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.
Developers have identified a desire by suburbanites for ‘experiences’ that provide them with activities and places to interact. Hence the rise of cooking demonstrations, outdoor yoga classes, smaller concert venues, farmers markets, and splashable fountains, among others. The more time spent together, the more likely people will also shop, dine, and hold a positive view of their community.
Much of suburban sprawl is vehicle-oriented, served by inadequate sidewalks, and inaccessible without a car. Highlighting Jeff Speck’s new book, Walkability City Rules: 101 Steps to Making Better Place, the article discusses how investing in walkability can enhance the appeal of places to a range of ages, increase home values and jobs numbers, and promote local expenditure on goods and services.
Alongside unsustainable sprawl, unsightly strip malls are too often a feature of our suburban landscape. This article draws ideas from DeSoto Marketplace in DeSoto, Texas. The approach here was incremental and adaptive, introducing small cost-effective changes that, over time, transformed the underutilized shopping center into a pocket of walkability and a vibrant local business.
Further case studies can be found in a paper prepared by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and the Congress for the New Urbanism, Reclaiming the Strip Mall: A Common Suburban Form, Transformed, by Christopher Kuschel.
“Providence, which won a 2018 CNU Charter Award, is an example of how traditional neighborhood development can add to quality of life in a car-oriented suburban landscape.” explains Rob Steuteville, Public Square. The 305 acre Village of Providence intentionally rebalances the previously fragmented, single-use sprawl at the northwest city limits of Huntsville with infill, housing diversity, shared amenities, and useful commercial. By providing the region’s missing ingredients in a walkable environment, it has become a preferred place to live and a popular evening hang-out.
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.”
Paul Genovesi, CNU-A, is an Urban Designer at DPZ CoDesign in Miami, FL. As a Millennial, formerly of New Jersey, he offers additional commentary on Alastair Boone’s piece:
“Why Are Millennials Leaving New Jersey?
- New Jersey ranked 47th out of 50 states and Washington, D.C., for its percentage of Millennials in 2012.
- Of the state’s 565 municipalities, only 183 scored well on two or all three smart-growth metrics, and according to the study, only 111 of those places are popular with Millennials.
- New Jersey’s Millennials are struggling to find affordable housing in their home state. For one, 47 percent of them live with their parents. In fact, New Jersey has the highest rate in the country of 18-to-34-year-olds living with their parents.
- 54 percent of the housing in New Jersey is made up of single-family detached homes”
Losing millennials is just the tipping point for New Jersey. As these young, talented professionals flock to Hoboken to work in New York, or flee to adjacent Philadelphia and leave the state altogether, their empty-nester parents are also abandoning the Garden State to escape the high property taxes. Even their prospective employers are following them on the train out of NJ. According to Plan Smart NJ, the state currently has a 60+ year stock of vacant office space, and it’s increasing by the day as companies follow the millennials to areas like Brooklyn and Philadelphia.
Repairing suburban office parks and shopping areas to make them once again viable for millennial employers/retailers should be a priority. These areas should be near existing major transit stations, as they are primed to better provide an exchange of residents, jobs, and lifestyle activities with the major metropolitan areas like New York, Hoboken/Jersey City, and Philadelphia.
However, none of this will be possible without a major bureaucratic makeover in the state. Exclusionary zoning laws prohibit the building of walkable urbanism and housing types other than single family. High property taxes make homeownership difficult and force rents to be higher than the market dictates. Arguably, the extremely limited/restrictive liquor license laws may be the biggest hurdle that prohibits millennial-popular places from forming in New Jersey. Several of the new urban/infill projects in the state are successful, but lack a pulse after 8pm, just like the sleepy suburb the millennial fled in the first place.
As American malls are failing, Latin American malls seem to be thriving. Social and economic factors appear to be the key. The good news for American retailers is that those who retrofit based on the resurgent Main Street model will be best positioned to capitalize on changing trends.
“…fear of violent crime and a relative lack of high-quality urban environments are also factors in the Latin American mall boom … malls provide a safe place to shop, and mall managers invest heavily in security. Combine this with the lack of reliable mail and home delivery service that hampers the e-commerce sector and there isn’t much competition for Latin America’s rising middle-class shoppers.
