It’s not the suburbs, it’s mid-late 20th century urban design, planning, engineering, and architecture

American urbanists like to criticize “the suburbs”, but this isn’t really fair. The suburbs are just a place, like South Dakota, or Australia, or Antarctica. They cannot change where they are.

Some of this is a criticism of “suburbanites”. But so long as there is housing in the suburbs, and transportation to enable people to move, someone will live in the suburbs, at a higher or lower rent depending on people’s relative preferences for space or travel time.

Some of this is a criticism of suburban politics. But this comes with self-selection, people want to live with people with similar preferences. The alternative is those with different political, religious, and athletic views live together, which would inevitably create more conflict.

Some of this is a criticism of suburban travel behavior. But this is really due to suburban land uses and network patterns, discussed below, and demographics and socioeconomics which can’t really be changed or changed easily.

Some of this is associated with land densities. Much of this is unfair as every place starts undeveloped and adds development over time, some places are more complete than others. Some of this complaint is legitimate in that particular subdivisions make intensification of development technically difficult and probably illegal under current zoning. But population densities dropped in central cities as well, both due to a hollowing out of individual houses as average household size dropped, and demolition of housing and replacement with lower density developments including more surface parking.

Some of this is a criticism of suburban street patterns. But this is not inherently associated with the suburbs, it is really associated with an era. Streets that were built in certain periods had particular spacings, connectivity, widths, curvatures and so on. You can even see it in some urban brownfields that were redeveloped in this era (Energy Park comes to mind).

Consider older towns, for instance county seats of suburban counties. While in the 19th century, they often had road, river, and rail connections with large cities, they were not in the daily metropolitan system, as people did not commute back and forth so regularly. Certainly residents of these places were affected by the nearby big city, but they were not at the time suburbs. These towns mostly have design coherence.

Similarly look at areas that we call suburban developed before World War II, particularly first ring suburbs. These too often have design coherence. The photo shows an early Garden Suburb in London. If suburbs were more like this, I suspect the complaint level would decrease.

The late Victorian Suburbs in London (like Hampstead Garden Suburb) remain quite attractive.

The late Victorian Suburbs in London (like Hampstead Garden Suburb) remain quite attractive.

The problem with the suburbs isn’t that they are not the city. The problem with the suburbs is the same problem as the city, they had a bad 5 or 6 decades of urban design. Cities in the same period saw urban renewal, mostly mediocre architecture, replacement of buildings with surface parking lots, and a general hollowing out. It’s not because it’s the city that this is a problem, it’s because there were some terrible design (planning, engineering) memes out there which got implemented as policy, while operating in a market that just had no taste. It is worse with the suburbs, as for many, those six decades of urban design were the only six decades of development they had, while for the city, at least the older street network remained mostly intact, as did some of the older commercial buildings and much of the housing stock.

It’s not the now-assimilated suburbs built before the big cities reached out to envelop them within the daily metropolitan system. It’s not the older suburbs within the core cities, or the first ring suburbs adhering to the grid. It is a particular design of a particular era which enlarges distances between places in order to offer larger parcels of land on which to spend time and store cars.

To reverse this, people will need to want to spend more time off-their property, bear more affinity for their neighbors, and promote changes to land use rules to enable such things (which will follow from consumer preferences). Technologies, policies, land uses, and transportation networks which reduce the demand for car ownership and car storage will facilitate this.

Travel has peaked, many core cities are slowly gaining population, and perhaps population share, car ownership is down and car and bike sharing is up, new housing is being constructed in urban areas, and it seems if development is growing up faster than out. In short, the trends are favorable. They just have to run for 5 decades to undo the problems remaining.

11 thoughts on “It’s not the suburbs, it’s mid-late 20th century urban design, planning, engineering, and architecture

  1. Bill LindekeBill LindekeModerator  

    One more criticism that I often consider has to do with governmental fragmentation creating and normalizing inequality. This is particularly a problem for schools, but also for health care, policing, parks, etc.. It’s not that “cities” (with coherent governments) don’t have inequality; of course they do. But suburbanization (separate cities for different “self-selected” class groups) not only makes the inequality worse, it seemingly normalizes inequality through a certain scale of government, so that one can easily think that the low taxes in Suburb X have nothing to do with the poverty in City Y.

