May 5th, 2008

Has it become trendy to dislike suburbs?

There is a scene in the movie Juno that satirizes suburbs by showing images of McMansions in a series, presenting to the audience their conspicuous similarities. Several people in the audience snickered as they realized the joke, even as we sat in a big box theater in our own similarly amorphous suburb.

Suburbs are a relatively new approach to land use, only becoming a possibility after World War II with the availability of FHA loans and the growth of the Interstate Highway System. Many of the recorded problems with suburbs since their inception nearly sixty years ago are being resolved. Densely developed housing (including the increasing popularity of condominiums and townhomes) and a mix of housing types offered at a range of costs prevent segregated social classes. Job opportunities in suburban areas are increasing, alleviating traffic to and from the central city during rush hour and rather, dispersing it over a larger geographic area. Home owners are conscious of the design and character of their house and are demanding unique styles. Planners are triumphing in local governments, developing ordinances that will enforce smart growth. In general, people care about the future of their neighborhood.

I am optimistic about the future of the suburbs surrounding Richmond. For an area that is experiencing rapid population growth, policy-makers, planners, and developers are working together to accommodate the population smartly and plan for the future. Essentially, mini-cities are being created in the suburbs that incorporate both the advantages of cities and the charm of suburbs.

Significant efforts are being made to revive older sections of the suburbs that are closer to the city and have been abandoned as growth sprawled outward. An outdated shopping mall that has gained the reputation of being dangerous and dirty struggles to compete with the new large shopping malls built farther from the city. It will be replaced with 83 acres of mixed-use development and will include residential, retail, and office space, potentially reviving the surrounding neighborhoods, increasing property values, and restoring the area’s reputation.

A new town is being built at the edge of Richmond’s suburbs on an old train line. Based on New Urbanist principles, it will be built around a town center that will provide offices, schools, restaurants, and shops among and within walking distance of the residential neighborhoods, reducing or even eliminating the dependence on an automobile. Eventually, the old train line will be reinstated, providing rapid transportation to Main Street Station in downtown Richmond.

Another mixed-use development will include more square-feet of office space in the suburbs than claimed by the central business district in the city. This will alleviate rush hour traffic into the city every morning as jobs will be closer to homes.

It is the residential characteristic of suburbs – historically, bedroom communities that provide few employment opportunities and require residents to commute to cities to work – that create many of the problems associated with sprawl. Thoughtful approaches to planning and development can resolve problems such as income segregation, traffic congestion, long commutes, social inequalities, and inefficient land use.

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