David Senden – The New Suburb and New Transformations

Builder & Developer

June 20, 2014

In 1932 Frank Lloyd Wright presented an idea he called “Broadacre City.” His idea was to give each family in the United States one acre of land; spreading the population out and creating a bucolic garden environment. In his ideal world, automobiles would quickly zip across the vast stretches with pedestrian activity relegated to the one acre plots. At the time, the city was a dirty, smelly, hazardous place. To escape to the country was the American Dream.

And so it’s gone, for the last eight decades. The American dream: my house, on my land, surrounded by my fence, with my car parked in the driveway. With a seemingly endless supply of land, first the affluent, and then the middle class moved out of the city for their piece of the dream, and for awhile it worked. The roads were good. Gas was cheap. Traffic was sparse. It was as Wright envisioned. The city was for working. The gardenlike suburbs were for living.

Unfortunately, gas is no longer cheap, traffic is no longer sparse and the roads aren’t very good. Increasingly, Americans are rethinking their dream. The latest census shows for the first time that more people are moving into cities than away from them. The real estate pages are full of stories about the rebirth of cities; about Hipster Millennials and Empty Nesters heading toward the city center hoping to live near all of the great things the city has to offer. They’re moving for the restaurants, the shopping, the arts and the energy of the city.

In planner circles there is a lot of talk about the differences between urban and suburban. Usually this boils down to a feeling more than a location. Urban is about a mix of uses and their relationship to each other. It’s about the size of streets, the buildings’ relationship to them and how a pedestrian can move between them. There’s a ton of talk about walkability. It seems these days the Walk Score is as important as the crime rate or house size when it comes to deciding where to live.

Everywhere, forward-looking suburban communities are going through a transformation. They are going through a densification. Single-family home lots are being combined to make way for developments of size that can support new retail and improve the walkability of a neighborhood. There is a push to bring the excitement, the energy, and the convenience of the city to the suburbs. Bedroom communities nationwide are reexamining their zoning. They are densifying their commercial zones, creating “downtowns” and pushing the idea of urbanity.

The idea is to give the suburban location the easy walkability, the entertainment options, and a full life experience while maintaining everything good they already have going. These are the places with the low crime rates, good school districts, great public services and a sense of community. They just need an identity; a critical mass of excitement that will allow people to ditch their cars for a stroll. Give them a place to go.

It’s easier said than done. Change hurts sometimes. To push toward that feeling of urbanity, long held feelings about infrastructure, roads, trash collection, setbacks, and street widths need to be examined. Those suburbs were planned around the car. Roads are wide. Setbacks are great. Distances between things are great. None of these are good for the pedestrian. It’s tough to break the automobile habit in the suburbs. Accepting the idea that the car may be secondary to the pedestrian; that encouraging people to walk is ultimately great for the community is a tough pill to swallow for entrenched residents and public officials, but it is only by embracing the new idea of the suburbs that they can remain relevant in the continuing battle to attract well-to-do residents, quality merchants, and ultimately jobs. Gone are the days of the drivein / drive-out communities. The new generation of buyers is looking at the car as an albatross, not a convenience. They are looking for a way to park it and use it only as a necessity. No longer a symbol of freedom it once was, the automobile has become a burden.

Frank Lloyd Wright imagined a future of every person owning a car and their own house on their own land. To him this was the dream. Well, we’ve glimpsed the dream. It’s a nightmare, but thankfully, we’ve woken up!