A Small Town Template for Suburbia

Something I always encounter when reading about development in the suburbs are phrases like “we have a small-town feel”. The problem is most suburbs are far from being like small towns. Even suburbs that used to be small towns are usually sprawled out (i.e. Forest Lake) to the point they really lose the charm of being a small town and become more of a commuter town. I think it’s great that suburbs want to be like small towns, but they need to actually follow more of a characteristics of a small town other than “a big yard”. Here are some ways where suburbs can be more like small towns (as well as to be more autonomous):

1. Hide the parking lots

Even in a car-centric neighborhood, there can be more done with hiding parking lots while still being car-friendly. Have the businesses face the street, especially on street corners. Small towns typically have a “Main Street”, where there is a bunch of businesses close to one another along one or two main roadways. While there is still parking, it usually is behind the business and/or relies on on-street parking.

Here is a basic example of what I mean:


The building on the left is representative of a typical car-centric suburban commercial building with the lot facing the road, while on the right is a building that is designed in a way towards having better use of the sidewalk while remaining accessible enough to cars. Handicapped parking could stay in front of the building via marked on-street parking spaces. Sean Hayford Oleary’s article from April about street frontage is a great read about promoting better street frontage, especially highlighting the fact that suburban commercial buildings need better sidewalk frontage.

2. Encourage more local commuting

People who live in small towns typically work in the same town, as unlike suburbs in major cities – they typically don’t have the convenience of being near millions of jobs within a 20-30 minute driving distance of their home. Suburbs could encourage more people to try to at least work within their suburb of residence or at least a neighboring one. Obviously, various circumstances mean not every single person can work within a 5 mile radius of their house (tied to mortgages, laid off, company moved to a different place, they don’t like where there work is located, etc.), but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t encourage it. Why live in Forest Lake and commute to Burnsville? Why not work in at least Blaine or Lino Lakes if possible.

3. Make streets narrower and slower

Small towns typically don’t have massive residential roads that are scary to cross as a pedestrian. Honestly I believe there really is no point to having residential streets at 30 mph. I’d keep residential streets at 20 mph speed limits, while busier roads (2-3 lane roads) at 30 mph, highways (or stroads if you prefer that term) at 40 mph, and freeways at 55-70 mph. Some intersections are also unnecessarily wide, so I’d recommend shrinking some intersections down, as having a wide turning radius on local road intersections really aren’t needed. I will admit I hate driving in Saint Paul and Minneapolis, but at the same time I do feel like I am paying more attention to the road when I am on a narrow local road surrounded by parked cars going 30 in comparison to a wide road in a suburban area going 40-50 mph. When you get too comfortable I think you are more likely to zone out. I’m not saying make every road to the narrowest allowed and cut the speed limit down on every road, but we should keep the high speeds and wide roads to the freeways.

Also not every road needs to be a 4-lane throughfare, Bill Lindeke points out some great ideas and benefits from downgrading 4-lane roads down to 3-lane roads.

4. Condense commercial districts

Now not every business park needs to be looking like a stereotypical Main Street, but what is typical of small towns is a condensed central commercial core. The problem with the Bloomington Strip along Interstate 494 isn’t that many of these companies are in the suburbs (it’s completely fine if companies don’t want to be based in the central cities), it’s the fact they are so spread out from each other. Suburban office towers have always been awkward to me as Bloomington could have a better skyline by not spreading it out over a few mile stretch of a freeway. I understand the logistics of why the towers are spread out (traffic being more spread out along the freeway versus in more condensed areas), but having centralized office parks would be easier to have walkable retail, and restaurants.  Saint Paul actually reminds me more of a small town given it has various small business districts lined up along a corridor, such as Grand Avenue. It would be neat to see more buildings facing American Boulevard rather than large parking lots or ramps.

5. Don’t discourage commuter cycling

Now I won’t deny that many suburbs have great recreational cycling networks. But commuting via cycling especially during rush hour in a suburban area is probably pretty scary depending on the location. I wouldn’t know personally, but even though some major streets have bike lanes, I don’t know if I would trust cycling right next to a ton of cars with impatient drivers not paying close attention to the speed limit trying to access an even faster road to get to work. On major roads with speeds of 40 mph or greater, I recommend off-street bike paths as Walker Angell pointed out last month that segregated bike paths seem like a better idea than vehicular cycling in high-speed areas.

