The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Urban Burbs — Defined

Street Scene in University City, MO.  Source:
Leigh Gallagher’s new book The End of the Suburbs has caused a stir in the urbanist community (is there an urbanist blogosphere?  Are there enough “urbanists” writing about cities to actually have a blogosphere or blogverse?) .  There are those who view the book as a general interest, common sense articulation of trends that planners and urbanists have been discussing for some time, and then there are some who view it as another urbanist attack on the thing they despise the most, the suburbs. 
I lean toward the former.  Unfortunately, I think the provocative title of the book opens it up for the kind of debate many are having.  According to the author herself, she sees no real end to the suburbs at all:

“It’s not that every single suburb in America is going to vaporize. My thesis is that there are a lot of reasons why the suburbs were poorly planned and poorly designed and are making millions of people really unhappy. That’s happening. Those people are looking for and moving into different kinds of options. Based on what’s happening with demographics and preferences of the younger generation, as you guys have well covered, those trends are just going to accelerate.

But to say that everyone wants to live in a 50-story skyscraper in New York City is not at all practical or realistic or in touch with how people want to live in this country. So a big part of the future will be “urban burbs.” Suburbs that are adapting or already exist in this fashion. Where they have a walkable downtown, a pleasant place to take a stroll and bump into people, and where it’s possible to live in closer proximity to the things you need to do everyday.”

So, yes – the suburbs will not “end”, but need to adapt.  A nuance lost on many.
There is a growing disconnect between the housing supply within our nation’s suburbs and the shifting housing preferences due to changing demographics.  Some – but not all – empty nester Baby Boomers wish to downsize from single family homes into smaller dwellings within their own suburban communities, but find choices lacking.  Some – but not all – younger Millennials moved to cities because they prefer the pace and dynamism of city life, but are looking at poor public school performance as a factor in a relocation decision; they would like to find a similar living style in a good school district (at least until large urban school districts are able to improve performance). 
What do most suburbs, particularly most suburbs developed in what I call the “Split Level Period” and later,  have for housing stock?  Lots and lots of single family homes.  In some suburbs, as much as 90 percent of homes are single family homes, and stand in contrast to the changing needs of today’s housing consumers.
Mind you, there will always be a market for single family homes, on large lots.  There will always be huge enclaves of single family suburban communities.  But some – not all – suburbs, if they are to remain viable, will have to become more flexible with their housing stock so they can accommodate the change.
In Gallagher’s book, she mentions that there are what she terms “urban burbs” that fit this role and can be the model for other cities going forward.  In the book, she doesn’t go into much detail on the characteristics of urban burbs, but describes places that many planners would recognize as such – Oak Park, IL; Shaker Heights, OH; University City, MO; Pasadena, CA.  Generally they are inner-ring suburbs that developed prior to the widespread implementation of Euclidean zoning in the 1920s and beyond.  They’re often every bit as old as the core city neighborhoods they’re adjacent to.
They share four characteristics that could serve as a working definition for “urban burbs”:
·         They have a downtown or town center;
·         They have transit and/or highway access;
·         They have a diverse housing stock;
·         They have higher residential densities relative to their region (not the core city of the region)
For the most part, urban burbs accomplish the higher residential densities by allowing the construction of medium density residential development that is often regulated out of existence in many suburbs.  They allow what could be termed the missing middle, which was mentioned in a blog post on Better Cities and Towns last spring:
“Well-designed, simple Missing Middle housing types achieve medium-density yields and provide high-quality, marketable options between the scales of single-family homes and mid-rise flats for walkable urban living. They are designed to meet the specific needs of shifting demographics and the new market demand and are a key component to a diverse neighborhood. They are classified as “missing” because very few of these housing types have been built since the early 1940’s due to regulatory constraints, the shift to auto-dependent patterns of development, and the incentivization of single-family home ownership.”

Lastly, not every suburban community within a metropolitan area is in a position to become an urban burb.  Generally speaking, transportation connections will determine whether a community has the ability (irrespective of a community’s desire) to become an urban burb.  In metros with significant public transit, communities that have transit connections as well as highway connections could be well-suited for urban burb development.  This can be seen by taking a look at this fine, “hand-crafted” map of the Chicago area below:
The green represents communities that have both public transit (in this case, rail) and Interstate highway links passing within their boundaries.  The gold represents communities that have rail connections going through them.  Communities with yellow coloring are those with Interstate highway links only; those with no color have no transit or interstate highway connection at all (note that within the city of Chicago, I delineated community area boundaries to show parts of the city itself that have stronger and weaker transportation connections).
The map shows that some places within the region are well-suited to becoming urban burbs, if they haven’t done so already.  A corridor extending northward from Chicago all the way to Waukegan (uppermost left green) is served by rail and Interstate 94.  Similarly, a corridor extending to the northwest past O’Hare (the roughly circular appendage to the bolded city of Chicago boundary) is served by rail and Interstate 90.  Other areas, from Downers Grove to Aurora in the western suburbs, and a stretch to the southwest reaching Joliet, also enjoy similar connections.
Caveats abound in this map.  I highlighted entire communities that have rail or interstate within their boundaries, whether or not they had an actual rail station or highway interchange.  Most of the communities, particularly those at the edges of the region, chose not to develop at the medium densities that inner-ring communities did to fully take advantage of transportation connections.  A more accurate representation of where actual urban burb development opportunities might appear at the zip code or census tract level, rather than the municipal level of this map.

However, this map does show which communities could emerge better off if the trends I see continue – and which ones could end up being hurt.

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