The Quiet Revolution Happening in the Suburbs

Suburbs first gained popularity for being everything a big city wasn't. Now they want to be just like downtown.
by | December 2017
(Photos by David Kidd)

It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon in Shirlington. Clusters of people are sitting outside, dining al fresco at restaurants serving high-end American or Italian food, or quaffing drinks at a pub named for a famous Irish writer. Women walk by with mats under their arms, fresh from yoga class or sessions of massage or reflexology. Shoppers step in and out of an artisanal bakery, a kitchenware store playing peppy French music or a cheese boutique named Cheesetique. All the stores have doors that open right onto the sidewalk, with most people parking at a multilevel garage tucked off the main drag. Newly built apartment towers loom over the scene, although none of the residents are out on their tiny terraces.

Shirlington is a slice of suburban Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. But it could just as well be a retail pocket in any number of suburbs in the D.C. area, or, for that matter, on the edge of Atlanta, Cleveland or Denver. All over the country, suburbs are rushing to develop new mixed-use corridors, complete with dense, walkable shopping areas, often attached to a town hall or performing arts complex, as in Shirlington, and usually surrounded by mid-rise apartment or condo buildings.

 

Shirlington's walkable "downtown" is attractive to senior citizens and millennials alike. (David Kidd)

 

Mixed-use developments like these are becoming kind of a cliché in American metropolitan areas -- but that doesn’t make them any less revolutionary. After decades offering themselves as safer, quieter alternatives to cities, suburbs are refashioning themselves to become more like them. Development built around cars, with zoning restrictions that strictly segregate housing from office space and shopping, is giving way to the desire to create new downtowns, bubbling with all kinds of activity, and create them largely from scratch. “We’re starting to see some competition even between these comparable types of developments, as consumers and even businesses are looking to have a different atmosphere,” says Julie Palakovich Carr, a member of the city council in Rockville, Md.

Back in the 1970s, Rockville, which is a few miles north of Shirlington, tore out its downtown in order to build an enclosed shopping mall. That mall declined over the years due to local competition and the overall drop in brick-and-mortar shopping, so now it’s been torn down in favor of a mixed-use development. In effect, the downtown has been put back where it once was. Lots of suburbs have torn down dead or dying malls, putting in their place town centers that encourage foot traffic among the shops, while still taking advantage of their proximity to a highway or major arterial road. Office parks are reshaping themselves as well, hoping to hold on to tenants as big companies buy into the trend of moving back to center-city downtowns.

Demographics have also brought changes to what many people are looking for from suburban life. Carr points out that in Rockville, the biggest demand in housing over the next 20 years is going to be from one-person households. That’s true in a lot of places. Around the country, one out of every four households is composed of a single person. Three out of four households don’t have a school-age child living at home. There just aren’t as many traditional families with a couple of kids at home, wanting a big yard, as there used to be.

Instead, the demand is for amenities not only at home but also out in common areas, whether it’s a fancy game room or swimming pool in an apartment complex or a wide range of choices for things to do in the neighborhood -- preferably without having to drive to them. “People who don’t have kids in their houses eat out a lot more than people who have kids,” says Ellen Dunham-Jones, director of the urban design program at Georgia Tech University and a leading authority on suburban evolution. “Suddenly,” she says, “you see the suburbs have way more restaurants than they used to, even bars and nightlife, which used to be anathema.”

Certainly, this isn’t the case in every suburb. Suburban populations are still growing fastest in developments further out, where cars remain king and sit in big garages next to big houses on big lots. Meanwhile, many close-in older suburbs with small bungalows built in the 1950s for a blue-collar clientele have entered into decline, with homes turning into downmarket rentals and rundown garden apartments leasing for cheap. Some of these suburbs are becoming pockets of intractable poverty, while others are ports of entry for new immigrants who are moving directly to conventional suburbs, bypassing urban life altogether.

