The Frankenburb

18 thoughts on “The Frankenburb”

  1. I sometimes find it interesting to head out to the suburbs of Toronto and of other nearby cities.

    There’s a few heavily immigrant and more working class areas of suburban Toronto in particular that I find challenge typical stereotypes of the suburbs.

    In Brampton, most new subdivisions are heavily immigrant (mostly Sikh) with multi-generational households and grandparents watching over the house and kids. This kind of diversity seems to help ensure the neighbourhoods aren’t too dead from 9 to 3 like many other suburbs are. Check out this neighbourhood, grandpas hanging out at practically every park, reminds me a bit of the old men hanging out at the cafes in small towns in Europe telling each other old stories.
    https://www.google.ca/maps/@43.7728737,-79.7040251,3a,15y,79.8h,87.2t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1s8l5zuKzTeBIct3knJT03FA!2e0!7i13312!8i6656
    https://www.google.ca/maps/@43.7765291,-79.6640706,3a,15y,229.24h,89.03t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1saKgjS8hgca7snowpOI2vMg!2e0!7i13312!8i6656
    So unlike the boring low density suburb where I grew up where parks are unused 90% of the time, in that neighbourhood it seems they ARE used 90% of the time (weather permitting).
    Now if only zoning were changed to allow shops to open in the houses by the parks instead of being in small strip malls by the stroads you could have a pretty good thing going.

    I think the grandparents often live in in-law suites in the basements, i.e. kind of dark so understandable if they want to get out and hang out in the parks. Or use the garage as a porch and hang out there or in the driveway (maybe also trying to get a break from their wives or scallywag grandkids).
    https://www.google.ca/maps/@43.6458472,-79.731319,3a,37.5y,110.02h,85.73t/data=!3m7!1e1!3m5!1s2u5MFBnMgDHIQWAGin8ORQ!2e0!5s20120701T000000!7i13312!8i6656
    https://www.google.ca/maps/@43.6455255,-79.7319452,3a,15y,125.95h,86.45t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sQbujVKY5C2wBqt2ceeSbgg!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

    Another example would be the Pacific Mall area in Markham/Scarborough which is 70s-90s suburban housing at the heart of Toronto’s Chinese enclave. It seems to have very high rates of cycling, possibly rivalling some of the old central Toronto neighbourhoods, despite the pathetic cycling infrastructure. Seems like there’s constantly 100+ bikes locked up all around the mall.
    https://www.google.ca/maps/place/Pacific+Mall/@43.8255023,-79.3042804,3a,75y,125.59h,64.99t/data=!3m7!1e1!3m5!1ssdse15kqoK1DUZZkweSS6g!2e0!6s%2F%2Fgeo3.ggpht.com%2Fcbk%3Fpanoid%3Dsdse15kqoK1DUZZkweSS6g%26output%3Dthumbnail%26cb_client%3Dmaps_sv.tactile.gps%26thumb%3D2%26w%3D203%26h%3D100%26yaw%3D33.4811%26pitch%3D0!7i13312!8i6656!4m2!3m1!1s0x89d4d40969e4abb5:0x9996bb3490609b13!6m1!1e1

    There’s also a few older suburban apartment communities that have very high transit use and low car ownership rates.
    Crescent Town/Dentonia has the 2nd highest transit commute mode share in Toronto.
    https://www.google.ca/maps/@43.6973511,-79.2908376,3a,75y,198.85h,94.73t/data=!3m7!1e1!3m5!1sayNRKPApX8STsvHWx60mVw!2e0!6s%2F%2Fgeo3.ggpht.com%2Fcbk%3Fpanoid%3DayNRKPApX8STsvHWx60mVw%26output%3Dthumbnail%26cb_client%3Dmaps_sv.tactile.gps%26thumb%3D2%26w%3D203%26h%3D100%26yaw%3D218.22812%26pitch%3D0!7i13312!8i6656
    (#1 is St James Town, which is also a 60-70s tower-in-the-park community, but located downtown instead of in the inner suburbs).

    Other similar communities with transit mode share higher than that of Old Toronto include
    Thorncliffe Park and Eglinton East.

    Admittedly part of the reason for higher mode share than Old Toronto is that neighbourhoods closer to downtown have higher walking and biking mode share. But these high-rise neighbourhoods still have low auto-mode share by most standards, at around 50%.

  2. One thing the article doesn’t mention: there’s almost never anyone outside in these places. They often feel sterile and lack any sense of place…you could be in New Jersey or Kansas City or Walnut Creek. Generic!

