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A manifesto for a new suburbia

Eight ideas for future-proofing the suburbs

A woman rides her bike in a park where there once was a parking lot. There’s also a woman and toddler sitting on a checkered picnic blanket and a man peacefully reading a newspaper on a bench. Illustration.

America’s suburbs are changing—how can that change be harnessed for good? “Even suburban communities with a seemingly large supply of ‘developable’ greenfield land should think hard about business as usual,” says June Williamson, co-author of Retrofitting Suburbia. “The time to pivot is now to address 21st-century challenges.” Curbed asked eight experts to share ideas for rethinking suburbia, from eliminating single-family zoning to densifying sprawl to reducing carbon footprints—even undoing the long-term impacts of segregation and facing the realities of rising poverty.


Walking

Help suburbs become places worth being by meeting the untapped demand for walkable neighborhoods.

Getting rid of mandatory single-family zoning is good, but lost in the recent conversation is that we’ll need a better option in its place. Form-based zoning codes can help create the mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented development that many of today’s young singles, empty nesters, and families—and influential companies—are seeking. This won’t be easy, though. One huge challenge is the amount of costly infrastructure required to transform typical suburban places to something denser and more walkable. Expanding federal, state, and local rehab tax incentives could help attract more private capital to cover the costs of building more walkable infrastructure, while also encouraging developers to retrofit old commercial and residential buildings—regional malls or single-family housing—into mixed-use buildings or multifamily housing.

Steve Davis

Smart Growth America

Emissions

Encourage suburban homeowners to reduce their carbon emissions by getting involved in local government and advocating for change.

Personal virtue isn’t going to get emissions down to zero, and neither will “greening the status quo” by switching everyone to electric vehicles. Instead, reducing emissions is going to take a total rethink of the systems we’ve built and the policies that sustain them. The system of suburbia begets the system of emissions that has made the transportation sector the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. The good news is that remaking this system probably doesn’t take some revolutionary technology or massive investment in new infrastructure. Just the simple act of allowing the necessities of everyday life (food, education, nature, recreation) to be within walking distance of suburban homes would be a radical step towards unwinding that system of emissions. Throw in support for multifamily housing in suburban neighborhoods, and homeowners would be well on their way to building a low (or net-zero) emissions community.

But of course, this isn’t such a simple thing to do. That’s where “getting involved” comes in, and could be as simple as attending neighborhood meetings and speaking up for these sorts of changes, or as involved as serving on a local board or commission, volunteering for a campaign, or even running for office. Because when it comes down to it, lowering emissions means more homeowners are going to have to get involved in their local governments to advocate for the community, and the world, they want to see.

Adam Terando

Southeast Climate Adaptation Science Center, North Carolina State University

Aging

Embrace density in suburban communities to welcome aging residents.

Three of the most important needs for older adults are accessible supportive housing, proximity to medical care, and social engagement. All these needs are easier to address in spatially compact communities. Organizations like the Visiting Nurses Association and Meals on Wheels can more efficiently serve dense clusters of seniors. It’s no accident that planned retirement communities often mimic the urban design of pre-automobile town centers. Low-density, car-dependent suburbs should look to naturally occurring retirement communities in cities and inner-ring suburbs for better ways to serve their older residents.

Jenny Schuetz

The Brookings Institution

Lawns

Bring transparency to homeowners’ association rules when they impact environmental policy.

Many subdivisions have homeowners’ associations, or HOAs, which present an opportunity to scale up interventions like turf replacement or green infrastructure retrofits from the individual yard to the neighborhood. For instance, one subdivision near Columbus, Ohio, raised HOA dues to assess a community lake’s water quality and interventions to improve it.

Unfortunately, many HOAs have landscaping rules that might prevent these actions, but no one knows what these rules are, or even where HOAs are located, because landscaping rules are categorized as contracts (private), even though they are functioning as land-use laws (public). When the state mandates something, an HOA cannot override it—they can make it hard via approvals processes—but when action is voluntary, HOAs can impose restrictions. One of my wishlist items for suburbia is to daylight the land-use laws “hiding” in HOA covenants, codes, and restrictions—and to keep public records of where HOAs are being built.

