Stop the Suburb Bashing, Already

© James S. Russell

Quintessential American suburban ranch house.

I grew up at a time when the suburbs ruled and cities were burning. So naturally I could not be more thrilled at the vitality I find in cities. It is actually possible nowadays to say that New York City is a pleasurable place to live, not just that its advantages make its horrors tolerable.

I lived through several decades in which the guiding presumption by anyone that mattered was that big, old cities were dinosaurs, doomed to the dustheap of history. So naturally I find myself skeptical of the punditocracy that’s decided that the triumphing of the city must now become a moral cause and that suburbs must be vanquished. Here’s a typical example.

Yes, the suburb is a Problem

It was delusional to think that communities built in a simplistic palette of one-size-fits-all single-family housing, strip commercial development, and auto dependency could prove viable for the long term. That’s why many suburbs are getting poorer, lack a viable economic basis, and are strangled by traffic. They enforce an energy-intensive lifestyle, and fragment ecologically valuable landscapes.

But no one is ever going to tear down all that suburbia. The case must be made for adapting suburbs, a case that should be made by suburbs themselves. That’s not happening much. Too often the fragmented, home-rule ethos that rules America’s suburbs doesn’t reward the collaborative, consensus-driven leadership they need.

In that sense, suburbs can learn much from cities that have survived and adapted over decades and centuries. Diversifying housing stock, densities, and transportation options is a beginning. Creating and amalgamating centers of intense activity can create synergistic business advantages that isolated office campuses can’t ever develop — and make transit, biking and walking viable options.

They could be green

In an era when we have to cope with reducing GHGs and climate change effects, suburbs have certain advantages. Fewer streams are buried in pipes, so they can be restored to a largely natural state to control floods and manage storm water. In the process suburbs can create greater amenity and host wildlife. Protected bike lanes can be installed just about everywhere in suburbs. Pedaling can link isolated cul-de-sac developments to each other and create safe, health-inducing routes to schools and activities, which frees parents from endless errand running in cars.

Suburban homes need not be energy hogs. With emerging control technologies its going to be easier to shut off heat and air conditioning in little-used rooms. Shades and awnings can add comfort while saving energy. Solar and wind installations are easier to install than in cities. Water hogging gardens can be replaced with plantings that don’t require irrigation. Mono-culture lawns and yards can be enriched with quarter-acre meadows and forests.

Even the endless asphalt parking lots can host solar arrays, water-catching bioswales, and shade trees.

Today’s urban absolutists may find that they want a yard their kids can play in. Then they can apply their Messianic energy to remaking the place where two thirds of America lives.



  1. Jeremy Hawker says

    Well, they’re ok to visit, but I’d rather die than go back to living in a city. My daughter is now a student at the AA, and they’re still talking about cities & urbanism just as they were 40 years ago when we were architecture students. But for her, having grown up in the country, the big question is what’s going to happen to the rest of the earth? Half the world still lives outside the city. Shouldn’t architects have properly thought through strategies for the countryside as well as for the suburbs & city? It sounds like a perfect opportunity. There must be a better chance for architects to implement any ideas when developers and urban bureaucracies aren’t involved. You can get a grant, do a study, and then do a book, or offer small local authorities ideas about zoning, small towns & communities, living, working, transport etc. all the things that urbanism concerns itself with. The only person I’ve heard talk about this is Rem Koolhaas, somewhere in the middle of his RIBA lecture:

    • James Russell says

      Suburbs can be tough to “reform.” the governance is often intentionally fragmented. They rarely make common cause with other suburbs to solve mutual problems. We’re not seeing innovative leadership in suburbs as seeing in cities. They tend to be very reactive. But in a talk at AIA just yesterday several audience members came up and said that leadership ready to do new things but didn’t know how. That’s rather lazy I think (and I am offering my consulting services!) but hardly the standard characterization of head-in-the sand.

  2. calebcrawford says

    My mother’s family moved to the suburban town Floral Park when she was in high school. She hated it. After a liberal education in nyc schools she felt her peers were downright anti – intellectual.

    I enjoyed visiting my grandmother. It was a short trip from Penn Station, and the town was planned so that it was a 15 minute walk from the station. At that time families had one car and one wage earner. Houses were densely packed. The neighborhoods served by sidewalks. There was a downtown strip that was much like a city street with parallel parking in front and lots in the rear. There were the usual institutions and offices.

    It is sad how the suburb devolved to the auto – centric wasteland that it has become.

  3. says

    ” Protected bike lanes can be installed just about everywhere in suburbs. ” The trouble is that this is simplistic. Most modern suburbs are set up with cul de sacs and crescents and roads designed to feed into arterial roads. Those streets don’t need protected bike lanes, they can share the road. The trouble is that once they feed into the arterials you have a totally car-oriented system where everything is so far apart that a bike just isn’t useful. To get to the arterial, is already a long distance. Then you look at where the traffic fatalities are, and a recent study showed that almost half of them were on those arterials, rear enders where drivers just roll over the cyclists. The curve radii are huge so even when there are bike lanes the cars roll around them so fast that they still are killing cylists with right hooks.

