There’s a struggle between people who like the suburbs just as they are and people who feel passionately that low density development needs to be retrofitted to become more dense, walkable, bikeable, and transit served. I sympathize with both perspectives to various degrees, but when I look at reality on the ground I think they’re both going to be disappointed with how things continue to play out in the future.
Personally, I’d love to live in a charming bungalow with a little garden. But if that bungalow exists in a soulless metroplex where the public realm is nothing more than endless strip malls and freeway off ramps… I’m out. I’m a Main Street kind of guy. I need to live in a place that has a “there” there.
As suburbs in prosperous metro regions age they sometimes become more expensive as buyers compete to live closer to jobs. Existing property owners benefit from rising prices and want to see their investment and quality of life preserved. But economic pressure to up-zone land to satisfy demand is strong. The typical compromise is to permit greater density along busy arterial roads (the least desirable spot for family homes) on the edge of residential subdivisions.
These buildings are in fact considerably more dense than the bungalows they replace. But they exist in a location that is still profoundly suburban. People here continue to drive everywhere every day just like the folks in nearby detached homes. Yet these buildings aren’t as good as single family homes with gardens as measured against the suburban standard.
They aren’t “urban” in the usual sense either. Where are the sidewalk cafes, mom and pop specialty shops, restaurants, and public parks? You “could” walk or ride a bike along this busy road, but it wouldn’t be pleasant or safe. Public buses do serve the area, but using them isn’t remotely convenient or efficient – nor can it ever be since transit best connects two vibrant walkable places rather than a million dispersed dull non-destinations like these.
Here’s another example of the same phenomenon that’s been done on a much larger scale and with a lot more money. These are multi-million dollar single family homes in one of the most desirable neighborhoods in the region. The nearby major arterial road was up-zoned and lined with luxury high rise buildings.
Standing on the street at the base of these towers it’s clear that no one who lives in these buildings ever walks anywhere. The buses here are frequent and do connect reasonably well to other parts of the city. But they’re for the cleaning ladies. The residents all take the elevator down to the garage and drive everywhere. As with the more modest neighborhood with stucco apartments and mediocre condos, this street (as busy and dense as it is) still offers nothing in the way of urbanism. No street life. No shops. No cafes. No night life. Bubkes.
So I sympathize with both camps. Adding density and transit is theoretically a good idea for all sorts of reasons. But the details of how it’s implemented are really important. Mostly we tend to get it all wrong leaving everyone disappointed with the end results. I don’t want to live in either the homes or towers pictured here since they’re the worst combination of a boring suburb and a congested city without the advantages of either. But this is what tends to get built for better and worse.