V. Kelly Turner

Luskin School of Public Affairs, University of California Los Angeles

Land use

Quickly find new uses for dead and dying suburban infrastructure.

“Built-out” suburbs should shift decisively to retrofit their land-use framework to emphasize suburban retrofitting. It can be as simple as one, two, three: 1) zone for creative redevelopment of those 20th-century white elephants, such as dead and dying shopping malls (weren’t they a great idea, once!), if they are served or could be served by mass transit, 2) provide incentives for “re-inhabitation” of other vacant and discarded commercial buildings, recycling the wasteful detritus—the discarded leftovers—of old land-use paradigms, and 3) increase resilience, repair environmental damage, and build community ties by regreening degraded landscapes—depave parking lots, restore culverted streams to daylight, reconnect wildlife habitat, provide public park space, and more. Use a tactical approach to designing suburban futures to implement these strategies, finding the right fit for each context.

Demand will wane for the detached-house subdivisions of the past. Demographics, not ideology, will win. Office “parks” are out. Multi-unit, shared, and otherwise more compact housing types are in. Transformed land use will make us all at least a bit healthier, especially as we age.

June Williamson

Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York

Poverty

Turn neighboring suburbs into regional cooperatives to combat poverty.

The first step toward combating suburban poverty is recognizing that it’s there. Not only is poverty in the suburbs at odds with popular perceptions of suburbia, it can feel hidden in the suburban landscape with families living in converted garages and vehicles. That can make it difficult to marshal the resources to address the needs of struggling residents, and to make sure they are connecting with safety-net programs and work supports. For larger, more resourced suburbs, finding ways to streamline access to public and nonprofit programs, along with outreach and education around those resources, can help ensure vulnerable residents in these communities don’t fall further behind when there are supports available.

But for unincorporated communities and smaller or economically distressed jurisdictions that have experienced significant increases in poverty, those resources and supports often aren’t available in the first place. Struggling suburbs do not have sufficient capacity or resources—staff, tax base, philanthropic or nonprofit infrastructure—to go it alone. Working collaboratively with neighboring jurisdictions can help smaller, less-resourced suburbs stretch limited capacity, compete and advocate for more investments, and get to a better scale to address poverty in their communities.

Elizabeth Kneebone

Terner Center for Housing Innovation

Schools

Build flexible education systems that can better serve suburban families.

As suburbs become more diverse, school boards and superintendents need to ask how their systems can listen to all voices and empower principals and teachers to meet increasingly complex student needs. Suburbs can learn from larger cities like Denver, D.C., and Chicago that have improved systems via a portfolio strategy: They’ve supported autonomous, quality schools, whether district-run or chartered, to meet new needs and give parents the ability to choose which of those options is the best match for their children.

Growing populations put suburbs at an advantage compared to urban systems that have declining student enrollment, but given that most suburban districts lack economies of scale or expertise, they should share resources and collaborate with neighboring districts.

Sean Gill

Center on Reinventing Public Education

Economic Opportunity

Break down housing barriers to make the suburbs more inclusive.

In our Creating Moves to Opportunity project, we found that families receiving additional housing search assistance were more than three times more likely to move to high-opportunity areas, defined as areas of low household poverty with good access to jobs. This research demonstrates that low-income families—especially those using housing-choice vouchers—face barriers when looking for homes in areas where their children will have better chances at achieving upward mobility.

Both suburban and urban communities can play a role in limiting these barriers with thoughtful programs and policy action. This might include enacting or more aggressively enforcing laws that prohibit landlord discrimination against families with housing vouchers, increasing the supply of affordable housing by adopting inclusionary zoning rules, creating less restrictive zoning regulations, and investing in the construction of affordable housing. Communities and local public-housing authorities may also want to explore providing direct services to help low-income families find available units in high-opportunity areas, like those implemented through Creating Moves to Opportunity in Seattle and King County, Washington.

David Williams

Opportunity Insights