Leadership in the Suburbs

Over at Granola Shotgun, Johnny Sanphillippo has been talking to various folks about the future of the suburbs. Johnny and I both believe that suburban communities are going to run into increasing financial trouble and depopulate in favor of places that are more walkable. The difference is that he believes the suburbs will fail completely and be abandoned, while I think they can be transformed from suburia to something more urban.

The real difference between our approaches is that Johnny talks about the likely outcomes, while I’m focused on what could be, given strong leadership. While it might seem like we disagree, our differences are probably smaller than they’d appear. Without leadership, suburban communities will not make the necessary reforms to provide for their continued solvency. Without leadership, many suburbs will be unable to provide for the necessary municipal services and will depopulate. But with leadership, suburban communities can avoid this outcome, and Johnny even points a way to make that possible.

[I]t’s just not possible to deliver good urbanism in this kind of suburban environment. The divided highway right outside manages to be both devoid of human activity and filled with bumper-to-bumper traffic. No matter how good the design of the apartments, the context is crappy.

Here, Johnny is completely right, even the best buildings in the wrong context, without the roadways and neighboring properties focused on creating walkable urbanism, won’t make a community less suburban. But with improvements to the public realm — roads and sidewalks, parks and transit — the context changes and well designed buildings can contribute to transforming the suburbs into walkable communities.

The changes to the public realm, and to city policies that encourage urbanism, are fairly straightforward:

  • Narrow existing roads to slow cars, make the pedestrian experience tolerable, and reduce the cost of road maintenance;
  • Reduce parking requirements and price on-street parking according to demand;
  • Expand the transportation network to include pedestrians and cyclists;
  • Reduce minimum lot size, especially for commercial and retail uses;
  • Allow mixed-use developments by-right along arterial corridors;
  • Found local financial institutions for both debt and equity financing for local business and small-scale developers;
  • Reduce or eliminate building setbacks along arterial streets; and
  • Require buildings facing arterial streets to have active commercial uses on the ground floor.

Leadership on these issues, from within the community, municipal government staff, and most importantly elected and appointed decision makers is what will differentiate the prosperous suburban communities from those that fail. Organizations like Strong Towns and people like Alex Steffen are providing compelling reasons for the transformation of suburban communities, whether that be for fiscal solvency or the environment. Their message is being heard and evangelicalized by some community leaders, but it’s an uphill battle. To save our suburbs, we must transform them or they’ll be lost altogether, just like Johnny predicts.

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