Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Suburban Infill : the choice is Yours

Urban redevelopment is a great way to utilize the efforts of the past towards better futures. It is also a way to enliven often decrepit and quiet areas that were once centers of life. It is efficient and it does not waste land. It brings people closer together.

But what about those stuck out in the suburbs of America? Some, maybe most, suburbanites actually enjoy the sprawling, car-laden world in which they live. They could do without the five o'clock traffic jam, but having a nice lawn and a garage and a place where the kids can shoot baskets outside until 10 pm and few strangers are roaming by--there is a sense of security that many find in the suburbs.

Those who truly love urban life for the pedestrian opportunities and the immense possibilities that open when life is put on the streets (rather than behind the wheel of a car or running on a treadmill) likely find the suburbs to be suffocating and dull. Where is the life on the streets? There are no shops, few people walking around, there are not even sidewalks on every street. Bikers beware too, for the streets are rarely wide enough for bikes and cars to both fit, and suburban drivers are in a rush. Everything is a drive away: work, school, grocery, gym, friends, restaurants, bars,^ shopping malls, hospitals. The suburban life is wasteful. There are too many parking lots and too much gasoline, too much land and too many mega-malls, too many damn highways. Even worse, the suburban life, lived to its most extreme, is a life spent inside in isolation (especially during the cold of winter or the heat of summer).

If, however, the suburbs are here to stay, can they slowly become better urban areas without torching the zoning code and letting the poverty of the city creep in? Or: do we really need any more suburbs than we have now? The answer is yes and no. Yes suburban areas can become more amenable to pedestrians, bicyclists, children below driving age;* and no, we don't need any more than we have now.

The bottom line is that most suburbanites aren't gonna pick up and move to the city, to join all the enlightened urbanites on streets of pigeon shit, hippies and dried coffee. Why not then, bring the city to them? At least the good parts of the city: streets with wide sidewalks, and public parks with benches and beautiful old trees, bike lanes and public transit hubs, corner stores and restaurants that aren't buried away in shopping malls and strip centers. Why not make the suburbs more urban?

Density is an issue. Just how many people does it take to support a corner store and how many suburbanites live within walking or biking distance of the certain lot where said corner store will be? Won't this corner store need a parking lot so folks can drive up and fill their cars with groceries?

The suburban desire to separate residence from commerce is another. Who wants to live next to a corner store (or a parking lot)?

And of course, collective action. How are all the different suburban voices going to decide where the corner store shall go or who will shoulder the burden of increased density, increased urbanity? Surely there must be a few more people to support suburban commerce.

I don't have the answers to these questions; if anyone does they can't fit in the virtual space of a blog post. They are life-sized and real, like going to work or picking up a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk. They require political will and capital and a desire to change the suburban lifestyle. Maybe most of all they require folks to look at their lives and their hulking exhaust-spewing cars and realize that maybe we're not walking down the right path. Hell, we're not walking much at all, unless of course we belong to a gym, or the dog needs to take a dump, or we dropped some extra flow on that new treadmill that was advertised on TV.

^ Of course suburbanites do not drink and drive - they are generally law-abiding folk.

* As a child of the suburbs I can heartily testify to the great powerlessness a thirteen year old boy feels when he is stranded at home carless in a world built for people with gasoline motors.


  1. I think you'll like this article a lot:


  2. what about the villages in mountain brook----are they not urban suburbs?

  3. The Mountain Brook villages (Mountain Brook, English, and Crestline) are definitely a good mix of urban and suburban. And you'll probably find that home values near those villages are also higher than in other more completely suburban areas of Mountain Brook with similar types of houses and lots. Coincidence?

    Although those villages still segregate commerce from residence more than I would hope for, they are great models for other Mountain Brook (and Birmingham) suburbs. Allow a commercial center to develop and the property values around that center are likely to rise.

    This is all conjecture of course, but its also common sense. Most people would rather live in an area where they could walk to a grocery store, coffee shop, bakery, bike shop, etc. If they could somehow get that urban benefit while still enjoying their calm and apparently safe suburban life, they would.