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The Death and Life of Great American…Suburbs?

Orenco Station Town Center in Hillsboro, Oregon

The late New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp was probably speaking for many architects and urbanists when he told a gathering at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2000, "I know it's important to be aware of what's going on in suburban America, but you know, who cares?" (The professional audience reportedlyresponded with laughter and applause.)

Perhaps we should all care, if for no other reason than that it’s in suburban America—and the other rapidly growing parts of the world that are copying its sprawling patterns—where most people live, and where most of the impacts (positive as well as negative) are generated on our environment, our economy, and our social life. Nor are today’s suburbs only enclaves for privileged whites; increasingly they are diverse, and increasingly they reflect the same challenges as inner cities, including poverty and crime.

According to a 2018 Pew Research Center study, about 175 million Americans live in suburban counties, while just 98 million live in urban counties, many of which also include their own suburban areas. The dense urban cores represent an even smaller percentage of the U.S. population—perhaps less than 20 percent, depending on definitions. Increasingly these cores are gentrifying, becoming a new kind of enclave for a more monocultural upper middle class, much as suburbs were before them.

Yet it’s a common claim that “over half of the world’s population now lives in cities,” suggesting a planet increasingly teeming with dense, diverse mega-cities. This too is far from the case: globally, overwhelming majorities of people live in suburbs—and alarmingly, they are increasingly sprawling and low-density.

Suburban growth is also on the upswing again in the United States, as a recent Brookings Metropolitan Center study reported. That trend follows over a decade of moving “back to the cities,” as urban cores again became popular and suburbs saw relative declines. In part the new return to the suburbs is a consequence of the soaring cost of real estate in overheated urban cores, and the toxic effects of urban gentrification.

One of the factors propelling that earlier period of urban popularity was a growing recognition of the remarkable capacities of big cities—their so-called “agglomeration benefits” fueling economic growth and opportunity, also bringing notable reductions in environmental impacts per person. Those attractions led some authors to proclaim the “triumph of the city” (as Edward Glaeser described in a book by that name) amid the “rise of the creative class” (as chronicled in Richard Florida’s so-named book).

These and other authors built on the insights of the urban champion Jane Jacobs, who recognized the inherent capacity of cities to connect us to one another, to needed resources, and to diverse opportunities and ideas. Cities do that, Jacobs said, because at their cores is a system of public spaces including streets, offering fluidity of movement and mixing of uses. Cities give us “propinquity and serendipity”—close mixing and random encounters with a diversity of people and ideas, sometimes leading to new ideas and creative expansion.

Recent research is providing new evidence of the importance of this kind of connected public realm for economic and cultural creativity—down to the humble street and sidewalk: “Lowly, unpurposeful and random as they may appear,” observed Jacobs, “sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city's wealth of public life may grow.” It now appears that more literal forms of wealth grow from this public space contact as well.

It’s evidently possible to re-create much of this economic synergy in today’s suburban environments—in their corporate campuses and conference centers, and all the other suburban places that are interconnected by cars and airplanes and digital technology. Indeed, this is how places like the Silicon Valley evidently produce such vast wealth even today. But it seems clear that this suburban connectivity also requires a huge—apparently unsustainable—injection of resources. Cities, by contrast, rely on a more natural form of connectivity, in their public spaces, and in the natural adjacencies and contacts they bring.

Yet the current overheating of the urban cores also appears increasingly unsustainable. For their parts, both Glaeser and Florida have acknowledged a dark side to the “triumph of the city”—particularly in its runaway gentrification and displacement, and what Florida calls “winner-take-all urbanism.”

In part, the current over-heating has resulted from a kind of “supply-side policy” exploiting the very real agglomeration benefits of the cores. The idea has been to promote ever more growth there, through deregulation of building heights and lower tax incentives. The resulting red-hot economic activity (and increased supply of housing) would “trickle down” to benefit all, including the urban poor and the suburban middle-class. 

Yet what we have experienced instead is the opposite: a growing inequality between the city elites and the displaced, including the urban poor, left-behind suburbanites, and rural residents—and a growing populist revolt, chronicled by LSE’s Andrés Rodríguez-Pose as “the revenge of the places that don’t matter." 

George Bush senior was famous for criticizing supply-side economic theory as “voodoo economics”—the failed promise that favoring one elite group will trickle down to magically benefit others too. Today we could speak of “voodoo urbanism,” making the same kind of failed promise.

