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The Pandemic and the Suburbs’ Second Chance

They've been trying for a long time to attract city dwellers by installing amenities that urbanites crave. COVID-19 fears are providing them with a new opportunity to get it right.

The town square in Sugar Land, Texas, a suburban development that has begun to identify as a community with an urban experience. (Shutterstock)
The Woodlands is a massive concentration of carefully planned exurbs 30 miles north of Houston, conceived in the 1960s as an antidote to city life. For decades it advertised itself this way, promoting its subdivisions as refuges from Houston's crime, congestion and stress. By the turn of this century it had a population of more than 50,000.

But in the next decade, as it continued to grow, it moved to change its image. It began marketing itself to homebuyers as a place to enjoy the blessings of urban living without the inconveniences. By 2012 it was telling prospective homebuyers about its "pedestrian-friendly atmosphere" with "urban residences like brownstones and lofts," and lots being converted to gridded streets.

Nearby suburbs started doing the same thing. Sugar Land, launched in the 1950s as a bedroom community for employees of the Imperial Sugar Co., proclaimed that, contrary to its historic reputation as a conventional Houston suburb, it was "working to provide an increasingly urban atmosphere."

A few weeks ago, I thought to ask a simple question: What are these developments saying about themselves in 2020, in the midst of a pandemic that has concentrated more infection in Houston than in almost any other American city? I assumed they would be retreating to their original selling points of exurban remoteness and security.

My assumption was wrong. This month, as virus cases in the Houston area continued to spike, The Woodlands was touting its Town Center, which "brings an urban feel … with its paved streets, shops, restaurants, hotels, office buildings, lofts, townhomes and condominiums.'' Sugar Land was boasting of its 32-acre urbanized town square, describing it as the community's "beating heart" where "residents and visitors work, live, shop and gather."

I suppose it's possible that the Woodlands and Sugar Land marketers just haven't gotten around to updating their promotional material. But they're too smart for that. They have another idea: that the urbanized suburb is the ideal destination for city dwellers who want to escape the pandemic but who don't want to give up the amenities and social contact they enjoy in the central city.

The more you think about this, the clearer it seems that COVID-19 is generating an opportunity for urbanized suburbia, not just in Houston but all over the country too. If boring old cul-de-sac suburbs can evolve into appealing urban destinations a few miles beyond the worrisome downtown congestion, the future might actually be theirs. But can they do it?

Ellen Dunham-Jones, the Georgia Tech urban planning professor who has been studying suburbs for years, is convinced they can. "We will continue to see a strong market for places where someone feels part of a community and a sense of belonging," she told me recently. "Some will find that in dense urban neighborhoods or rural areas, but I suspect most looking for that will seek walkable neighborhoods with the mid-rise density that can support coffee shops, some small local businesses, farmers markets, yoga-in-the-park and other not-crowded but still-social activities." In other words, urbanized suburbs.

PANDEMIC ASIDE, the idea of retrofitting the suburbs has been gaining strength all over the country for more than a decade. Its prime exhibit has been the "lifestyle center," the outdoor shopping mall often built as a horseshoe and centering on an ersatz Main Street, similar in its look to the urban retail corridors suburbanites patronized and enjoyed in the decades before they moved out beyond the city limits. There are currently about 500 of these semi-urbanist centers in the United States. Meanwhile, the boxy enclosed indoor malls surrounded by enormous parking lots have been declining, and they will continue to decline. One reliable study from 2017 projected that as many as a quarter of those still remaining would be gone by 2022. The coronavirus pandemic seems certain to accelerate this process of erosion.

One thing we have re-learned in the past decade is that people like to conduct their commercial lives outdoors. They were drawn to outdoor commerce when traders gathered at caravansaries along the Silk Road in Asia 2000 years ago, and in the Middle Ages when annual fairs attracted thousands to huge park-like enclosures all over Europe. The conventional indoor mall of the late 20th century is an aberration, not a deep-rooted institution.

