The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Same Game, Different Place?

Downtown Naperville, Illinois.  Source: Naperville Sun.

Urbanophile Aaron Renn posted a nice piece yesterday that reflected on recent efforts in Indianapolis suburbs to use new publicly-funded amenities to stimulate private development.  The article Aaron referred to, in the Indianapolis Star, says that some suburbs need to double down where it can to send a message to the private sector that their community is worthy of more development:

In a shift in thinking, they believe they can spur economic growth by spending taxpayer dollars to build high-end parks, entertainment venues and other attractions that people will seek out. The hope is that the private sector will respond by spending millions of dollars more to build offices, restaurants, hotels and shops on nearby land, drawing tourists who shop and dine and professionals with high salaries who want to move there.

Aaron raises an excellent point when talking about this new approach, at least in the Indianapolis area.  Suburban leaders are beginning to recognize that simply building and promoting yourself as “a great place to live” and waiting for the people to rush in is a fool’s errand — and unsustainable.  More and more suburban leaders are able to look at older inner ring suburbs and say that perhaps the default outcome of suburbia is decay, without continual investment.  Aaron goes on to say:

Most (suburbs) follow a fairly predictable cycle of growth, maturity, and decline. Decay is their natural destination. This is a straightforward lifecycle effect, as I’ve explained before…

 The people who built those first generation of auto-oriented suburbs can perhaps be forgiven for not realizing that what they were building would not stand the test of time. Today’s leaders in emerging suburbs have no such excuse. They should know that from the minute their town takes off the growth curve, it’s already infected with suburbicide, and they’ve only got about three decades to administer a cure. And if they fail, they know the fate that awaits them.

And I agree.  But the suburbs doing this must be careful to put in place the right kind of amenities, or they will simply be repeating the same mistakes that large cities made when doing similar activities in the ’70s and ’80s.

Good example?  Pedestrian malls.  Cities around the country sought to counter the success of malls by turning their retail districts into outdoor-mall-type areas.  With few exceptions, cities found that pedestrian malls were poor facsimiles for malls, and could not compete.  Most pedestrian malls disappeared in the ’90s, and greater emphasis was given to the distinctiveness of traditional urban retail districts.  Often, when cities capitalized on this distinctiveness, their retail districts were able to rebound.

If suburban leaders are to learn from the experience of cities and inner ring suburbs, I recommend a simple strategy for thinking of the addition of new amenities:

  • If your community is seeking to add an amenity that duplicates what other suburban communities are doing (some parks, trails, sports complexes, for example), it might not be a good idea.
  • If your community is seeking to add an amenity that adds choice to your community (town centers, mixed-use development, multi-family development), it’s probably a good idea.
  • If your community is seeking to add an amenity that adds uniqueness to your community (properly-scaled entertainment, local arts and/or architecture, building on historic assets, for example), it might just be the best idea.
Suburbs are entering an era when they should emphasize becoming complete communities first, and unique communities where possible.  

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