  3. I see that greenery that goes avoided, untouched, and those benches that face it that sit empty, are, like so many others in apartment complexes in the suburbs, as being related to the city beautiful movement that so failed cities in the West over the past 200 years. “We’ll put some grass here, people need grass!” It’s lazy, unimaginative, but worse, completely terrible and misguided. Giving people a patch of grass in an ocean of parking makes absolutely no sense. People will not stare out at that circle and think “I’m so glad I live here. Look at that grass!” The people who want grass will buy ranchers on an acre of land. This is just a developer who cannot escape the wrong-headed development patterns of the past. We need to move beyond this.

  4. Great piece. I wonder what you think of how regional differences play into this. I currently live in a 1920s-era suburb in north Jersey abutting Newark. It’s single family homes, but very dense with a lot of walkability and mass transit rail. There are other towns in the area that are very similar, so there are plenty of suburban spaces that work in this region. However, I lived for awhile in Texas, where it seemed like there was so little in the built environment built up before the era of mass suburbanization. I wonder if areas like Houston would have a harder time adjusting to the (likely inevitable) sink or swim proposition you lay out.

  5. Found you through MetaFilter and had an instant shock of recognition — like you, I’m also an amateur about urban planning, trying to find the words to explain why I love New York City so much after growing up in suburban Southern California, and to explain my life to a family bemused by the fact that I don’t have a car and don’t want to use one even when I go visit them. I’ve started my own blog documenting tiny elements of NYC life, pedestrian culture in particular, which I think make it culturally different from the rest of the US. Hoping that it’ll all add up to insights which can help make other communities better.

    I’d love to meet and chat with you sometime, and/or team up in blogging efforts!

  6. This is an important piece. We live in a time where every facet of our lives is determined by a spreadsheet and a set of laws put together to ‘protect’ us even while we let corporations set the terms for almost everything. I travelled behind the Iron Curtain a couple of times in the late eighties, both to Hungary and the Soviet Union and there is an eerie resemblance between this new spreadsheet/bureaucrat driven architecture and the endless condo complexes and drab poured concrete public spaces created there under Communism. Architecture is a great litmus test for measuring the soullessness and meaninglessness pushed down on citizens from above. How do we get out of this? The Soviet Union lasted for almost a century. I think it will be a long time before pictures like this become a catalogue of history and people wonder how a nation possessed of such resources and wealth tolerated this paucity of spirit and mind.

  7. Totally with you on this one. Any area built up after 1960 is “lost” or wouldn’t pencil out from a ROI perspective. The only reason to put density in there is create affordability if the land is valuable enough to justify it.

    That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get some modest walkability done, like filling sidewalk gaps so someone can walk to the supermarket that’s within 5 minutes but is now cut off by the stroad. It also doesn’t preclude creating walkable islands (or even Main Streets from scratch) so people can get out of their cars. No reason for perfect to be the enemy of the good especially if it’s not a massive investment to do so over time.

  8. I think this is the reason New Urbanism was originally intended to reinvigorate existing yet rundown downtown areas, because they understood that you can’t just create walkability by throwing down dense apartment complexes. Single family homes that require driving will continue to be built for many more years, and simultaneously downtown areas need to continue being brought back to life. The recent article in Politico about Evanston is a good one to look at, but the same principles apply even in small towns. It’ll be an organic process. Rebuild downtowns, bring back public transport, build density around stations… Most towns don’t even offer choices anymore. It’s either a house much bigger than most need, or a really crappy apartment which still requires a car.

    1. I agree that trying retrofit density scale features to suburbs is a daunting challenge.

      As a transit planner and administrator in NJ, I have seen the development of “right sized” local bus work by applying the service route concept of smaller buses on fixed schedules that can wind through neighborhoods, apartments and shopping centers and provide regular connections to regional bus and rail.

      As more newly arrived immigrants, millenials and other transit choice and dependent populations seek transit solutions, a lower cost local bus service that is appropriately scaled and provides connections to desired destinations and regional transit can and has worked.

      1. Steve, I respectfully disagree. Having a bus twist around each low density suburban subdivision and scattered strip mall is a spectacular waste of time and public money. Only the most desperate people will use this service when no other option is available.

        As a young person I occasionally tried (emphasis on tried) to use public transit in the suburbs of southern New Jersey. (Toms River and other Ocean County towns.) It was completely useless to take a bus anywhere out in the sprawl. Only the direct commuter bus to Manhattan could be relied upon. Coincidentally, the express bus just happened to serve an affluent (white) demographic and didn’t stop anywhere along the way.

