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The Reburbs

On average, an American spends over $8,000 per year to own and operate a car. Well over a quarter of that sum is simply for gas. 

This alone demonstrates the need for more efficient transportation solutions in today’s communities, a need many urban planners and developers  are trying to address. As communities evolve to better accommodate the movement of its residents, real estate of all kinds will be forced to keep pace.

The Urban Land Institute, which is all over stuff like this, recently published a piece on its UrbandLand website discussing the growing appeal of dense urban communities and strategies for suburban communities to replicate this appeal.

After nearly 60 years of sprawl, economic and demographic changes have reignited the urban consolidation of the early 20th century. There are a number of reasons for this, beyond the cost of long-distance car travel:

  •  Thanks to the recession, and perhaps the experience of growing up in the ‘burbs themselves, many post-baby boomers are opting to rent in the city rather than own in the suburbs
  • Increased environmental consciousness has made cities appealing for their efficiency (which ties into the whole car thing, of course)
  • Generally speaking, the cultural/lifestyle differences between downtown and suburban areas makes urban living attractive to college grads uninterested in the white-picket-fence option

Suburban communities, which flourished during the decades of migration from the city, are now seeing increased retail, office, and even residential vacancies. Even well-to-do neighborhoods like those of the Philadelphia Main Line, a string of suburbs to the west of the city, are hurting from this trend.

Most agree, this is only the beginning. Density and convenience will continue to trump suburban spaciousness among members of Gen Y. Just as urban neighborhoods are exploring ways to optimize their neighborhoods (such as this prize-winning design for Philadelphia’s 30th Street area, conceived by a group of Cornell students), suburban communities must find ways to “urbanize,” to create greater efficiency and consolidation, boosting commerce and minimizing vacancies. This Re-imagined Suburb (“Reburb, ” for short) will essentially be an outlying CBD, largely built around a transportation system.

By the way, if urban planners and other academics start using the term “Reburb,” I hope I get credit. There are certainly worse buzzwords out there…

But back to the transportation component of this idea. Here’s what the ULI article says about Generation Y (a/k/a the Echo Boomers), an essential demographic for most investors and developers:

These young professionals tend to favor the convenience and choices provided by urban-style environments but often live outside city centers for employment or financial reasons. Fitting their lifestyle preferences into a suburban setting has, in many markets, triggered a movement to rethink traditional infrastructure design…

The article cites a number of planned suburban communities. One of these towns borrowed the “grid” approach to streets usually associated with large cities, while another updated its bus system and related infrastructure. All of the examples emphasized “common areas,” public spaces for concerts, festivals, farmers’ markets, and other community-oriented functions. In a nutshell, the Reburb must be far more successful than its predecessor in one key area: community.

A transportation hub is a big part of that. In Ardmore, PA (part of the Philadelphia Main Line), local officials have been working for years to redevelop its local train station into a large, mixed-use property that brings the town’s commercial district–which is currently bisected by the train tracks–together. Ardmore even enlisted Philadelphia developer Dranoff Properties (best known for its luxury residential developments) to helm the project.

Unfortunately, the project has been stalled by funding woes, including, I assume, the timid lending environment that resulted from the recession. It’s an ambitious project, but based on a reasonable strategy: that of bringing residents together.

Along those lines, this article discusses a similar idea by which to grow and consolidate suburban areas. It will no doubt be received as heresy. Still, it makes sense, when you think about it: Get rid of parking lots.

This Post Has 2 Comments
  1. I like the thinking in this article. I do believe that it all starts with sub-division design. Planners need to start looking at zoning and plat regulations methods which will encourage minimum neighborhood commercial zoning “inside” subdivisions centered around transit nodes so that each subdivision is a mini-village if you will that then connect to the social/city centers. Neighborhood commercial zoning should include more opportunities for “residence-commercial” mix on a small level e.g. a single-family residence attached to pedestrian oriented commercial establishments, like bakeries, coffee shops, postal/parcel pick-ups. day care..etc.

    The future of planning rests not in the hands of the big city planners, but in the effectiveness of “town” planners in the many smaller jurisdictions that surround the “big cities”.

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