Yes, But in North America We Don’t Call Them Suburbs

by Alex Schafran

Since Katia ended her last post with a question, it only seemed appropriate to attempt to answer it. And since I am feeling full of hubris, I will take a shot at Kevin Drumm's question as well. The short answer to both is that history shows that history demands slightly different questions. Let me explain, in reverse order:

Planning ideals v. powerful players (Katia's question): For better or for worse, these two things are intertwined. You have to remember that in the history of zoning in the United States, big business and large developers largely wrote the code. Although we may think of developers as being anti-regulation, the major institutions of planning and zoning in the US were set up by developers in order to weed out unscrupulous rivals and reduce uncertainty in the marketplace. Although there was no lack of racist populism in the early experimentations in California with anti-Chinese zoning in the late 1800's, by the turn of the century realtors, developers, planners and architects were all behind the effort to regulate our environment. These powerful interests and the (former) ideals of planning were unified. The difficulty is that they became very popular, and a new generation is now forced to attempt to convince both the masses and an entire industry that the previous ideals weren't ideal. So this is about new ideals v. old ideals as much as ideals v. power (or ideals v. populism, as with Drumm). If you don't believe that much of the old way is still the ideal in some planning circles, go to an APA conference.

Do Walkable, High-Density Suburbs Exist? Surely, we just don't call them suburbs. We call them cities, even if they have suburban functions. Take Oakland or Jersey City for example, places where many people commute into the major city (and which have almost always had some sort of economic dependence on the larger city), but where you can live in a more urban context. There are some examples of places where you are seeing increasing walkability, transit access and employment in former bedroom communities - look at Walnut Creek or Evanston or Pasadena - which are now caught between city and suburb.

The key here is a more historical understanding of how urbanization in the US has happened. None of the big cities were planned as such, with the exception of Washington DC. They started small, and slowly grew. Surrounding towns grew into suburbs, and some into small cities in their own right. Unlike many other countries, most of America's suburbs and cities weren't formally (or entirely) master planned, but were built by planners and developers subdivision by subdivision, general plan by general plan, so that you often have many layers and levels of urbanization - denser more urban spaces near the core and near transit, suburban spaces farther out, and more exurban and rural places on the fringe. You can see this "transect," to steal a term from the New Urbanists, even in little exurban towns like Patterson, CA, whose general plan is above. It is all a result of certain politics of growth where towns are usually progrowth until they have all the amenities that make them suburbs, and then become anti-growth before they become cities. It is that last hurdle which is toughest, this is where Drumm's populism thesis is right on - over the past half century, suburbs have used planning and politics to resist this next step towards urbanization, pushing development even farther out towards the fringe.

If Drumm wants to answer his question on the ground, I would recommend three things:

1. Get rid of the absolutist idea that something can't be 90% walkable, it has to be 100% walkable. That is absurd. Almost nothing is 100% walkable - I challenge you to find me any human settlement in the world where everyone walks everywhere to do everything by choice, not necessity. The goal here is simply to enable and convince the suburban masses to do more on foot, bike and transit, even if it is just a few trips per week. I live in a city and use bike and foot and transit as much as I can, but for maybe 20% of my trips I use a car. That is perfectly fine, especially with the advent of car-sharing.

2. Don't get caught in the black and white of city, suburb, town, village. Most places, especially in big cities, contain certain neighborhoods which exemplify three if not four of these ideal types - there are even more "suburban" neighborhoods in big cities than "urban" neighborhoods in suburban municipalities. Are you talking about economic relationships, density (in which cause the question is oxymoronic) or political boundaries? Again, this is not about city v. suburbs. It is about having enough "urban" space accessible by transit at affordable prices in safe places to enable more people to make this choice, be it in city, suburb or town.

3. Stop thinking in terms of new towns in North America, and think about channeling this process of urbanization into key corridors and existing infrastructure, and about fighting for a renewed investment in urban infrastructure throughout the metropolitan region. This has never been Dubai or China or India where new cities are being designed from scratch. Our potent mixture of populism + corporate power is going to be part of the equation, like it always has been. The "suburban retrofit" - slowly remaking parts of existing communities through adding bike paths, accessory dwelling units, small nodes of transit -oriented multi-family housing and jobs, new transit line, to name a few things - is going to be hard to accomplish, but it is where we need to go, not down the road of New Urbanist greenfield, neo-modernist fantasies like Seaside or Celebration.

There is now density in Ontario, California, in the heart of the Inland Empire, or in the suburb/city of Concord, California, picture above. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.

Credits: Image of concord from Team Concord. Map of Patterson from Book image from Google Books.


