This is what a transformed suburb looks like.

Earlier this week I made a list of changes to city policies and the public realm that would help transform suburban communities into passibly walkable urban environments. The changes I listed were:

  • 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.

These changes, in the right places, will preserve the single-family experience for the majority of a community, while providing the benefits of transit and shopping within walkable distances. But what exactly would a suburban city look like once these changes were in place?

Brookhurst Aerial

South Brookhurst Street in Anaheim, CA is a typical suburban arterial roadway. It is classified by the City of Anaheim General Plan as a Major Arterial, and it consists of three vehicular travel lanes in each direction with a painted median. Total right-of-way width is 120 feet, with 100 feet of paving, curb to curb, dedicated to cars, and 10-foot, curb-adjacent sidewalks on each side of the street. The predominant land uses along Brookhurst are auto-oriented strip commercial, with ample parking facing the street. These commercial parcels range in depth from about 150 feet to about 500 feet, with typical suburban residential neighborhoods bordering the rear of the commercial uses.

The first step is to modify the Brookhurst right-of-way. It’s possible to maintain the same throughput of the street, with the same number of lanes and turning movements, while adding additional parking, and additional pedestrian and bicycle amenities. To achieve this, travel lanes are reduced from the existing 12-foot to 9-foot wide lanes. This can be achieved today within the existing right-of-way, with nothing more than a few cans of paint.

Existing Brookhurst
Existing Brookhurst
Proposed Brookhurst
Proposed Brookhurst

The second step is a combination of zoning policy changes, including reducing parking requirements, eliminating setbacks to arterial streets, permit mixed-use developments, and require active commercial uses on the ground floor. These changes enable a vibrant pedestrian street life, instead of simple auto-dependant commerce. The picture below shows Brookhurst as it is today, and a rendering of what it could look like with these zoning code changes in place.

Exiting Brookhurst Streetscape
Exiting Brookhurst Streetscape
Retrofitted Brookhurst Streetscape
Retrofitted Brookhurst Streetscape

Amazingly, this is the same street, using the same roadway right-of-way, with mixed-use buildings simply replacing the strip commercial adjacent to the roadway and not displacing any of the existing suburban single-family homes. This increased density along the arterial roadways, along with the existing homes, provides sufficient density and productive value to support robust transit options, such as Bus Rapid Transit or Light Rail.

The walkable commercial corridors, combined with the availability of transit transforms the existing suburban neighborhoods into ones that are more walkable. These changes provide commercial amenities and transit within the walkshed of the existing homes. It preserves the character of the neighborhood and all of the things that people love about the suburbs, while also providing many of the benefits of urban living.

With simple land use policy changes and very little public investment, suburban municipalities can unleash huge amounts of private investment and ongoing economic activity in their communities. These simple changes result in more prosperous cities, with larger and more sustainable revenue streams with lower per capita costs, while at the same time reducing environmental impacts caused by the city as a system.

These changes won’t achieve quality results in every suburb. Some suburbs, especially those built within the past thirty years, do not have arterial roadways in close enough proximity to single-family subdivisions or have been built in places that are not topographically conducive to walkability. Also, the demand for these types of places is not infinite, so the communities that adopt these changes early will have an advantage over the communities that wait.

If you want your suburban community to thrive over the long term, and to preserve the things that make suburban communities desirable, then you need to provide the leadership necessary to ensure your community is in the first wave of communities that adopt these policies.

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.

Sprawl repair goes beyond individual developments

Note to readers: Kevin Klinkenberg wrote a letter to Rob Steuteville of Better! Cities and Towns (which was also republished on the StrongTowns blog.) I am responding to Kevin’s letter in kind.

Dear Kevin,

There is great value in making suburban communities more walkable, but to do so the tactics are much different than those needed to enhance a community that already has good bones on which to build.

From the viewpoint of an individual developer, only able to affect a handful of lots, I agree with you. It is a fools errand to try to build a walkable development in an unwalkable community. As you say, such a effort would at best lead to a C- version of walkability, and would disappoint people when it fails to meet the promises of the proponents of walkability. On this point we agree.

However, as Rob points out, 95% of our metropolitan areas are not walkable, and it is folly to ignore them. Theses areas must become more walkable. Many of societies current ills are tied to auto-dependence, whether it’s obesity, climate change, social isolation, economic mobility, childhood mortality rates, or any number of other issues.

In order to enable walkable communities in suburban settings requires changes to city-wide policies. The work to do that is not that of a small developer, but of community activists, city planners, and elected and appointed decision makers.

We need people doing work in our suburbs and our walkable communities, but the work is different. The type of work that enhances walkable communities is insufficient when pursued in the suburbs, and the policy and advocacy work that’s needed in the suburbs is simple unnecessary in places that are already walkable.

Making our suburbs more walkable is critically important, but we must be pursuing the right kind of work to achieve that goal.

With kindest regards,
Grant Henninger