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.