The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Peak Suburbia?

An empty suburban office building.  Source:
As long as there have been cities, there have been suburbs.  But, at least in the U.S., there are more signs that economic and social change is pushing them in unexpected directions, leading to a far less certain future.
The latest evidence of this comes from a report highlighted in an article by Citylab earlier this week.  The report examined suburban office submarkets in five metro areas and found evidence of weakness and signs of obsolesence.  From the Citylab article:

“The report looks at five far-flung office tenancy submarkets—Santa Clara, in the San Francisco Bay Area; Denver; the O’Hare region in Chicago; Reston/Herndon outside of Washington, D.C.; and Parsippany, New Jersey—and finds a general aura of decline.

Between 14 and 22 percent of the suburban office inventory in these areas is “in some stage of obsolescence,” suggesting that between 600 million and 1 billion square feet of office space are far from ideal for the modern company and worker. That’s about 7.5 percent of the country’s entire office inventory.”

The report itself splits up the factors that impact obsolescence into “curable” factors, amenities, age and parking, and “incurable” factors, location, floor plate size and building size.  The study’s authors acknowledge that office tenant preferences are shifting and contributing to the weaknesses in the market, but they say that preferences vary by regional market and that proactive property owners, investors and tenants can leverage any obsolescence to their advantage.

This comes on the heels of other signs of weakness in the suburban built environment, from addressing excess retail space, led by vacant big box stores and vacant malls, to signs of stronger growth in urban core home prices when compared to outlying suburban areas.  Even suburban advocates, making the case that American families are choosing suburban areas (and the midsized metro areas around the country that are largely suburban in their development orientation), admit that long term demographic trends in the U.S. are moving away from the structure that fueled suburban growth.

These are indeed perilous times for the suburbs — the auto-oriented and single family home-oriented development pattern that dominated the American landscape since the end of World War II.

At this time I see suburbs as inhabiting the same kind of place as city neighborhoods in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.  The tide had yet to completely turn in the suburbs’ favor, but there were plentiful signs of weakness in urban residential and commercial markets.  Preferences were shifting then as they are now — among homebuyers, developers and commercial tenants.

However, suburbs would do well to research what cities did when market forces and preferences shifted away from them, and avoid the mistakes cities made.  Beginning in the ’60s, many cities tried to “suburbanize” their environments to compete directly with suburban expansion — large-scale planned residential developments where possible; turning walkable and vibrant commercial corridors into pedestrian malls; prioritizing auto access in ways that gutted existing neighborhoods; attempts to “sanitize” the urban environment, through secure corridors, signage and a strong police presence.

It didn’t work.

Only when cities began to play up their competitive advantages — transit access, mixed-use environments, eclectic amenities, strong institutions, and a powerful brand, among others — did cities begin to turn around.  As we all know by now, this switch started in many of our coastal cities in the ’80s and ’90s, but has since spread to some extent to nearly every major city in the country.

Suburban officials will have to look deep within themselves to determine their suburban futures.  Picking up some urban-like features would likely be a wise thing, if only to diversify their housing stock and make them more appealing to a broader range of homebuyers and renters.  But they would also be wise to stick as close as they can to their essence, within fiscal and social reason, to offer viable and sustainable alternatives for how we live.

We need the suburbs to get it right.

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