land of white picket fences. Is it by choice, or necessity?”
“The fact that millennials weren’t buying homes or cars a few years ago was more the product of economic hard times than an expression of changing tastes.
The supply of walkable, transit-friendly neighborhoods in the U.S. is limited, and it’s really hard for political reasons to add density to them or build more of them.
I can’t help but see this suburban resurgence as at least partly a policy failure wrought by not-in-my-backyard activists, messed-up zoning rules, freeway-besotted transportation officials and the like.”
“I definitely think we see some new cities getting in on the “tech city” game… with strong pushes to attract more knowledge-based industries, using their universities as anchors…”
And something interesting about these smaller cities is that it’s not clear whether they’re urban or suburban. We think of “suburbs” as extensions of big metros, but a lot of these smaller, thriving places have a distinctly suburban feel — ranch houses, strip malls, etc., maybe with a few blocks of walkable restaurant/clothing shop areas. But they depend on the clustering of smart people for their productivity, and their populations keep growing. Is that kind of place a city, or a suburb?”
Jonathan Hopkins of Urbanismo makes a compelling case that the NPS’s evaluation criteria for nominating properties to the National Register of Historic Places should be revised to address concerns that preservation funding will become increasingly available for use by sprawling Post-War suburban subdivisions like Levittown, New York as they reach their 50 year eligibility mark.
“It becomes necessary to make clear criteria-based distinctions between sprawl and other development patterns like neighborhoods and small towns in order to prevent the preservation of obesity, social dysfunction, and environmental degradation.”
“By taking a proactive approach sooner rather than later, the prevention of preserving sprawl in its current state can be realized. The preservation movement – in coordination with environmentalists, developers, medical physicians, and others – can encourage law-makers to pass legislation to amend the Secretary of the Interior’s standards to include suburban retrofitting guidelines that outline appropriate initiatives to be funded by tax credits and planning grants at both the State and Federal level. In coordination with land-use, zoning, tax, and development policy reforms that discourage new suburban sprawl developments, historic preservation funding sources can encourage the retrofitting of sprawl into a more sustainable, accessible, affordable, and attractive living arrangement.”
An August 2016 White Paper by Synchrony Financial in collaboration with Quartz creative services discusses Urbanization and the Consumer, as well as strategies for competing with growing E-commerce.
“EXPERIENCE-DRIVEN RETAIL: THE RISE OF FLAGSHIPS, CURATED SATELLITES, POP-UPS, AND CONCEPT SHOPS
Urban consumers strongly favor the in-store shopping experience—with an emphasis on the experience. Eighteen percent of urban millennials expect to shop more in stores in the coming year than they did the last. When they do, they expect more than just a transaction. They want a unique experience that differentiates their spending and are willing to pay, on average, 31.6% more for it.
From flagship stores to short-lived, curated experiences, the future of retail involves meeting shoppers on their own terms—in the physical spaces they prefer.
The spread of city culture and denser living means customers are willing to pay more for brands that sell experiences—that sell a lifestyle—as well as provide on-demand convenience.”
These same strategies can be aimed at all ages and populations, and should be applied to Mall Retrofits in suburban settings where the decline of aging malls continues to drive down surrounding property values.
Jerry Cianciolo of the Wall Street Journal wrote:
“At one point in the 1940s, a house was completed every 16 minutes in Levittown, N.Y., the first mass-produced suburb in America.
Until William Levitt broke ground on what was formerly a potato patch on Long Island, inefficient small operators dominated the housing sector. Levitt—who had been introduced to the efficiencies of mass production during World War II—knew his competitors couldn’t meet the increasing demand for new housing as more soldiers came home. He wanted to be the one who did.
The entrepreneur analyzed the home-construction process and segmented it into 27 steps. He then adopted an inverse of the assembly-line method popularized by Henry Ford —his workers moved as the objects remained stationary.”
According to Galina Tachieva, “Levittown changed the pattern of building communities in the United States because William Levitt created a normative product, the auto-dependent suburban enclave, which he could repeat easily. So we have to come up with normative step-by-step tools to retrofit suburbia in the way it was built. With the Sprawl Repair Manual, we are developing methods that can duplicate the speed and energy that Levitt used, wth the intent to repair sprawling suburbs and form complete living communities.”
A December 5, 2016 report, Housing in the Evolving American Suburb, provides a new analytic framework developed by RCLCO for the ULI Terwilliger Center for Housing that describes different kinds of suburbs based on the key factors that define and determine their housing markets. The report classifies and compares suburbs in the 50 largest metro areas in the U.S. – shown in a searchable online map – and assesses the key issues that will shape suburban residential demand and development in the years ahead.
Terwilliger Center Executive Director Stockton Williams says, “The capacity of American suburbs to evolve with the economic and demographic transformations the country is experiencing will be one of the central real estate and land use issues of the 21st century.”
Dan argues for more supporting data. Yes, such data and research may help win arguments for better connectivity, better urbanism, and even finding investment and financing. However, the current economic condition is so dire, unpredictable, and very different from other times’ that even if we have the research in hand, it may not be relevant. Today’s predicament of our sprawling suburbs requires fast, even risky response, not necessarily rooted in proven data — more of the type of small-scale actions with limited scope that June discusses, since by their very nature these actions often have much quicker and more telling outcomes than do more ambitious approaches and timelines.
Showing how, through history, urbanism has supported economic recovery (or did it?) can be helpful, but many of the techniques and tools we need to employ today to repair and retrofit sprawl will be brave and new, and may have no data to support their use. New Urbanism was built on the basis of past evidence – but evidence clearly available to anyone who looked for it, through their experiences – not through an abstract analysis.
We will be inventing ways to do things and even new markets, similarly to the first steps that New Urbanism took. Our innovations will include: how to deal with failing residential subdivisions with multiple foreclosures and deserted properties; how to implement micro-repairs by introducing small but effective amenity packages; and how to create downtowns of modest proportions without financial backing and big investors.
June asks, can suburban retrofitting be taken seriously, as architecture? I would say that suburban retrofitting will not be about architecture at all; it will be about economic survival. Entering a post-recession decade, obviously without fanfare, we will need not only to repair the physical fabric of sprawl but also to generate a new economic framework.
This will require new types of creativity, discovering niche markets and banking more on uniqueness than on omnipresence. Suburbia is already people-diverse, a collection of “ethno-burbs,” and it can support a new “artisan” economy that already is burgeoning in distressed cities and their inner-ring neighborhoods. This phenomenon of economic uncertainty and transition is similar to Eastern Europe in the early ‘90’s, when scarcity inspired a new informal grassroots economy.
Today’s American suburbs have an overabundance of everything — infrastructure, national chains, big boxes, fast-food drive-throughs — but when overabundance starts to fail, high quantity becomes a liability. Re-using and adapting the existing suburban types to incubate new possibilities will help gradually complete the rest of sprawl’s incomplete fabric and make it more livable and sustainable in the long run.