In most U.S. cities, on the other hand, violent crime has fallen dramatically over the last 25 years, and walkable urban neighborhoods that boast restaurants, bars, salons, and “experiential retail” are thriving. In this sense, the decline of the North American mall reflects a positive trend: The Main Streets that malls once menaced are coming back. Such amenity-laden neighborhoods are also in a better position than suburban malls to fend off the threat of online shopping.
In the U.S. and Canada, malls are still overwhelmingly anchored by major retailers like Sears, JC Penney, and Macy’s. And as the fortunes of these department stores have declined, they’ve dragged the malls they’re attached to with them. In Latin America, on the other hand, a whole variety of businesses act as anchors. Grocery stores are common in Latin American malls and are often situated at the end of long corridors lined with smaller shops, creating a steady flow of foot traffic.
When we feel nostalgia for malls, maybe what we’re really feeling is nostalgia a time when incomes were rising and the quality of life of average people was improving.”
Steve Mouzon comments on the conspicuously-empty parking lots at malls and shopping centers during last week’s annual Black Friday event, looking for signs of the “Fall of Sprawl.”
While the final accounting is not yet in, he predicts, “most retailers will still be firmly in the red, many with little hope of turning a profit at all this year, making this the first Red Friday in America. The crash might come more quickly than anyone ever thought.”
“Fortunately, New Urbanists led by Galina Tachieva, Ellen Dunham-Jones, and June Williamson have responded to the alarm bells rung by Charles and Joe by crafting a suite of solutions now known as Sprawl Retrofit that can help transform forward-looking sprawling suburbs with courage and political will into vibrant and sustainable places with high Walk Appeal and a diverse collection of local businesses to serve them.”
NPR’s Alina Selyukh describes how German grocers Aldi and Lidl are changing the way Americans shop in both urban and suburban markets. Their compact foot prints and stream-lined service and merchandise fit well in compact, walkable communities, and offer lessons for American retailers in the changing retail climate:
“Both [Aldi and Lidl] stores are known particularly for private-brand, or store-label, products. Jim Hertel, senior vice president at food retail consultancy Inmar Willard Bishop Analytics, says that allows these grocers to offer customers savings of about 35-40 percent compared with other supermarkets. A limited stock goes into these discount stores, which are very compact and value efficiency above frills.
“Typically, in a grocery store you’d often find 25, 26, 27 aisles. In Lidl, what we do here is just six aisles,” says Lidl spokesman Will Harwood. “By the time a customer reaches the end of the first aisle, they’re going to typically be able to do about 80 percent of their shop.”
Hertel says there’s a common misconception that Aldi stores are geared toward low-income shoppers on very limited food budgets. “It’s really a combination,” he says. “Certainly, the extreme value does … appeal to the lower end of the economic scale, but actually the bulk of their sales come from mid- to maybe just above middle-class households.”
A well-known new urban project has begun to reshape the relentless sprawl around it, but communities shouldn’t wait for that to happen.
Robert Steuteville wonders if Santana Row, “represents real progress—or is it merely dressing up a mess of disconnected development?”
To what extent is Santana Row an improvement [over conventional suburban development (CSD)]? And is it causing a positive impact beyond its borders?
Unlike the strip mall it replaced, Santana Row includes more than 800 housing units on the 42-acre site, in a region that is severely short of housing.
“In addition to seeding changes in its immediate context, Santana Row also proved the market for mixed-use, walkable development in the area—and this may have contributed to the revitalization of the city’s downtown several miles away”, according to Ellen Dunham-Jones.
Santana Row’s impact has really taken off now that the community itself has taken the initiative to do more. It has taken San Jose a decade and a half to leverage the impact of Santana Row, and therein is a lesson for municipalities.
Expecting a developer to solve a thoroughfare or context problem that exists at a far larger scale than the development site is unrealistic. The developer has no leverage to change the culture of an institution like the local, state, or federal Department of Transportation. Even if DOTs would be willing to change, politics are involved. By taking the lead in transforming a major thoroughfare, the developer risks additional opposition to their project. There might be good reasons for a developer to attempt that—and I hope they do—but the developer would be crazy to try it without strong support from local leaders.
Chris Sikich discusses plans to insert mixed uses, including, residential and retail development similar to Carmel’s downtown, into the state’s second largest commercial hub along US 31.
When Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard looks at the 5-mile stretch of highway, he doesn’t just see multistory corporate headquarters and health care complexes that have been so instrumental in building the city’s financial base. He says there are hundreds of acres of underused land, not just the few tracts of green space on the market, but also the seas of parking lots that serve the buildings.
