I’m currently engaged in a series of on-going conversations with various folks around the country about the future of the suburbs. We tend to agree about the broad outlines, but when it comes to the details we part company pretty fast. Retrofitting most suburbs is less likely than having a few successful ones remain as they are while many more simply fail outright.
At times I’ll be talking with someone who says we need more single family homes because they give people what they want at a price they can afford. It’s just not reasonable to expect families with kids to live in an overpriced shoe box apartment and take a bus anywhere. I think… that’s a false choice. We could just build lots of great single family homes in actual walkable towns instead of isolated pods along the Interstate. The subdivision pictured above should be renamed, “The Villas™ at Retention Pond®.”
At other times the conversation is with someone who wants the suburbs transformed, often by introducing dense infill development and public transit. I say… be careful what you wish for. There are serious problems associated with suburban infill that can’t be overcome. You’ll likely end up with a bad Frankenburb.
I’m going to use this new apartment complex as an example. It’s a pretty high quality project that I believe was built with the best possible intentions and a keen understanding of what the market wants. But it’s just not possible to deliver good urbanism in this kind of suburban environment. The divided highway right outside manages to be both devoid of human activity and filled with bumper-to-bumper traffic. No matter how good the design of the apartments, the context is crappy.
Yes, there’s a sidewalk (at least along the portion of the road in front of the new buildings), but absolutely no one is ever going to try and escape the fences, landscaped berms, and retaining walls to walk next door to buy groceries or eat at the Chinese restaurant at the adjacent strip mall.
And here’s the public transit that will whisk you off to your destination in the larger metro area. How about snuggling up to a transit marker pole on the side of this highway in front of a strip mall waiting for your commuter bus to pull up? Big fun.
Inside the apartment complex is a nicely tended small park with a modern sculpture. It’s important to understand what this object really is. It’s a totem that connotes care, attention, and money spent. It declares, “Quality people live here.” It’s nice, but it does nothing to make the place more vibrant. Instead, it follows the suburban model of clean green space that is looked at, but not often touched.
An electric car charging station has been installed so you can be assured that this complex is environmentally friendly and socially conscious. Residents can relax in a “green” vehicle while they idle in gridlock on the highway.
If you go all the way to the back corner of the parking lot next to the mini self storage bunker there’s a grassy spot with a couple of picnic tables and an enclosed dog run. Again, it’s very well maintained, but as a semi-public space it’s a bit thin.
And here’s a lovely duck pond A.K.A. storm water retention facility to handle all the run off from the endless surface parking lots. If you slide your camera lens through the metal bars you can get a pretty good photo of the ducks and bull rushes. But lawyers made any contact with the water impossible since this is a textbook “attractive hazard.” You wouldn’t want kids or tipsy adults anywhere near this spot so it’s been given the Checkpoint Charlie treatment.
The ridiculously wide travel lanes and abundant parking are absolutely required by the fire marshal and building code. The best developer in the world couldn’t have built anything better given the township’s minimum mandates.
I’m not saying that density or transit are bad. Instead, I’m saying that installing them in a suburban context is a complete waste of time. Let the suburbs sink or swim on their own merits. In my opinion it’s just easier and cheaper to re-inhabit and flesh out older existing towns that have much better bones – many of which are half empty and really cheap these days. Call me crazy.