Suburbia Grows Up

Following up on Adrian’s earlier post, Joel Kotkin had another noteworthy piece in yesterday’s Washington Post. He points out that growth trends overwhelmingly indicate a strong American preference for suburban living and that rather than fight it, we should embrace an emerging trend — the cultivation of a new sense of suburban identity:

“The urbanization of suburbia — the creation of a more sophisticated, self-sufficient community — is already beginning. From the suburbs of Northern Virginia to the Los Angeles basin, cities are restoring the commercial cores of what had once been autonomous small towns. Often devastated by malls and big-box shopping centers, these downtowns once gave suburban towns a sense of distinctiveness — something many now wish to recover. Other places are attempting to create whole new communities, with their own defined town centers complete with fine restaurants, smart shops and even nightclubs.”

See more on Kotkin’s view of the maturation of the suburbs here and here. As an example of what Kotkin is describing, look no further than yesterday’s Denver Post (link here):

“In the ever-sprawling metropolis that is the Front Range, cities and towns want to create a sense of place. They want an attractive gathering spot that makes residents feel larger than themselves, like a community. . . . . To create these urban centers, suburban town councils and investors are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to manufacture them from failed malls and big-box stores of the past – or from nothing at all.”

While the evolution of the suburbs is certainly exciting and healthy for strengthening a sense of community, planners and policymakers need to be wary of stifling organic growth and dynamism through control and planning (think Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities). From the Denver Post piece:

“Creating a sense of place is a process – one memory at a time and one new business at a time – not an end product, said Roberta Brandes Gratz, an urban critic, journalist and consultant based in New York City. ‘A downtown has to have room to breathe, room to grow and evolve,’ she said. ‘Most of these (planned downtowns) don’t. They have planned that out of the process.'”

And our own Sam Staley adds this:

“Critics say the rush to create new town centers is wishful thinking and shameless commerce – a medicine show to con town fathers into investing in trendy development that will lose its luster. ‘Downtowns 40 years ago were the economic engines of their communities. Now they’re becoming boutique neighborhoods,’ says Sam Staley, director of the urban futures program for the free-market Reason Public Policy Institute. ‘A lot of times communities get so enamored with the process of planning that they won’t get out of the way and let things happen naturally,’ Staley says.”

Well put, Sam. Too much planning can inhibit the vital process of creative destruction — the death and rebirth of communities, neighborhoods, etc. though market forces and changing consumer preferences. The best advice for suburbs is to not lose sight of this process by focusing too much on product or outcome.