But all of this creates a tempting opportunity to cater to members of the millennial generation who are attracted to cities but can’t afford to live near the urban center. “The downtown housing has gotten absurdly expensive in those cities that have revitalized,” says Dunham-Jones. This explains to a large extent the denser development taking shape in communities such as Shirlington and Rockville. Many millennials -- and a lot of empty nesters as well -- want a walkable lifestyle, with just about everything they need within a few blocks of their homes. Some suburbs have learned that they can attract this cohort by offering these urban-style amenities, often alongside high-performing schools that are better than their center-city counterparts.

 

In some markets, the biggest demand in housing over the next 20 years is going to b from one-person or childless households. (David Kidd)

 

This model of development isn’t going to work everywhere. There has to be enough market demand for builders to be interested in reshaping large parcels of property. But the old suburban model of subdivisions as residential worlds unto themselves, often in a cul-de-sac format, has lost at least some of its luster. An increasing number of developers want to appeal to people who prefer to live and work in places where they don’t have to drive for everything they want. “The suburbs that have gotten that are going to be the winners in the future,” says Ed McMahon, a senior resident fellow with the Urban Land Institute. “The way people work, shop and move around is changing. Those that have figured that out are going to prosper, and others are going to decline.”

 

Suburbs have always been shaped by transportation. The ones made possible by carriage and rail lines a century ago that took residents away from the pollution and noise of the big city were given the name of “streetcar suburbs.” Following World War II, the desire to leave the city and attain some space was enabled by the interstate highway system. Those suburbs were built for and around the use of automobiles.

Now suburbs are being reshaped again, but this time more by communication than transportation. You might call them “smartphone suburbs.” There’s less need to go to the mall if you can have goods produced practically anywhere in the world shipped to your door by online retailers -- and perhaps more important, can stock up on toilet paper, diapers and medicine without ever leaving home. When you do need to get out, you don’t have to own a car. Taxi service was always notoriously bad in suburbs, but now you can hire a Zipcar for weekend trips to Home Depot, or summon an Uber or Lyft to take you to a distant friend’s house for dinner. “When I was a kid, getting your driver’s license was a ticket to freedom,” McMahon says. “Today, the cellphone is a way to connect without having to get in a car.”

It’s true that millennials are driving less. Teenagers, too. In 2014, only one out of four 16-year-olds had a driver’s license, compared with nearly half back in 1983, according to a University of Michigan study. The share of 19-year-olds with licenses has also plunged, by 21 percent.

If more people are embracing a car-lite lifestyle, they’re also looking for more social interaction. The smartphone may have something to do with this as well. People have gotten used to sharing interior thoughts and intimate feelings over digital devices. They may not be baring their souls to all and sundry around the town center fountain, but they’re not coveting privacy in the way that earlier generations used to. This applies to older people as well as millennials. “The privacy that the aging boomers really valued while raising their kids, now they’re beginning to question that,” Dunham-Jones says. “Do I really want to mow that big lawn? If they’re retired, suddenly that privacy can seem lonely.” Or, to put it another way, the ability to conduct much of one’s life on a cellphone may be generating a desire for in-person contact, perhaps the only thing the phone cannot deliver.

Whatever is driving the demand for walkability in the suburbs, it’s clearly very much in vogue. You’ll pay at least 25 percent more per square foot for housing in Reston, Va., which is built around a town center, than in nearby Sterling, a postwar cul-de-sac suburb that’s the same driving distance from Washington. And there are more urban-style developments emerging all the time. In 2008, when Dunham-Jones and June Williamson published their book Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs, they could come up with about 80 examples of suburban developments built to reduce automobile capacity. Today, their database contains more than 1,500 examples. “People are more willing to have compact housing,” says Williamson, an architecture and urban design professor at the City University of New York, “if it’s in the right location.”