        Instead I rode a bicycle everywhere: in the rain, snow, heat, dark… whatever. Bus service really was that slow, incomplete, and unreliable. In the process, I attracted the attention of the police who stopped me a few times each week. “Who are you? Where do you live? Can we see some identification? Where are you going? What’s in your backpack?” Being a pedestrian or cyclist was de facto “probably cause” since it suggested poverty and low class activity that was not welcomed Toms River. Then there were the folks racing by in cars at sixty miles an hour that thought it was fun to try and mock run you over and/or throw things at you. I don’t blame the buses or NJ Transit. I blame the land use policy and local culture. If you don’t have a car you are unsavory and a fair target by definition.

        My life changed radically for the better when I was old enough to leave the sprawl behind and live in a compact, mixed use, complete town. Transit only works when it connects one great pedestrian location with another great pedestrian location. Stitching all the isolated cul-de-sacs and strip malls together with some sad half-assed transit service is pointless. Changing transit routes or land use patterns or local culture in suburbia is a monumental waste of time. Let the sprawl be sprawl. The people who choose to live there don’t want transit. Concentrate all your efforts on connecting existing walkable neighborhoods to other existing walkable neighborhoods. Cut the sprawl loose.

        1. This Frankenburb is a classic example of all the drawbacks of density without any of the benefits. I too grew up in suburban sprawl and got the heck out as soon as I could control my own destiny. I think a lot of the future potential for even the worst kind of soulless suburb is going to depend on its distance from economic activity. Though Lynnwood, Washington, where I spent many of my formative years, is among the worst kind of post-WWI monstrosity (most of it built in a rush during the sixties and seventies where every house had avocado green or harvest gold shag rugs) and still has no town center, just strip malls at arterial crossroads, it sits only 15 miles from downtown Seattle. In fact, due to Seattle traffic being so horrendous, it has an enormous bus park and ride lot that fills up every morning by 7:30am. There is a pathetic local bus system that only poor people take, but the commuter bus into Seattle is very popular.

          Though I personally would choose to live in the close-in Seattle neighborhoods in a heartbeat (like Ballard, Wallingford, Capitol Hill, etc), and I expect newer, far-flung suburbs over an hour out of Seattle to likely be abandoned, there already plans in place to connect Lynnwood to Seattle’s light rail system within ten years. I expect around that time that the ridiculous ginormous parking lots and strip malls within a half mile of the current park and ride (future transit stop) will turn into four story residential over ground floor retail, and that density will gradually spread out from there. Maybe in a quarter of a century they’ll have something resembling a main street.

          The irony is the adjoining town of Edmonds was founded over a hundred years ago, has a definable downtown and Main Street, and housing values are worth close to ten times those of Lynnwood. Of course, Edmonds has the advantage of being on the water, but even so, Edmonds languished quite a bit during the sixties and seventies because it was “old” and “new” was the rage then. Still, it’s a hot commodity now, even though it has only a weak transit connection to Seattle (the Sounder train running on problematic freight rail lines) which I don’t think many people use. But it will be easier for Edmonds to improve its transit options than for Lynnwood to gain a soul.

          I should do a tale of two cities blog with photos next time I visit my family, but I have a hard time doing anything but rush through “downtown” Lynnwood just as fast as I can. I highlighted my childhood in the suburbs experience here: http://karenlynnallen.blogspot.com/2012/01/cruelties-of-gilligans-island-hamlet.html

          1. Karen: the irony of what Johnny wrote about his childhood is that *all* of New Jersey is structurally and historically like Edmonds, not like Lynnwood.

        2. My main disagreement here is that even in affluent suburbs there are people who need the transit. It is easy to somewhat blithely say that they should just move…maybe their jobs are in Vacaville or Pleasanton….maybe their children live nearby…..or the “walkable communities” have dangerous schools and they prefer the better school district.

          Ultimately, I am afraid you are right about long term sustainability, but….

        3. Johnny: New Jersey is weird, because nearly all of its sprawl is actually *really old*, streetcar and railroad era, pre WWII. But it’s been run by completely car-obsessed governments.

          So what I’m saying is that New Jersey has better bones than it appears. The underlying structure in most of New Jersey is OK, unlike most of Texas; it’s *strictly* policy which makes it a disaster. Retrofitting New Jersey really isn’t that hard. The cul-de-sacs were created by cutting off through routes. The strip malls are along old post roads and at former crossroads.

          What’s going on in New Jersey is that, indeed, people are choosing to make it defective. City councils and state governments are deliberately creating barriers by converting main streets into highways and severing connections. And by bigoted policing, as you describe.

          Wikipedia has an 1878 map of Toms River. This isn’t sprawl into greenfields. This is *attitude* you’re dealing with in New Jersey.

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