6. Don’t make the architecture look so generic and earthy

What really kills me in suburbs (and urban areas trying to look like suburbs) is the sterile architecture seen in nearly every strip mall or office park. I honestly can’t tell the difference between Woodbury and Maple Grove at times because everything looks the same. While even older architectural styles are just as cookie-cutter, they at least looked more attractive and still had more color variety. I don’t know if it was the texture or detail of some buildings, but they typically looked less cheaply built and didn’t follow earth tones as much. Even where I live in Little Canada, there seems to be an obsession with earth tones and weird window placements in developments within the past decade, which really looks architecturally dull when it is so commonplace:

This seems more characteristic to a small town (Selby Ave. west of the Cathedral in Saint Paul), though obviously something like Blair Arcade is unrealistic to pop up but something designed similar to the YMCA building could be built easily (although with a corner entrance).

Even with brick-walled structures, an argument could be made that the buildings are too reddish, but even modern developments in Stillwater show that classical architecture styles can still be built in modern times while allowing some color variety:



Suburbs may be outdated and architecturally sterile, but that doesn’t mean we can’t improve them. If we are going to say the suburbs are like small towns, then why don’t we make them actually look like small towns and not commuter towns. With more and more people deciding to move back into urban neighborhoods and rising gas prices, suburbs will have to step up their game in order to maintain their population. With the majority of the people living in suburbs (and exurbs) within the Twin Cities metropolitan area, a question to ask is: “Why do many of us love places like Stillwater and Grand Avenue,  yet don’t actually live in places that look like that?”. Let’s make a stand and design walkable and more attractive suburbs.

This was crossposted at (sub)urbanstudies


Al Davison

About Al Davison

Al Davison resides in downtown St Paul. He grew up in Little Canada, and has also lived in Mankato, and Hibbing. He likes looking at spreadsheets and making maps, whether it is for work or for personal projects. He supports new development, especially if it involves sandwich-oriented retail.

11 thoughts on “A Small Town Template for Suburbia

    1. Al DavisonAl Davison

      Yeah, just sitting in stop-and-go traffic on 94 and 35E today during both the afternoon and rush hour from a trip to Minneapolis made me wonder why people would sit in this for miles on a daily basis just to live in the outer suburbs (or even from the inner suburbs on the other side of the metro).

      Even when I have driven to St. Cloud along 94 or Highway 10, I just don’t get the appeal of places like St. Michael or Big Lake. At least in Little Canada despite it being at a low density, I still am within 5 miles away from jobs in Saint Paul, Roseville, and Maplewood, and am within walking distance of a couple bus routes and bike paths.

  1. Monte

    My impression is when most of people in the suburbs say it feels like a small town, it’s because there’s low crime and spacious backyards and not a lot of traffic on residential streets, not attributes of actual small towns. So I’d question if being more like a real small town is actually what the people want. But more on some of the points:

    Parking in back- I don’t find myself driving by a Walmart or Starbucks and saying “oh, I wish the parking is in the back” The fact that it’s not indicates there’s probably a good reason they’re not naturally built that way. A store is typically laid out so the cash register is by the ones set of doors with the stock-room in back, and a restaurant has the dining in front with the door, and the kitchen in back. Either you have two sets of doors leading to awkward layouts, or the people parking in back, probably 95% of the customers at a typical strip mall, have quite a hike to the front door, maybe to the point where they’ll drive somewhere else instead. I do go to Stillwater to ooh and ah at the pretty buildings (which will be a nicer place once the traffic goes away), but when I go to the local Walmart to get eggs and light bulbs, or the local Subway for a sandwich, I don’t care where the parking is or what the building looks like. I’ll go as far as to say I don’t like that Stillwater building and other fake history buildings like like it- that octagonal tower and using a random assortment of finishes doesn’t fool anyone into thinking it is several buildings built 100 years ago and makes it look goofy- there are better ways to break up the bulk of a building.

    I also don’t think Forest Lake to Burnsville commutes are something most people do voluntarily. Maybe your wife works in Forest Lake so you choose to live there rather than split the difference (and two widely separated jobs were all you could find in this economy), or your company moved from Forest Lake to Burnsville after you bought a house. Also, I think with high gasoline prices it changes the affordability of a house in Otsego vs one in Maple Grove so long exurbs to city commutes are becoming less common..

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      If one thing is certain, it’s that people in the suburbs have almost no clue about local crime rates and a vastly inflated notion of how much crime there is in the city.