    My wife was brought up on a cul de sac, and it was idyllic, a great place to play with few cars, a big pile of snow in the middle in winter to slide down. Her mother was trapped in that sidesplit for the last two years of her life, refusing to move but barely able to climb to the bathrooms, totally reliant on the kindness of neighbours and my wife driving across town every day.

    In Toronto where I live, the inner suburbs are now where the poor people are. they can’t get to services that they need, most of which are downtown where the poor people used to live. The suburbs don’t work for them, they don’t work for the old, they really don’t work for anyone without kids and two cars. The urban form is not flexible or adaptable and the people in them are not either; see what happens when anyone proposes backyard housing or increasing density on the arterials. Look what happened in Marin last week.

    • James Russell says

      Lloyd, suburbs clearly face many of the challenges you enumerate but I think it is actually easier to create bike lane systems that link cul de sacs and create safe passages (for pedestrians too) across massive arterials. It’s not like bikes are a panacea in suburbia, but they can actually aid carless errand running that can be done on foot in cities. It’s meaningful. There’s much that can be done with good design. Of course such communities have to want it.

  4. says

    Good thoughts. But lets define “suburb” … theres a huge difference between early, inner ring suburbs and newer exurban sprawl. The latter will be vastly more difficult to retrofit, if not impossible. Also, many inner ring suburbs are downright urban compared to many Americans’ experiences and could be very easily retrofitted to being totally walkable and pleasant. Finally, “city” doesn’t necessarily mean Manhattan which many people don’t want to deal with… so, maybe that’s more complexity than is needed right here, but my two cents

    • James Russell says

      Thanks Nick! Yes, the less dense the harder the problems become to resolve. And yes, many suburbs in the west are far denser than suburbs in US east coast and midwest where diffused development patterns are easier. But energy issues and the driving hassle factor are already causing people to rethink settlement patterns.

      • says

        I really hope that rernofittitg includes strategic integration of accessibility and inclusion (more than just meeting ADA standards). These developments need to adopt a seamless network approach and I fear municipalities and developers still have a compliance and cost approach as opposed to innovation and investment.

  5. Jim Stiles says

    The original work by Kenworthy and Newman about the problems with suburbs was brilliant, and much of the subsequent work on related topics was really good, However people forget that not all low density settlement needs to be commuter suburbs (which generally deserve the vilification they receive). The great challenge society faces is to match as closely as possible the sources for the resources people need with their places of residence. This critical efficiency when combined with other efficiencies is where the greatest hope lies for retaining a high level of simple prosperity (enough good food to eat, water to drink and some time to enjoy it) as we face the inevitability of sustainability.

    Ardent advocates of cities seem fond of ignoring the dirty, not-so-little secret of urbanization – that the energy budget of cities is effectively doubled by the demands of the transportation and distribution networks without which they can’t exist. Urbanization may be convenient for certain modes of operation of economic ‘engines’, but cities forget the imperatives of food and water at their own risk.

    Lower density settlement that is typical of suburbs has the potential to minimize the overhead imposed by the demands of transportation and distribution of these most critical resources. This combined with smarter ways of doing business hold far more promise than runaway urbanization.

    • Alai says

      The only way a suburb would use less energy for transportation and distribution than a city is if people returned to a subsistence-farming lifestyle en masse. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s a radical change, and not one which people will undertake willingly.

      Distance transportation of food is an issue in an era of rising fuel costs, but it’s dwarfed by the issue of the transportation of people for their day-to-day needs.

  6. Malcolm says

    Actually, I think the suburban form still has quite a bit of life in it. As the internet continues its spread into so many different areas of life, the premium on immediate proximity will probably wane. If I can keep in touch with friends and family, order everything that I need in the way of good, services and entertainment, work, etc., from the comfort of home, the value of having all of that at my “fingertips” in a dense urban area is diminished and the value of having more space, greenery, peace and quiet, etc. in the suburbs will be enhanced. That’s not to say that people will all of the sudden decamp to some exurban/rural zone as hermits; there’s still going to be a value in connecting with people in “real time” for certain experiences, enjoying people-watching and -interactions in public spaces, sporting events, concerts, etc., but the suburb will still allow much of that, but occasionally, not all of the time. I’ve noticed for example that although I live in a big city with a lot of traffic, most of my car travel takes place evenings and weekends, so I really don’t experience much of it. The trick is to make sure that the actual internal environment of the suburb allows for short-trips to be accomplished by walking and biking and maybe shuttle-type bus services. People might still drive in to the “city” or other parts of the region, but that could be a minority of their travel trips.

  7. James Russell says

    The two posts above are very insightful and engage the sometimes squishy issue of the value of physical proximity. The irony of today is that the software/hardware that enables us to never leave home is developed in environments that strongly value physical proximity for collaborative and idea-sharing reasons. It’s not that you can’t do that electronically, it’s just that hanging out together seems to encourage more and better. That’s one reason why people and businesses are embracing the city again. But one can overstate this. It’s clear that lots of businesses think an office park is just fine, and lots of people want a yard. The problem in US is that a great number of policies underwrite the diffuse, autos-only suburb and don’t aid the dense, transportation intense city. I discuss this more in my book, The Agile City. Thanks for commenting!

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