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The Future of American Suburbs

How important is land use planning? If you don’t have anywhere to go, sidewalks and bike lanes don’t really matter and they even seem unnecessary.

America’s suburban landscape is so vast and wide, and generates quite a bit of sneering among urbanists on social media. There are a host of valid gripes, including:

  • bicycling networks are rare

  • mass transit budgets are rare

  • affordable housing is rare

  • personal automobiles are essentially required

  • parking lots consume seemingly endless acres of land

But while these concerns are valid, the suburbs are appealing for very real reasons:

  • single-family home with a yard

  • schools with good reputations

  • quiet neighborhoods

  • affordable neighborhoods

  • perception of safety

Unfortunately, today’s suburban dwellers are forced to be dependent on personal automobiles, whether or not they have the financial means. You might say auto-dependency is why we can’t have nice things. Americans are able to find desirable places to visit around their housing enclave, but the land masses were designed at a scale that assumed every household needs (and continues to need) multiple cars.

How did the suburbs happen?

Suburbs have existed for thousands of years, in the sense that certain population groups lived away from centers of exchange. Archaeologists discovered a letter written in 539 BC on a clay tablet to Cyrus, king of Persia. The author was writing home about suburbia:

Our property seems to me the most beautiful in the world. It is so close to Babylon that we enjoy all the advantages of the city, and yet when we come home we are away from the noise and dust.”

The development of American suburbs is complex. Some neighborhoods were created to house poor laborers within a short distance of a mine, mill, or factory. Others were created to house rich families away from the grime and crime of cities. But in all cases, the objective observation is that residential land uses were separated from other land uses. Originally, that meant no smokestacks and oil refineries in people’s backyards. Today, that means minimal shops or places to go within a walkable distance.

How can the suburbs evolve?

Ray Oldenburg was a pioneering sociologist and author of the book Great Good Place. It’s a fascinating exploration of happy, healthy living including reference points like the American tavern, the French cafe, the English pub, beer gardens, and the ancient Greek agora. Oldenburg uses the term “third place” to describe these sociable destinations as an important neighborhood balance to homes and workplaces.

Believe it or not, home builders and city planners have been using the “live, work, play” phrase for nearly 100 years. Whether people live in a dense city or sprawling suburbs, they need a mix of land uses. The land use fears caused by large polluting factories and refineries aren’t what 21st century residents dealt with.

Planners and designers can help suburbs evolve into places that are more livable and people-friendly, rather than just a spot where you start or end your car trip. It’s tempting to get stuck in paralysis-by-analysis over which comes first, policy reform or infill development. Don’t wait for one or the other, start both! Tactical urbanism are quick-build forms of inspiration to motivate grassroots change while testing new ideas in the built environment. Need a place to start? Tackle pedestrian crossings providing access to parks, community schools, and trails.

How can local policy help?

Perhaps the biggest reason to be optimistic about the future of suburbia is that the secret to success is a local effort. Wikipedia’s entry on land use planning says:

Land use planning is the process of regulating the use of land by a central authority. Usually, this is done to promote more desirable social and environmental outcomes as well as a more efficient use of resources.”

“Central authority” isn’t the federal government in this case, it’s a county or city administration. Housing density, location of retail stores, height of buildings, and car parking requirements are all rules written and enforced at the local level. You don’t need to wait for a sweeping mandate for walkable infrastructure coming out of Washington, DC. You can get to work right now by updating the land use regulatory framework in order to help your suburbs become more livable and walkable places.

American suburbs can absolutely be happier, healthier places to live, work, play, shop, learn, worship, and of course…walk.

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