“It’s such a waste of space, these big suburban parking lots, which don’t look very nice,” Brainard said. “I anticipate some day there will be little villages around those office towers.”
The mayor is proposing to provide millions in taxpayer incentives for property owners and developers to build restaurants, shops, apartments and condos with parking garages along U.S. 31
As Carmel has developed its urban core, several high-profile corporations have fled the U.S. 31 corridor for the more walkable environment being created in the city’s downtown area.
“The market is changing,” Brainard said. “People don’t want to get in their cars to drive to lunch anymore. They want to walk someplace close to their office.”
He thinks the highest quality development comes from public-private partnerships. He wants to guide development as he has in Carmel’s urban core. He hopes to offer incentives to encourage the development of shops, restaurants, homes and public spaces. That most likely means using TIF districts to pay back city bonds for parking garages, which in the past have cost from $10 million to $20 million each.
“Struggling retailer sees opportunities to improve shopping experience by activating empty parking lots.
As the images of empty parking lots during Black Friday have demonstrated, commercial real estate professionals are slowly warming to the idea that we have far too much parking than is needed- diminishing municipal tax bases and taking away the ability to lease space within struggling shopping centers. Big box retailer Macy’s has announced their intention to create new revenue streams by reimagining acres of unused parking lots- a strategy used by tactical urbanists in places like Nashville, Indianapolis and Miami.”
Jun 20, 2017: Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board spoke to Joshua Harris, director of the Dr. P. Phillips Institute for Research and Education in Real Estate at the University of Central Florida, to ask about malls:
“Q: Did shopping malls ever serve a purpose in society, beyond retailing? What changed, if anything?
A: Shopping malls became the de facto “town square” during the suburban development boom of the ’70s and ’80s. They were the place to go, hang out and be seen. Thus, the urban resurgence that began in the late ’90s, and really intensified in the past 10 years, has taken the “town square” back to the more natural walkable, urban environment. Places like Winter Park, Winter Garden, Thornton Park and now even Baldwin Park (close to 95 percent leased after suffering massive problems during the recession) are all the “hot” places to go on a Friday or Saturday. In reality, history will show that the suburban mall was the aberration, driven by urban decay and rising crime. With urban renewal and major declines in crime, the mall does not fit as well as it did for those few decades. There will be life for existing malls, but likely after being repurposed and designed to feel more like town centers.”
Where logical transportation and community infrastructure already exists, sprawl repair techniques can be used to add residential, office, entertainment, and public open space to spur an entire region with new, walkable Town Centers.
Note: Great article on the success of three New Urbanist developments! These particular communities are examples of new and/or infill projects in suburban locations, which can serve as inspirational models for future suburban retrofits.
Three Alabama towns are robust examples of New Urbanism — traditional communities designed to be practical rather than nostalgic. One was named the National Association of Homebuilders’ 2014 Community of the Year.
In this article, Cary Estes and Art Meripol highlight three successful Alabama communities: Hampstead in Montgomery, the Village of Providence in Huntsville, and Mount Laurel in Birmingham.
It is called New Urbanism, a design concept in which communities are compact and connected. A place where children can walk to school, families can walk to church, and many of the necessities of daily life, such as food and health care, are also just a short stroll away. Where the sidewalks are wide and the front porches deep, and neighbors actually know each other.
“The reason it’s New Urbanism and not old urbanism is that it combines elements of both,” Andres Duany [of DPZ CoDESIGN] says. “We are non-ideological. This is not a nostalgic movement. It’s a pragmatic movement about whatever works best in the long run. And it turns out that what works best tends to have a lot of the characteristics of old-town planning, but with some of the things that suburbs do well. So it’s actually ruthlessly pragmatic.
“Essentially, suburbia, as we’ve known it, is obsolete. Office parks and malls are closing. People want the main streets. So now New Urbanism is dedicated to retrofitting suburbia and repairing urban sprawl. One of the most exciting things we’re doing now is taking all this great investment in suburbia that is losing value, and we’re fixing it. We’re making it walkable and diverse. This isn’t some kind of intellectual movement. It’s driven very much by reality,” according to Duany.
The connection between the type of places we live in and our well-being should be obvious, but until recently there has been little hard data showing sprawl’s negative impacts on our health – both physical and mental. This is changing and not only health practitioners but also public officials and residents have started to acknowledge the importance of walkable, mixed-use environments.