Suburban Density

The second half of the twentieth century in the United States saw a shift from a centralized urban form to a decentralized pattern of growth. Urban areas spread outwards rather than growing up, which turned cities inside out.  Almost all of the growth occurred in the suburbs as households flocked to low-density, auto oriented neighborhoods. In the beginning employment was still located in the central business district (CBD), but that quickly changed as jobs and retail followed the growing population in the suburbs. The suburbs gained their own independence, creating a magnetic pull that grew into edge cities and mature town centers away from the CBD.

Mixed-use Strip Mall

Today, the suburban system is in need of repair.  The segregation of land uses and low-density sprawl has proven to be an unsustainable model.  This has created a number of problems.  Automobile dependence, aging and under supported infrastructure, sedentary lifestyles and large carbon footprints are just a few of the problems.  While some people are deciding to move back to the city, a large portion of the population will prefer to live in the suburbs.  Reviving our cities will provide some relief but will not address the issues.  Solutions need to be taking place in the suburbs.  One way to mitigate the problems is to increase density in the suburbs.  This may seem like an obvious solution, but it is easier said than done.  It will allow the suburbs to increase their tax base to pay for the maintenance and changes that are needed while creating more compact walkable neighborhoods.  More investigation needs to be done on suburban multi-family development so that the lessons learned can inform the changes needed in the suburbs.  This could take on many forms: mixed-use (remixed strip malls), stacked multifamily (vs. garden apartments) and even allowing multiple units in single-family neighborhoods (grandmother units, garage conversions, duplexes).  This will require rethinking zoning and parking requirements while investing in public transportation.  The suburbs have an opportunity to reinvent themselves.  The first ones to do it will come out with increased value and the ones that don’t will be left behind.


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