Transforming the suburbs

Sprawling housing in Edmonton, Canadaimage:
Sprawling housing in Edmonton, Canada

If you haven’t been paying attention, there is a bit of a housing boom happening right now.  For the past few years during the real estate slump we have been hearing about something called “the new normal”.  The new normal was supposed to mean smaller homes, multigenerational housing products, budget conscious buyers, abandonment of the ex-urbs.  However the latest housing boom is very, well, normal.  The suburbs are booming with large homes on large lots intended for single family occupancy.  It appears that if buyers can get a loan, they are going big again.  It is difficult to know how long this boom will continue and if it will again be met by a bust, but the question is: how can we, the designers of residential environments, better challenge the conventions of homebuilding industry this time around?

The suburbs in the United States have been blamed for many of the ills of our society over the recent years, likely warranted when discussing our fuel consumption and obesity epidemics.  Many authors have recently attempted to provide new tools for addressing suburban form, with the belief that a grand transformation of suburbia is possible.  Ellen Dunham-Jones, in Retrofitting Suburbia, and Galina Tachieva, in The Sprawl Repair Manual, have outlined steps needed to reinvent suburban America  These visions of the future are exciting and imaginative; however, they are optimistic as they leave the suburbs resembling our high density urban cores.  A review of Tachieva’s chapter titled Repair at the Community Level, for instance, demonstrates the dramatic evolution a suburban subdivision would need to undergo to be considered retrofitted.  New roadways are proposed to improve connectivity, single family structures are replaced with other uses, and many existing structures are removed to increase open space connectivity. The result of Tachieva’s retrofit is a stunning village, centered with civic open space and surrounded by lively commerce.  In reality, the market for a large increase in leasable real estate is non-existent today and unlikely to return at the level necessary to see significant transformations.  It may be more appropriate to embrace the suburban character, recognize its flaws, and slowly nurture these places to health with small steps toward greater livability.

New Urbanists have been engaged in the discussion of how to create more livable and walkable communities for nearly 30 years.  In 1993, Andres Duany and Peter Calthorpe, among others, created the Congress for New Urbanism whose mission is in part to “…stand for the reconfiguration of sprawling suburbs into communities of real neighborhoods and diverse districts, the conservation of natural environments, and the preservation of our built legacy.” To expand on this goal, Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk co-authored the SmartCode, which provides a “Form Based Code” for the development of new communities.  Duany and Plater-Zyberk recognize that one code will not be appropriate for every community across the United States; therefore, the SmartCode is designed similar to an open source computer program, where users are entitled to manipulate the document to improve contextualization.  The code establishes a foundation of planning tools including: street design, architectural setback and disposition requirements, sidewalk design, landscape and lighting design, and a section on land use. The ability to generate communities through the use of the SmartCode that foster walking by organizing development to engage the public realm and through the introduction of a mix of land uses is particularly interesting.

SmartCode transectimage: Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co
SmartCode transect
image: Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co

The SmartCode provides community designers and policy makers with a tool to create new livable communities.  A review of the SmartCode resulted in choosing the T3 “Sub-Urban Zone” as the most appropriate for assessing American suburbia.

Street cross sections:

SmartCode provides a dimension of 9 to 11 feet per travel lane for streets with a 25 mile per hour speed limit.  The recommended configuration for travel lanes with on-street parking is two 9 foot travel lanes and one 8’ yield parking lane for a total of 26 feet of paving.

Public frontage:

SmartCode classifies public frontages dependant on the relationship between the lot line, or right of way, and the edge of vehicular traffic.  Street trees planted between the sidewalk and the curb are recommended for right of ways over 40’ in width.  SmartCode also recommends sidewalk widths of 4 to 8 feet and a dimension of 8 to 12 feet from back of curb to front of sidewalk.

Private frontage:

SmartCode suggests suburban yards should have either a “common yard” or a “porch & fence” configuration.  Common yards are described as contiguous landscape which crosses property lines, and porch & fence configurations are described as at a minimum, 8 foot front porches with accompanied fencing which holds the street frontage.

Land uses:

SmartCode encourages mixed use environments even within the most rural of residential communities.  These uses are limited to residential, live work units, bed and breakfast, retail buildings, religious assembly, and childcare centers.

Before challenging homebuilders to embrace these concepts, we must first examine the reasons people choose to live in the suburban environment in the first place.  According to Richard Florida in his article, Suburban Renewal, approximately fifty percent of the United States population lives in the suburbs and they are quite satisfied with the lifestyle they have chosen. Philip Langdon, in A Better Place to Live, states that people choose to live in the suburbs because they believe they are healthy environments to raise children.  Langdon also states that people tend to gravitate toward streets which are lightly used due to their perceived security.  He goes on to discuss the potential side effect of the suburban lifestyle by acknowledging the increase in isolation felt by suburban youth. Beyond the “drive ‘til you qualify” and “safety” reasons typically mentioned as reasons for choosing the suburbs, Langdon suggests the real reason may be good marketing.  Communities are blessed with branding and graced with abundant amenities visible from the homebuyer’s vehicle along the marketing trail.  Unfortunately, these spaces are often designed with little regard to the pedestrian.

A typical street scene reflecting the SmartCode's T4, General Urban, Fitchburg, WIimage: PlaceMakers
A typical street scene reflecting the SmartCode’s T3, Sub-Urban, Fitchburg, WI
image: PlaceMakers

So it may be that regardless of what we try to do as designers, the suburbs will continue to be products of market conditions and branding strategies.  If we speak the language of marketability and understand that there are few other opportunities to influence branding than the creation of a quality street scene, we may be able to influence the latest housing boom to be more socially interactive and livable.  Jane Jacobs describes the best streets as those with a real blend of uses that are occupied throughout the day.  Obviously she was referring to the many great urban environments we love and not the suburban sprawl that we are accustomed to.  What, then, can we take from Ms. Jacobs’ empirical evidence here in suburban America?  It is important to first establish the street as something other than a utility, instead it is a place that should be purposeful and provide the maximum benefit for all users.  If a neighborhood street’s only purpose is to move vehicles from the arterial to the home then it is not living up to its full potential both from a marketing perspective and from a livability perspective.  What are the other elements we should try to build in to our suburban street system?  They should be equal parts vehicular circulation, pedestrian circulation, social interaction, and ecosystem services.

The most immediately tangible benefit derived from improving the pedestrian experience in communities is the increase in marketability.  This walkable lifestyle marketability leads to a higher demand and higher sales prices when compared with typical residential developments.  According to Joseph Cortright in Walking the Walk, there is a 4 to 15 percent premium for homes in New Urbanist Developments. While these communities may not actually provide all of the services one needs within walking distance, they do appear to be designed with the pedestrian in mind.  This perception is important to achieve when a developer or homebuilder intends on utilizing this market force.

Today we are met with a new boom, one that will ignore our potential contributions if we don’t seize the moment.  There is no way to know how long this market will continue so we need to set the new suburban precedent now so that it might endure into the next boom.

by Kristian Kelley, chair of the Housing and Community Design PPN


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