|View from Downtown Oak Park, IL, one of my favorite streetcar suburbs. The CTA’s Green Line L is visible in the center of the picture. Source: emaze.com
If there is a single American development pattern or style that I love most, it is the streetcar suburb. Bringing more of this pattern back to our cities would be a great thing.
Let me address one misnomer at the outset. This development pattern is called streetcar suburb, but it’s not always suburban in the way we understand post-World War II suburbia. In fact, it’s largely only suburban (as in independent municipality outside of a central city) in some East Coast and Midwest cities. There, places like Somerville, MA outside Boston, and Philadelphia’s Main Line suburbs, as well as Shaker Heights, OH outside of Cleveland and Oak Park, IL outside of Chicago (seen above) are streetcar suburbs in the purest sense. They did indeed develop as suburban areas outside of cities yet connected to them via streetcar networks. In other areas of the country, however, streetcar suburb development became the de facto urban development pattern of some cities, and they are firmly within the boundaries of central cities in other parts of the Midwest and more often in the South and West.
So what are streetcar suburbs? They are the predominant development type within American cities from about 1890-1930. It was the most widespread development type prior to the Supreme Court’s upholding of Euclidean zoning (Euclid v. Amber Realty) in 1926, which allowed municipalities to pursue greater separation of land uses as one of its powers.
The website Living Places documents well the rise and expansion of the streetcar suburb:
Living Places elaborates on the development type, describing its characteristics:
Personally I love streetcar suburbs because they often have a mixed use character that places built after them lack. There’s also often a community or neighborhood connectivity within them that I find appealing; many streetcar suburb communities are full of proud, organized and vocal residents who advocate strongly on behalf of their community’s values. But I find three reasons that highlight why the streetcar suburb was — and is — a superior development type, and why it will make a comeback as American suburbs mature.
They are adaptable. Streetcar suburbs were often built along grid networks, but not exclusively so; variations in block sizes and topographical adjustments can create differences in them. Streetcar suburbs were built and designed with streetcar systems in mind, but they generally have been able to succeed far longer than the streetcars themselves.
They are efficient. Streetcar suburbs can accommodate a broad range of residential types and sizes, from large-lot single-family homes to midrise and high-rise multifamily developments. This is largely due to the kind of street networks given to them by the initial streetcars that created them. Another key efficiency: streetcar suburbs are well-suited to the “missing middle” of multifamily residential development, the townhouses, duplexes and small (2-12 units) multifamily buildings that create housing diversity and improve housing affordability.
They are inherently multi-modal. As perhaps the original transit oriented development type, they are quite able to accommodate public transit; it’s in their DNA. However, even if streetcar networks never come back, they usually have transit supportive densities that make other modes, like buses or bikes, quite useful.
As today’s suburbs are confronting ways to retrofit their development in the face of a changing economy and shifts in societal preferences, streetcar suburbs might offer some insight on how more recently built suburbs can make changes while maintaining their traditional appeal. My guess is that newer suburbs will look to implement many of the principles that girded the streetcar suburb.
The adaptability and efficiency of streetcar suburbs is evident when illustrated. In a followup post to this, I’ll illustrate some low-density, medium-density and high-density examples of streetcar suburb designs, followed by land use data that explains the variety of residential uses that can co-exist in the streetcar suburb.