The journey from suburban to urban
The vision that drove the growth of the suburbs in the 1950’s has changed, and so have the communities where most middle-class people live and raise their families. Urban lifestyles are becoming more appealing but remain financially out of reach of most middle-income families. And so instead, to cater to that appeal, the suburbs are becoming more diverse and sophisticated. Americans are giving a thumbs down to homogenous car-centric bedroom communities no matter where they live. Instead they’re seeking diverse walkable neighborhoods rich with unique stores, restaurants and culture.
The Urban Land Institute (ULI) projects that suburbs that include retirees, working women, immigrants, and young professionals, will continue to become “denser, more diverse and more urban.”
Studies show that commuter rail is a vital component of the twenty-first century transformation of the suburbs. As traffic around major metro hubs throughout the United States gets worse every day, avoiding a driving commute is becoming an imperative. This is driving the culture of the new suburbia. Increasingly, vibrant communities are developed around alternative transportation hubs, such as new train stations, and the gigantic parking lots of the past that surround many existing suburban stations are being transformed into stores, restaurants and housing. The desire for walkable neighborhoods play out as housing developments nearby are occupied as fast as they can be built.
And just when we thought that mom and pop stores might become a thing of the past, small businesses are springing up in increasing numbers around commuter rail stations around the country. The Regional Planning Society’s (RPA) recent report, Untapped Potential Opportunities for Affordable Homes and Neighborhoods Near Transit, highlights how walkable neighborhoods are becoming the next wave. Municipalities are investing in railway lines that will fuel development. And they are adjusting zoning regulations to permit multi-family housing development in areas that were previously solidly single-family housing.
A push for amenities
Lewis Mumford’s outdated vision of the suburbs as a treeless bland uniform wasteland, is fading fast as suburbs are beginning to attract some of the most diverse and interesting restaurants and stores including art galleries and contemporary museums. GlobeSt.com and other industry watch groups report that suburban residents are increasingly demanding urban amenities. This trend is further fueled by an increasing number of remote workers who no longer commute to employment hubs.
With more residents staying in the community during the day, the suburbs are no longer the daytime ghost towns they were a few years ago.
The push outwards continues
Many existing suburbs strictly regulate housing density, not permitting the desired dense and urban landscape. Some who want a more urban experience look even further than the suburbs. Urban style suburbs are taking root in rural communities driven by those who have carved out a work-at-home lifestyle, buoyed by others who start small businesses and often an inexpensive place for retirees to settle, In New York’s Hudson Valley, for example, small towns that are over an hour commute from Manhattan, such as Kingston, are quickly becoming enclaves with urban characteristics. Dilapidated Victorian homes are being bought up by New Yorkers who can no longer afford the city. This initial wave of gentrification is laying the groundwork for future development, such as residential and commercial high rise and townhouse properties along the river. Kingston’s website claims the town is “perfect for tech entrepreneurs” to “raise a family and enjoy a better way of life at a lower cost.”
What should development in the new urban suburb look like?
Now it’s up to developers to provide the right kind of housing, with urban appeal, near transit and cultural amenities in suburban communities.
An urban experience is created through density. Density of housing will in turn promote a lively commercial district, fueling the success of local businesses. High-rises and townhouses in close proximity to train stations will promote walkability and an urban life-style. A variety of housing types will promote a diversity of demographic. And along with density is a desire for unique architecture, rather than cookie cutter developments, even in commercial districts. Boutiques, cafes, and art galleries are replacing strip malls and chain stores.
In other words, goodbye to homogeneity and hello to individuality in the suburbs.
Image by John D. Norton.