    This is a problem that predates post-war design…

  2. Brendon SlotterbackBrendon Slotterback

    “The problem with the suburbs is the same problem as the city, they had a bad 5 or 6 decades of urban design.” Does urban design include what is arguably one of the world’s largest centralized planning and infrastructure projects? To say that the hollowing out of cities and the growth of the suburbs were simply happening adjacent in time or were a “meme” rather than the symptom of the vast automobilization of the country seems to vastly understate the importance of those policy decisions.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      Not to mention housing and finance subsidies and programs that allowed people to afford the spaces and living patterns they desired in the first place.

    2. David LevinsonDavid Levinson Post author

      Freeways occurred in both cities and suburbs (in the US), and was a problem of the era (with a few notable 20th century projects still getting implemented). I would include it as an urban design (as well as engineering and planning), obviously in retrospect not optimal.

      The freeways enabled much of suburbanization we have, but they were at the time supported by the core cities, (against e.g. the wishes of Pres. Eisenhower, but with the support of Congress). It is clearly a quite successful meme, as it was implemented as policy.

      [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

      1. Bill LindekeBill LindekeModerator  

        Equivocating here seems a bit disingenuous to me. The suburbs were predicated on freeways, and wouldn’t have existed without them (not in anything like their current form). Freeways through Cities, OTOH, didn’t need to happen. (E.g. look at Canada.)

        Whether or not cities “supported” freeway construction depends on who you’d have asked at the time. If you’d asked Robert Moses, some downtown property owners, or realtors and construction lobbies, then yes, they supported freeway construction. If you’d asked people living in or near their paths, or residents of core cities more generally, it’s hard to say. From what I’ve read and heard, many were avidly against driving them through neighborhoods, many more were ambivalent. The process was hardly democratic, perhaps reminiscent of how giant taxpayer stadiums are built in our era despite the will of the majority.

  3. Cameron ConwayCameron

    The next few decades will be absolutely fascinating in terms of redefining the reputation of the suburb. What worries me is the socioeconomic stratification that came with the initial wave of suburbia will hardly be undone by redevelopment. The richer or more central suburbs will redevelop with expensive density while the less wealthy suburbs stay primarily autocentric. This spells disaster for poorer folk’s quality of life as traffic and gas prices rise. Suburban transit oriented redevelopment for all incomes, how is it done?

  4. Jay Cosnett

    Spot on. To me, the underlying cause of all these bad decisions was the myopic, “cars are the only kind of transportation we’ll ever need.” It started in the 1930s and really took off in the 1950s, when all the bad design really got going. It is starting to fade, slowly, in places, even as it remains the dominant mindset in many parts of the country and for much of the political spectrum. Other cultures (Europe) invested in a more diverse transportation infrastructure and thus avoided the worst of the worst. But even here in liberal Portland, Oregon, no expansion of rail transit comes without huge protests from the rabid “cars only” crowd, and professional planners often still think cars first and tack on transit as an after thought to get federal funding and greenwash BAU. Sigh.

  5. Tom Young

    Although I don’t disagree with the basic premise of this piece, that urban design in the latter half of the 20th century was abysmal, based on a lowest cost approach to facilitating the needs of the auto-mobile (and is only starting to show positive improvements recently), I don’t think I quite buy into the narrow solutions proposed to resolve it.

    Yes, in order to have change occur, we need to have people advocating for better a better public realm, and architecture that supports active urban environments. But it isn’t simply about having people make choices in their daily lives. We have created environments that actively discourage people from making these sorts of choices. Walking to the store isn’t attractive in a lot of suburbs. In some suburbs, it isn’t even possible. And engaging with your neighbours takes some conscious effort and motivation when your street is an array of double or triple garages and there’s nothing in the street to make people want to come out their front doors.

    This is a chicken and egg situation, and we need both to happen. People “voting with their feet” will help, but there’s only so many well-designed pre-war or New Urbanist neighbourhoods out there right now. We also need to make policy decisions that push new developments in better directions with a lot more force.

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