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Urbanizing the Suburban Environment

March, 2017

Why do 60% of Millennials prefer the urban environment?  One theory is that as their lives have been more consumed by personal interactions via electronic media, people crave increased, easy access, to in-person interaction that is currently more prevalent in the urban environment. What if the suburbs could be updated to provide more of that?  Could small “urban” hubs or “linear towns” be developed to provide both the desired experience while strengthening and revitalizing existing communities?  The current work in New Jersey around the “transit hubs” and mixed-use development are a step in the right direction but rely on existing infrastructure that still radiate from existing urban centers.  The real challenge will be to overlay new infrastructure and planning over the old suburban car based infrastructure to create a more interconnected matrix of communities and transportation. The key to success will be the creation of pedestrian zones of higher density mixed-use development that connect seamlessly to new structured parking, new public transportation and the existing roadway system.

The definition of terms is almost always helpful at the start of a conversation.  Inherently, the discussion of terms such as “Urban” and “Suburban” does not allow for a strict understanding of them as homogeneous types but rather as a diverse landscape of environments, falling somewhere on a sliding scale of overall population density.  Regardless, there do seem to be perceptions of generalized positive and negative attributes of each and a quick review is warranted.

Urban environments are perceived as more socio-economically diverse; more interesting culturally; and more creative.  This may be why so many millennials say they would prefer to live in an urban environment.  However, there is a counter-perception of cities as more crime prone; dirtier; expensive; less green and having poor schools.   It is many of these factors that originally led to the rise of the suburbs and spur continuing vigilance and efforts in cities to mitigate and improve these issues.

Suburban environments are often derided for being homogenous; uninteresting and, especially by the millennials, an environment that they and/or their parents may have been “trapped” in during recent economic difficulties.  By others, the suburbs are coveted for better schools; a safe place to raise a family; privacy; community; helpful neighbors; and access to extensive green spaces.  In an effort to entice the millennial generation, Suburban communities, transit hubs and developers are striving to instill some of the vitality and density of the urban experience into these suburban environments while being careful not to transport some of the related difficulties.

Impediments to these efforts are largely outdated zoning and the existing suburban infrastructure that was conceived as a system exclusively for the automobile.  While it is important that additional pedestrian, bicycle and public transport be integrated into a more diverse and flexible infrastructure, it is critical that we realize the car will always be a major part of this system and plan for it accordingly.  The desired densification and diversification of uses will almost certainly lead to more structured parking in those areas, hopefully wrapped by the more pedestrian friendly aspects of mixed development.  There is great potential in New Jersey for the intelligent redevelopment of existing highways and corporate campus environments that embrace these changes and leverage the existing benefits of the suburban environment.

The vitality of a city is most directly experienced at the pedestrian level.  Thus the creation of pedestrian zones and planned connectors within areas of increased density mixed-use projects is critical.  In addition, the involvement of local and state authorities to facilitate coordination of individual projects within on overall framework will be important for long term success.  The suburbs took generations to build and will take long term planning to effectively execute substantive changes that are now beginning.  While the larger infrastructure pieces allow our communities to function, it is the pedestrian experience that creates places where communities can be excited to live, work and play.

-Stephen D. Quick, AIA

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