Boxed in by changing markets, 20th-century suburbs learn how to reinvent themselves
February 04, 2018
February 04, 2018
In the competition for knowledge workers and jobs, suburbs find a surprising road to success: Becoming more urban
This post introduces themes explored in Suburban Remix: Creating the Next Generation of Urban Places, edited by Jason Beske and David Dixon.
The dynamics that created the post-World War II suburban dream of single-family houses, white picket fences, and a new car in the driveway—and the corresponding nightmare of sprawl—are in retreat. Yet as we cross a demographic, social and economic Rubicon, we should embrace the potential to add a far richer, more urban sensibility to what it means to be suburban.
Demographic changes have generated a compelling development opportunity.Households with two adults and kids—the natural market for single-family detached housing and the demographic group that dominated North America’s housing market for five decades—now buy or rent fewer housing units than single women.
For the next two decades singles and couples will constitute more than two-thirds of all new households formed. In the words of a community member—commenting on plans to create a new town center on the site of a mall in suburban Roanoke, Virginia—“North America is a suburban continent with an urban population.”
North America is a suburban continent with an urban population.
This seismic demographic shift has already begun reshaping housing markets. Demographer Chris Nelson has projected that over the period 2010-2030 America will need to build more than 50 million new “urban” housing units, from small-lot detached houses to multifamily towers. Not surprisingly, since 2000, per-square-foot values for housing have risen more than 50% faster in urban than in suburban settings—a strong signal from the markets about the value of turning sprawl into walkable urbanism.
This development opportunity closely tracks two compelling economic and fiscal imperatives. As our population ages, North America will add significantly fewer workers in 2040 than it did in 2010. We already face a significant deficit of skilled and educated workers that accelerated in 2010 as the first Baby Boomers retired. In an era in which virtually all net new jobs require a college education, jobs and investment increasingly follow educated workers; multiple studies document that these workers head to walkable, mixed-use, and amenity-rich urban centers. GE’s relocation to downtown Boston and Amazon’s HQ2 search stand out as two high-profile examples of this now-established pattern. Since 2000, office rents have risen more than twice as fast in urban locations as in traditional suburban settings (retail rents have followed a similar trajectory). For suburbs, the future of economic development and fiscal health lies in creating urban centers.
This imperative has an important a social dimension. According to Elizabeth Kneebone in “Suburban Poverty Is Missing from the Conversation about America’s Future,” the number of poor people living in US suburbs rose by 65% between 2000 and 2014 and now outstrips the number living in cities. By 2040, in part because they have become the primary ports-of-entry for immigrants, suburbs will be more racially diverse than cities. At the same time, people over age 65 will represent more than half of suburban population growth well past 2030. Suburbs’ growing economic, cultural, and generational diversity will translate into a demand for more educational, social, and other services—and growing costs for suburban municipalities.
Reinforcing both the real estate opportunity and the economic/fiscal imperative, a mobility revolution over the next two decades will boost walkable urban places in cities and suburbs. While widespread private ownership of autonomous vehicles would encourage further sprawl, AVs will likely remain luxury products for a limited market.
The real disruption will come from shared autonomous vehicles (SAVs)—six- to twelve-passenger electric vehicles. Rod Schebesch, who leads Stantec’s SAV research program, calls them “the ultimate mobile device for urban connectivity.” In urban settings, they will out-compete private ownership on both cost and convenience and will likely become omnipresent on urban streets in cities and suburbs within a decade. Their widespread adoption will enhance urban centers’ amenity value and ability to offer genuine live/work/play lifestyles. Constantly moving (or docked for recharging), they’ll substantially reduce the amount—and cost—of parking required to support urban development, compared to lower-density environments. SAVs won’t, however, disrupt equally. They’ll operate largely in urban environments that support a critical mass of people and destinations. “Urban” will increasingly signify places where mobility is shared, not owned.
Suburban Remix projects an optimistic future for suburbs that consciously choose to trade sprawl for urbanism, and follow up with concrete action. Without damaging a blade of grass on a single residential lawn, these suburbs can seize opportunities to transform tens of millions of acres of “greyfields”—outmoded, mostly single-use shopping centers, office parks, and industrial sites—into a new generation of compact, dense, walkable, mixed-use—urban—places that embody a new suburban dream defined by diversity and stronger sense of community. The stage is set for suburbs to write a new chapter, one in which their signature feature is not a new mall but a new urban center.
The process of launching change begins with three base-line requirements:
For this process to succeed, new urban places require a foundation marked by:
To achieve their promise, these urban places follow principles designed to bring them to life as the civic, economic, and social heart of community life:
Suburban Remix: Creating the Next Generation of Urban Places edited by Jason Beske and David Dixon is available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book format. To receive a 20% discount on the book, use the code 4REMIX when ordering at https://islandpress.org/books/suburban-remix.