It appears now that we need a more geographically diverse, more “polycentric” form of urbanization. We might call it “Goldilocks urbanism”—economically speaking, not too hot, and not too cold. We need to “spread it around”—economic and cultural opportunity, along with the connected, “Jacobsian” urban forms that help to generate it. And that includes the suburbs, where most people already live.

This is an idea that many people are exploring, with promising results. One place that has sought to implement this idea is the Portland, Oregon region. As in other regions, the vast majority of the metro’s residents live not in the trendy Portland core that is familiar from shows like Portlandia—a core that is also experiencing soaring costs, displacement and gentrification—but rather, in the region’s suburbs. (The ratio is at least three to one.)

Portland’s efforts to urbanize the suburbs started early. In the 1990s, the regional planning authority, Metro, developed a “polycentric” plan known as the 2040 Growth Concept, featuring many “centers” connected by “corridors,” served not only by cars but also rail, bus, and other transportation choices. Some centers were existing, and some—especially in the suburbs—were on under-utilized greenfield or grayfield sites at key nodes.

One of these was a new “town center” now known as Orenco Station, built on a new light rail line passing through a major concentration of high-tech businesses in the Hillsboro suburbs. Begun in the late 1990s, the mature neighborhood now features walkable streets and blocks, a mix of uses, a diversity of building types and prices (including affordable housing), and much greater compactness than the surrounding suburbs (on the order of 20 units to the acre, compared to two units to the acre previously). The town center (seen in the photo at the beginning of this post) is now a popular neighborhood amenity for local residents, old and new.

Orenco Station followed closely the urbanization model called a “pedestrian pocket,” proposed in 1989 by the architect Peter Calthorpe, with colleague Doug Kelbaugh and others. New, walkable, mixed urban pockets could be created along transit lines within existing sprawling regions, thereby connecting a more functional regional urban network. An early iteration of Orenco Station was designed by Calthorpe, and its implementers (including this author) largely followed its outlines over the two decades of buildout.

So how has this early experiment in urbanizing the suburbs performed? Research by sociologist Bruce Podobnik showed that Orenco Station’s walking rates are remarkably high, its measures of social capital are much higher than nearby suburbs, and its use of automobiles is about on par with inner-city Portland rates. Another study by urban researcher Reid Ewing and colleagues showed that Orenco Station’s parking demands are significantly lower than typical suburban standards, further indicating an overall decline of reliance on the automobile, and increasing use of walking, biking and transit to get around.

Another mature example of such a “suburban retrofit” is Carmel, Indiana—a former bedroom community not on the trendy (and geographically contained) West Coast but in the wide-open American heartland. A suburb of Indianapolis, Carmel was originally built in the typical sprawling, low-density, auto-dependent pattern of other suburbs. More recently the town has seen a remarkable transformation into a much more compact, walkable, diverse town center.

Mayor Jim Brainard is a believer in the importance of diversity for a city’s health—or a suburb’s. "When I study the history of our cities, I see that the most important advances take place when people of diverse backgrounds meet. Carmel's diversity brings a richness to the fabric of our community," he says.

To implement their vision, the mayor and his team studied international lessons about how to create livable, walkable, lively suburban towns. “We learned from the best in the world about creating distinct mixed-use human scale areas to which people are drawn and in which they can thrive,” he says. To share those and other lessons with others, Carmel will host an international conference in June 2020, bringing together other city leaders, activists and professionals interested in “urbanizing the suburbs,” co-organized with International Making Cities Livable (IMCL).

For her part, Jacobs wasn’t initially interested in suburbs, as her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities made clear. She preferred not to discuss the “bland shadows of cities suburbanized,” as she called her era’s suburbs.  “I have concentrated on great cities, and on their inner areas, because this is the problem that has been most consistently evaded in planning theory,” she explained. But today, as suburbs densify and diversify, and as it becomes an urgent international priority to offer better-quality, more resilient, more livable cities and suburbs, Jacobs’ ideas seem especially timely. Good research is needed—and effective practice too—in delivering walkability, diversity, and a connected public realm, to all these places.

Michael Mehaffy is Senior Researcher with the Ax:son Johnson Foundation and the Centre for the Future of Places in Stockholm, Sweden, and Director of the Suzanne C. and Henry L. Lennard Institute for Livable Cities, co-organizers of the 2020 International Making Cities Livable conference in Carmel, Indiana.

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