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TBC: Finding a Suburban Future

suburban housing development

An aerial view of housing developments near Markham, Ontario. Photo: courtesy IDuke, used by permission under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license

From The End of Suburbia to The End of the Suburbs and every obituary for the American Dream in between, there is no denying that the media has been pointing our attention to a denser and more urbanized future. But how true is that on the ground, especially in the United States, where the suburban heart beats strongest? Theoretically, the suburban era seems like a thing of the past; in reality, well, maybe not so much.

This, at least, according to Galina Tachieva. And if there’s anyone out there with a finger on that suburban pulse, it’s her: the director of town planning at Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, and leader of the Congress for New Urbanism’s Sprawl Retrofit initiative, she’s also the author of the much-respected Sprawl Repair Manual. Perhaps it’s not surprising that this optimistic pragmatist’s vision for the future of the ’burbs is hardly another version of Night of the Living Dead.

“I don’t think we can talk about tremendous shifts yet one way or another. We know that [the millennials’] preferences as a population are for better places to live. Whether it’s in the city or in the suburbs.  . . . Nobody wants to commute, whether in public transportation or in their cars, for hours,” Tachieva told me in a recent interview, when I asked her how much the media frenzy reflects what is really happening in the ’burbs.

“But it is unrealistic to say that everybody will leave these places and go to the most densely urbanized places.  . . . There will maybe be some places that will be deserted, but it will not be all of the suburbs, or all of the sprawling places, because in this process of sprawl, not only the residential places have left the city, but many employment opportunities have come to the suburbs—large concentrations of commercial activity where people work,” she said.

When she spoke at the New York Lab, back in 2011, Tachieva worked with June Williamson of Retrofitting Suburbia fame to run a design charette for retrofitting suburban areas. But this does not necessarily mean that we’re looking at an era of urbanizing the suburbs, packing every single family lot with a laneway house, or turning cul-de-sacs into main streets. Rather, Tachieva said, she foresees a reconnection or, as she calls it, “ammenitization” of regional nodes. She points to the ambitious retrofit currently underway at Tysons Corner, which will transform the infamously strip-mall-plagued archetypal edge city/business district outside of Washington, D.C. into a transit-oriented urban(ish) center.

“We cannot urbanize all of the suburbs, first and foremost because people’s preferences are not such that all the lower-density, large-lot, single-family development will disappear. What people will want is to have their house, but in close proximity to amenities, which is why we’re looking at improvement and providing a large range of choices,” Tachieva said.

She suggests that these retrofits have not yet begun on a mass scale because the most acute effects of suburban isolation have not yet become prevalent. “There was a lot of theorizing and a lot of philosophy and a lot of books were published, but not necessarily a lot of action on the ground,” she said. But with the first of the baby boomers just beginning to retire, she believes the worst—or perhaps best—is yet to come.

So what’s next? I asked Tachieva to offer a few hints to those of us interested in following the conversation on the suburban/urban future. First, she suggested, keep your ears peeled for talk of “lean urbanism,” the New Urbanists’ latest lovechild. Tachieva describes it as the bridge between tactical urbanism and New Urbanism that deregulates and decodifies more to enable smaller-scale retrofits and more frequent interventions.

Of course, this is but one perspective. Readers: what are you paying attention to these days when it comes to the future of the ’burbs? Leave your thoughts and resources below in the comment section and help us follow the conversation as it moves forward.

  • Patricia

    I understand that people have their personal preferences but we have lost our the idea of society and the communal living that has been part of human nature since the beginning of time. It is not about owning everything we can because we can or we think we want. Maybe it is all we thought we wanted until we realized how isolated and insipid that way of living can be. There is no room of human expression and creativity when everything looks the same and there is no public space provided.
    And as for the commute, I personally prefer public transportation. It is efficient, it does not pollute and it gives me time to catch up on my reading without stressing about traffic. It is time that we start thinking of accommodating people instead of cars, there is a great movie I saw on the topic that I highly recommend:
    http://thehumanscale.dk/the-film/

  • Caitlin Dover

    Thanks for the film recommendation and thoughtful comment, Patricia. These are definitely crucial issues to consider as we think about what our urban future will look like.