polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

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 ci.patterson.ca.us. Book image from Google Books.