So lifestyle centers are on the right side of history. But to spearhead a genuine boom in urbanized suburbia, they will need to do much more, go much further than they have until now. To be the fulcrum of genuine communities, they must be built on a solid mixed-use base of offices and residences, not just shopping. If they have stores and residences but no offices, they will be empty most of the day. If they have stores and offices but no housing, they will be empty at night. No matter how attractive they may look, if they fail to do all three things at once their potential will be limited.

Most suburban retrofitters understand this. In diverse areas of the country, they are experimenting with the three-legged development stool. Outdoor malls with imitation downtowns have been carefully adding residential units above and adjacent to stores, along with offices that can create a daytime customer base. Reston Town Center, outside Washington D.C., has gradually made itself more attractive and functional by pursuing this goal. So has the town center at Stapleton, an urbanized mixed-use development built on the site of an old airport on the outskirts of Denver.

But the nation's most ambitious plan for conversion to urban suburbia is in Fairfax County, Va., where the mammoth Tysons Corner commercial center is scheduled for transformation over several decades into a pedestrian-friendly urban village with 100,000 residents and 200,000 jobs. It will be a long time before we can know whether this huge undertaking will achieve its goals. So far it has accomplished relatively little. Tysons developers have managed to build dozens of apartment and condo buildings close to transit stations, but they have made almost no progress toward pedestrian-friendliness. Walking even a short distance from a transit station to stores or housing is usually an arduous and unpleasant exercise. The pedestrian qualities necessary for a generally urbanized suburb require more than a mixed-use collection of homes, stores and offices. They require connectivity.

Most of the new mixed-use developments have been pretty good about installing sidewalks along their built-from-scratch Main Streets. But to create a pedestrian-friendly suburb, the sidewalks have to go somewhere — they can't just peter out at the end of a narrow commercial corridor. Arlie Adkins, an urban planning scholar at the University of Arizona, put this succinctly a couple of years ago. "You could have the best sidewalk in the world for one block," he said, "but if it doesn't continue to the next block people aren't going to use it." The public may be ahead of the developers on this: In a survey by the National Association of Realtors in 2017, 87 percent of respondents said they considered sidewalks either very important or somewhat important in determining where they would like to live.

MAKING A SUBURB SIDEWALK-FRIENDLY is a lot harder to do than simply putting up an ersatz Main Street, even an attractive one. It means laying down sidewalks that stretch into the residential areas of the community. And here we come up against one of the oddest anomalies in real estate: Local leaders don't like to spend money on sidewalks, regardless of how much people want them. Many cities still ask homeowners to put up all or part of the money for new ones. We ask taxpayers to pay for highway and street improvements, and don't give them any choice in the matter. When it comes to sidewalks, however, we turn into public cheapskates.

Decent sidewalks were among the things Jane Jacobs argued for in her 1961 classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She rhapsodized about the "sidewalk ballet" that gives streetscapes an unending vitality. Jacobs was talking primarily about truly urban spaces — she lived in Manhattan's Greenwich Village for decades — but her ideas on this subject are highly relevant to the creation of urbanized suburbs today. So are her ideas about a whole range of topics.

Jacobs insisted, for example, that "streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent." They need to encourage walkers to follow their curiosity. Suburban retrofitters have unfortunately been reluctant to follow this advice, treating the loss of rentable retail space as more important than the pedestrian experience. This works against the creation of the communities they say they want to create. In the recent pandemic months, quite a few cities have cultivated pedestrians by turning some of their streets into open-air restaurant pavilions. That's a good start. But it's only a start.

It's worth recalling that Victor Gruen, the architect of the first modern American shopping center, Southdale Center in suburban Minneapolis, saw it as a step toward the community life that today's suburban retrofitters are trying to re-establish. He compared Southdale to "the ancient Greek agora, the medieval marketplace, and our own town squares." Gruen prophesied that "by affording opportunities for social life and recreation in a protected pedestrian environment, shopping centers can fill an existing void."

It didn't turn out as he had hoped. Southdale was built as a sterile inward-facing box in an ocean of parking lots. But we don't have to do things that way. Most of us don't want to. The current economic and social environment has given us a genuine second chance in the suburbs, if we can learn to take full advantage of it.

Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
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