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Boxed in by changing markets, 20th-century suburbs learn how to reinvent themselves

February 04, 2018

By David Dixon

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.

Developer Crawford Hoying brought back “offices above the store” at its walkable Bridge Park development, a new urban center organized around a Main Street in Dublin, Ohio, outside of Columbus. (Image courtesy of Crawford Hoying)

Remixing suburbs for a new era of success

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.

Changing markets and demographics. (Left) By 2030, the U.S. population will have nearly doubled since 1970, yet the country will only have 2 million more children than it did then. Two-parent families with children, the main market for traditional suburban homes, will have shrunk dramatically relative to household types that need (or want) less room. (Right) In 2030, suburban residents will be poorer, older, and more diverse. Suburban municipalities will face rising costs as they try to meet demands for more, and more kinds of services.  

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.

Changing markets and demographics. (Left) A wave of retirements by Baby Boomers has already cut into labor market growth, contributing to a growing shortage of knowledge workers. To compete, knowledge industry businesses and investment increasingly go to the urban places where these workers want to live and work. (Right) Many of those retirees will want to downsize. Combine that with a Millennial preference for urban settings and you get significant new demand for walkable development.

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. 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.

A phased 10- to 15-year redevelopment plan will replace the Tanglewood Mall parking lot with a walkable, mixed-use town center that serves the Route 419 corridor in suburban Roanoke County, Virginia. (Stantec)

Recalculating: How suburbs can make the leap  

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:

  • Civic leadership—an elected official, advocacy group or community leader—who steps forward to begin building the public support and partnerships to move it forward.
  • Transformative planning that translates diverse perspectives, values, market realities, and other factors into a cohesive vision and achievable strategies.
  • In-depth, inclusive engagement—a community-wide conversation built on information-gathering, communication, and trade-offs.

A grid of new walkable streets is transforming acres of surface parking at the edge of South Bay Center—a 1990s, suburban-style shopping center within the Boston city limits—into a new mixed-use neighborhood. (Stantec)

For this process to succeed, new urban places require a foundation marked by:

  • Market demand that supports redevelopment and public/private partnerships.
  • A compact, critical mass that mixes housing, retail, jobs, and public spaces, typically totaling three million square feet or more, developed on a largely contiguous site of at least 50 acres.
  • One or more willing property owners who own key sites and are willing to take risks and participate in partnerships.
  • A spirit of equity—housing opportunities, activities, and public spaces that invite the full spectrum of the community.

In suburban Bethesda, Maryland, Bethesda Lane occupies a complex of new and rehabbed buildings. With multiple uses, active storefronts, and programmed events, it has created a lively public space that serves multiple functions for residents, workers, and visitors. 

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:

  • Above all, they’re walkable—distinguished by lively sidewalks and animated by a wide variety of shops, food, entertainment, and other amenities that invite people to walk.
  • They connect to their community in multiple ways: by bike, on foot, by bus (and sometimes transit), and, of course, by car—these are suburbs, after all.
  • They feature a multilayered public realm, from “active” squares to places of quiet reflection, and often include a “town green” and other civic spaces. 
  • They offer diverse choices for living, working, shopping, and playing, geared to residents’ increasingly diverse lifestyles.
  • They are authentic, defined by the qualities that distinguish a community and its setting

About the book

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

  • David Dixon

    Residential Architecture Magazine named David to their Hall of Fame as “the person we call to ask about cities"

    Contact David
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