  1. nice closing line and points well taken. long live incremental development of existing communities!

  2. Nice. All of these points are right on. Drumm asked some good questions, and I's love to hear him respond to this.

  3. This is a great topic of conversation because it addresses, both the history of urban development in the United States and the politics of place-making in the US.

    To answer Katia's question, I think it is worth considering that zoning was created historically as a means of separating uses from a safety and health perspective as well as to prevent specific land uses by a particular agent (ethnic or busines minority); which came first is one of those chicken and egg dilemmas. However, zoning is upheld by political pressure placed on politicians by home and business owners (as mentioned above); not just always from big business influence, rather by the aspirations of those who have bought in to a partcular subdivision (or developer's vision).
    Drumm says that it is not imposed by government, people want it. Federal law leaves it up to States to make provisions for local governments to determine how land uses are organized. There are State laws on what should go in to a Comprehensive Plan that should dictate what type of development is allowable in a given municpal jurisdiction.
    I believe that the reality of what people "want" lays more in what people have been accustomed to having as dictated (read marketed) by larger fiscal/political efforts. We can recount throught the United States the process of Urban Flight during Post World War II suburban expansion. In many cities, as illustrated in books such as "Chicago: The Making of an Urban Ghetto" or "East New York: The Making of an Urban Ghetto" realtors created their own thematic maps based on what in there minds were dood and bad housing stock, determined not simply based on physical characteristics, but also who resided there. There are stories about realtors warning people that "Black people" (to put it mildly) were moving in to the neighborhood, coercing them in effect to flee to greener pastures, devoid of all of the city's ills, including crime, high density or lack of open space and most importantly devoid of those scary people of a darker hue. As a product of the New Deal, highways were built to connect those suburbs. As a result, those people who bought in to those development visions, not only fattened up the pockets of the developers and the big businesses that consorted to develop the urban sprawl phenomenon, but also educated themselves on the power of land use and planning boards and go out in hoards to fight new developments that may shatter their claim to a pristine neighborhood devoid of City-like characteristics (higher density buildings and commerce). I do not think that many people consciously embrace "Sprawl" but they do embrace the ideal of having the "freedom" to get in to a car and go wherever they please, which was the American Dream of the 1950's. Perhaps most compelling as a supporting argument to all of this is the fact that the children of many of those urban refugees out in the suburbs are now moving back to the inner-city, because cities are where the action and the jobs are, when you don't want to or can not afford a car to go work at some office park and stay at home until you in turn can buy that detached single family home.
    I agree with Alex, there are neighborhoods within cities that are walkable and there are suburbs lying within a city's metroplitan area that are walkable, because they may have a commuter train station that is within a stone's throw of the city and more dense urban development may follow a miniature Central Business District model of the City they are peripheral to, where density is at the urban core, near the train station, and within a couple of blocks of single family neighborhoods.

  4. (Continued from above)
    My belief is that with the cost of fuel rising, people will have no recourse but to create what Mike Davis referred to in his book "A New Deal for New York City" as a new deal for urban development, where an energy efficient economic model benefits from the same fiscal breaks and subventions that "community builders", oil magnates and highway builders received post depression and in to the post World War II suburban development craze.
    Yes, higher density, walkable suburban communities are possible (I work in one, Mount Vernon, NY), but I think that they have to be within a certain distance of a larger metroplitan area. In the United States we need to overcome certain ghosts of the past, and judging from the tea-bagging, burn Obama at the stake mentality that has come to light in the alst year, and the questions asked in preparation for the next Census, where the priority still seems to be bent on which racial and ethnic group you subscribe to, I am not sure that we have yet learned the lessons of the past; where's Julius Wilson when you need him? Additionally with fuel prices coming down, though more Americans are going fuel efficient, the majority still has this burn til it's gone mentality. The reality is that zipcodes are still important. They are important because your zipcode determines whether your children will go to Country Briar School or the low-performing Public School you are districted for. People will drive however many miles it takes to keep there kids in a homogenous, historically safe environment (although even that is changed in light of all of the violent occurences in suburban schools around the country). It is no wonder that countries like Japan, Switzerland or Australia that have largely homogenous, despite small minority, populations, are more succesfully TOD oriented than the United States.

  5. Correction Mike Wallace (not Davis), "A New Deal for New York City"

  6. A thought on this -- why are the suburbs majority Republican and cities, even small ones, majority Democratic? I don't think is only socioeconomic -- I live in Montclair, NJ (a commute to NYC) which is upper middle class and voted 83% Obama and is declared 70% Democrats. Surely there are other factors at play here. Race, age, fear, education level?