 

To succeed, mixed-used developments have to be truly mixed-use. Simply moving town hall out from behind its big parking lot and onto a main street isn’t going to magically attract retail. If you build housing on top of retail, but can’t attract jobs to the area, your shops are going to be empty during the day. Or they’ll be empty at night if they’re near offices but no one’s living nearby. Suburban office parks, for their part, are attempting to bring in more restaurants and coffee shops. For decades, there were three rush hours at Research Triangle Park in North Carolina -- morning, evening and lunch hour. Forty thousand people work in the park, but until recently there was no place for them to buy a cup of coffee, let alone lunch. Now there is a growing number of choices. The managers of even the most successful office parks admit they will have to change to survive. “Downtowns have a sort of personality that does not exist in a suburban research park like ours,” says Bob Geolas, the Research Triangle Foundation’s former CEO. “A big part of what we’re doing is building a personality that people can relate to and be inspired by.”

It is possible to have a successful retail environment without including either housing or offices, but then you’ve just created, in effect, a roofless shopping mall. An enclave that’s pedestrian-friendly, but which everyone drives to, is not going to be as successful as one that combines jobs and housing and is connected to the outside world by transit, says Armando Carbonell, who leads the urban planning program at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

That may be the most radical change in suburban planning: the growing consensus that transit matters. The most in-demand suburban developments are being built around transit, and this is true even where the share of commuters using transit is still low. Shops and apartments are springing up alongside fixed-rail stations all over the country. New developments are capitalizing on proximity to bus rapid transit lines, or sometimes just plain buses, as has happened with some projects that have taken over former malls. In Carmel, Ind., new housing is built near biking trails that can get residents directly from their doors to downtown Indianapolis.

 

Shirlington's restaurants and shops open right onto the sidewalk. (David Kidd)

 

Steve Bellone understood that transit was the one asset the struggling town of Babylon, N.Y., could count on. The Long Island Rail Road can take you from Babylon into Manhattan in under an hour (at least when there are no delays). Nevertheless, at the start of this century, when Bellone was serving on the town council, Babylon was rated the most economically distressed community on Long Island, with a failing school district, the highest unemployment rate in the area and all the other standard indicators of blight. Back then, it took a herculean effort to combine federal, state, county, town and local nonprofit resources just to build a supermarket. “It was certainly a nice addition to the community,” Bellone says, “but it didn’t fundamentally alter any of the underlying conditions.”

Bellone knew his town needed to think bigger. Over a number of years and following a long planning process, the result was Wyandanch Rising, a $140 million development that mixes apartment towers near the station and shops within walking distance. A majority of the apartments are subsidized, helping to lift up longtime residents rather than chasing them out. The first phase is open and lessons from the development are already being applied at a similar project nearby in East Farmingdale.

For an area that’s about 15 miles from Levittown -- one of the pioneering postwar suburbs and an early model of exclusionary zoning -- Babylon’s is a new approach, but one that harkens back to city building of the past. “What we’re really doing in suburbia is retrofitting it in a way that is [similiar to] how we used to build communities,” says Bellone, now the Suffolk County executive. “You absolutely have to go back to the way we built communities in the past.”

As Bellone suggests, the new approach in suburbia is really a return to form. For centuries, people congregated within compact areas, doing all their trading and socializing, as well as interacting with government officials, in cities. The concept of suburbs dates back to Roman times, but the modern American suburb -- which amounted to a barracks where people could sleep separate from all their other activities -- represented a break from historic norms. Today’s suburbs represent an attempt to recapture a very old style of living, with commerce and community all mixed in together.

It’s clear now that the old suburban model created imbalances. Even before the recession, retail space was being built at several times the rate of growth of retail sales. There was an oversupply of large-lot, single-family homes, and an undersupply of every other type of housing. The new developments are an attempt to give today’s households what they are looking for in terms of convenience and choice.

Maybe today’s mixed-used plazas will be torn down one day in favor of a new generation of strip malls, but that seems unlikely. “The automobile-based suburb isn’t going to disappear overnight, and may never disappear,” says Carbonell of the Lincoln Institute. “But the suburb that provides more of a center and is connected to the metro region is going to be the growing sector.”