      Also, stuff was built that way because someone thought it was a good idea at the time. The fact that strip malls built more recently come in a lot more variety of designs is that maybe that way wasn’t so “natural” after all.

      1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

        Nor do most suburbanites have a clue about city traffic. Their experience of the city is usually from a congested freeway, not pleasant neighborhoods. Every time I go to the suburbs, I’m shocked at how much traffic there is (and how fast) on residential streets in areas with a hierarchical road network. Because of course that’s not a calm residential street, that’s a “secondary neighborhood collector” or some BS hierarchical roadway title.

        1. Monte

          What’s pleasant or not depends on the individual. The parkways are pleasant to me but Lake Street is unpleasant. Hiawatha is unpleasant. Central Ave is unpleasant. Most residential streets are so narrow that there’s only a couple of inches if there’s parked cars on both sides and someone is going the other way. There’s a lot of needless traffic lights on fixed cycles. I much prefer wide suburban roads and freeways to driving on city streets. Although I live in Bloomington, I don’t like that a lot of the major streets have driveways onto them and no turn lanes, I much prefer farther out suburbs where you can drive 40-45 down the street without worrying about cars pulling out or parked cars.

    2. Scott ShafferScott Shaffer

      I don’t find myself driving by a Walmart or Starbucks and saying “oh, I wish the parking is in the back”

      I don’t find myself walking, busing, or biking to Walmarts or Starbuckses with parking in the front.

  2. Al DavisonAl Davison

    The reason why I said put the parking lots in the back is because it is difficult to walk to one place to another when there is a sea of parking lots. I find it stupid that I have to drive my car across a wide street because it’s a pain in the ass to cross an expressway-like road (I don’t really like calling them stroads) especially when they have few places to cross. Many hardware stores, restaurants, and other various businesses in small towns seem to be able to handle having parking in the back and on the street. Most of the time I drive in Saint Paul or Minneapolis, I still can manage to find a space to park (even for free or cheap most of the time)

    In addition to what I like about small towns and urban commerical districts, is you can park your car once and then be within a decent walking distance of multiple businesses. It definitely won’t work for every single business, but it would help if we at least built more businesses that did face the street. To add about the Subway comment, I actually used to be able to walk to my local Subway, but they replaced it with a CVS in 2009 and now the Subway is in a crappy place to walk for anyone.

    And what I meant about the commuting – I am aware that circumstances mean not everyone can commute within a short distance as I did adknowledge that in the article (to add, my father commutes to Lino Lakes after getting laid off, but he did quit a job down in Burnsville because he said the drive wasn’t worth it), but that wasn’t I was getting at. I was just saying there should be more promotion towards it. But also, many people did make the voluntary decision of moving out far (with the illusion of cheap house prices), and even my dad doesn’t get why people want to live that far out when they work in the metro area as he said he goes to various construction projects in the middle of nowhere (he delivers construction materials).

    I understand that you might not care about where you park and suburban architecture (I will admit that Stillwater development is a bit kitschy – but I still like it way more than “The Lodge” in my first Google Map photo). I am an architectural snob (I also hate the look of many new developments in Minneapolis), but even most other suburbanites I talk to tend to agree that the suburbs are pretty ugly and cheap-looking (especially newer ones).

  3. Monte

    What are people’s thought of Arbor Lakes then? It seems to have about everything the article calls for. It has 1)Fake history using multiple random finishes as the Stillwater developement, and even fake second story windows. 2) On-street parking in front, 3) Narrow streets (and there are wide suburban roads around it- I’m no longer going to use the term “stroad”,since I strongly support them so I’m not going to use what seem to be a pejorative term- so traffic that isn’t going to the area doesn’t get hung up). 4)Parking in back.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      But it violates rule number 4. Maple Grove has *four* “main streets,” three of which are within a half mile of each other near Arbor Lakes. Some have fake second story windows. They all have a common architectural style (except for the facades at “The Shoppes” which are slightly less extraneous than adding letters to the words Shops). And they probably all have a Subway (two of the four have Chipotles). The problem is that these were all master planned and developed by one developer entity. That’s not how a normal business district is crafted. Just think if all of this energy in Maple Grove had been crafted into one core area instead of Maple Grove’s four main streets. And if it had housing and offices integrated into the area rather than separated by giant parking lots. Then, maybe then, this suburb would actually deserve worthwhile transit connectivity or other regional investments.

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