Urban Suburbs

Joel Kotkin’s recent article entitled “The War Against Suburbia” takes a stance that President Obama’s housing and development policy is aimed at denigrating lifestyle choices of suburbanites for the benefit of urban dwellers. The general consensus view upon which Obama’s policies are based, argues Kotkin, is that auto-centric, large lot suburbs are the antithesis of sustainability; whereas urban neighborhoods will solve the pressing issues of sustainability. It is reasonable to surmise that part of Obama’s victory can be attributed to his views that urban environments should be promoted as a means to achieve “smart growth” and promote sustainability. Both proposed and enacted government policies – for housing, transportation and infrastructure – are increasingly being shaped to promote urbanism and vilify suburbanism. But, Kotkin counters, it is these suburbanites that are driving the political process, using Scott Brown’s Massachusetts victory as an example. Making suburbanites feel as if they are the problem is not necessarily the solution. Kotkin’s point, then, is “political movements ignore suburbanites at their peril.”

However, as a product of the suburbs and a staunch advocate of urbanism, I believe the true sustainable equilibrium lies at the intersection of urban and suburban. “Urban” does not necessarily mean high-rise buildings and gridlock. The benefits and desirability of urban environments is that they are walkable due to a mix of uses and amenities in a relatively dense setting. Yes, New York City is urban, but so, too, is Aspen. Don’t agree? Besides the physical form of tight streets lined with retail with offices and residential above and in immediate proximity, Aspen has the highest public bus ridership in the entire state of Colorado (behind Denver). The idea is to not get hung up on New York images of urbanity, but rather focus on the desires of constituents, and the market.

The suburbs can create walkable environments while still offering the housing and school options desired by suburbanites. Think “town center,” the often overused term to describe what is usually a glorified mall or strip center. However, some areas have succeeded in creating a true center with diverse offerings and walkability. True, it may not be walking distance from the bulk of the residents it serves. But, the notion of “park once,” whereby drivers can park in one central spot and walk to various destinations – shopping, dining, entertainment, recreation, etc. – does work in suburban environments. While cars are usually needed to get there, it is one roundtrip, instead of a series of short trips to drive from use to use.

Bethesda, Maryland is one such “town center,” where a vibrant and diverse commercial center serves a suburban district with a range of housing types, including large expensive homes on large lots, and schools that consistently rank high. Examples are scattered throughout the country – Santa Monica, California; Highland Park, Illinois; Alexandria, Virginia. These places are not cheap, instead representing a clear market demand and willingness to pay higher values for the convenience and attraction of living in proximity to such an environment.

Politicians, planners, developers, suburbanites and urbanites should all be thinking of how communities can create economically and socially viable gathering spots based on urban principles of convenience, mixed uses, design and discovery. This creates true triple bottom line sustainability, where economic, social and environmental (and even political) agendas can successfully co-exist.