Are evolving suburbs really suburban anymore?

Silicon Valley google map

Leigh Gallagher is in the news with a provocatively titled book, The End of the Suburbs. Gallagher writes about the shifting geography of the American Dream from suburbia to growing cities and walkable places. In a summary for Time, Gallagher writes:

A major change is underway in where and how we are choosing to live. In 2011, for the first time in nearly a hundred years, the rate of urban population growth outpaced suburban growth, reversing a trend that held steady for every decade since the invention of the automobile. In several metropolitan areas, building activity that was once concentrated in the suburban fringe has now shifted to what planners call the “urban core,” while demand for large single-family homes that characterize our modern suburbs is dwindling. This isn’t just a result of the recession. Rather, the housing crisis of recent years has concealed something deeper and more profound happening to what we have come to know as American suburbia. Simply speaking, more and more Americans don’t want to live there anymore.

The American suburb used to evoke a certain way of life, one of tranquil, tree-lined streets, soccer leagues and center hall colonials. Today’s suburb is more likely to evoke endless sprawl, a punishing commute, and McMansions.

A few comments pop into mind:

This isn’t a new idea: Just googling some articles in recent years that I remember off the top of my head:

And I’m sure there are countless others, along with corroborating evidence from declining VMT, growing urban populations, and so on.

‘Suburb’ isn’t a descriptive term: Is Cambridge, MA suburban? Is all within the city limits of Houston, TX urban? The term could refer to the type of built environment, or to the nature of the political jurisdiction in relation to others in the region.

Suburbs are already evolving: Dan Reed highlights urbanizing suburban jurisdictions; Richard Layman describes potential paths for evolution; Josh Dzieza wonders if urbanizing suburbs might take some of the sting out of the culture wars and rhetorical battles between city-dwellers and suburbanites.

Suburban evolution isn’t a new thing: Alexis Madrigal offers a story about searching for the landmarks of Silicon Valley, finding that the center of a new industrial revolution is now a self-storage complex. Part of the myth of Silicon Valley is about a new industry emerging from agricultural landscapes; clean, new industry. But as Madrigal explains, the industry wasn’t that clean, and the pattern isn’t that new:

In our Internet-happy present, it’s easy to forget that up until the mid-1980s, Silicon Valley was an industrial landscape. Hundreds of manufacturers lined the streets of Sunnyvale, Palo Alto, Cupertino, Mountain View, and San Jose. This is the Silicon Valley when AMD, Apple, Applied Materials, Atari, Fairchild, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, National Semiconductor, Varian Associates, Xerox, and hundreds of other companies made their products right here in the Bay.

Now, with most of the production shifted overseas, the land uses have changed accordingly. Nonetheless, production of semiconductors and microchips is not without pollution, and leaking chemicals have littered the Valley with Superfund sites:

In contemporary descriptions of Silicon Valley as it was being built, every writer seems to note the absence of smoke stacks. A miracle! A clean industry! A better industrial capitalism!

The aesthetic was intentional. These factories of the future were designed to look like buildings on a college campus, which is to say, Stanford. The Stanford Industrial Park (later, the Stanford Research Park) set the visual standard from its founding in 1951 onward. There were rules governing which parts of the industrial apparatus could be visible, so as not to detract from the idea that these were locations for scholars, not laborers.

“Companies had to follow strict building codes, which included ‘complete concealment’ of things like smokestacks, generators, transformers, ducts, storage tanks, and air conditioning equipment,” environmental historian Aaron Sachs wrote in 1999.

Other municipalities wanted to encourage similar developments, and as Sachs concludes, “Stanford Industrial Park essentially replicated itself several times over–each time spurring the construction of new expressways and strip malls in neighboring areas.” What began as Stanford dean and Silicon Valley godfather Fred Terman’s dream to build “a community of technical scholars” in pleasant industrial parks became the architectural standard for the entire high-tech manufacturing world.

But the manicured look and feel had consequences. Storage tanks were placed underground, out of sight and out of mind. Until suddenly, in 1981, people in south San Jose living near Fairchild Semiconductor and IBM realized they were drinking water contaminated by the two firms’ manufacturing plants.

Several patterns of note: the influence of codes, unintended consequences, agglomeration economies, and the impacts of growth. And, hidden within the stereotypical suburbia is a more complex, evolved place:

What we see here is not simple suburbia. This is a landscape that industrialists, government regulators, and city planners sacrificed to create the computer industry that we know today. It has as much in common with a coal mine or the Port of Oakland as it does with Levittown or Google’s campus. All of which should lead us to a simple conclusion: the Silicon Valley of today is a post-industrial landscape, like the lofts near downtowns across the country, like Lansing, Michigan, like Williamsburg, like Portland’s Pearl District.

What we see now is a surreal imitation of the suburban industrial parks and commercial spaces of yesteryear. They’re built atop the past’s mistakes, erasing them from our maps and eyes.

The evolution of suburbia isn’t new. And Madrigal’s article is well worth the read.

9 comments to Are evolving suburbs really suburban anymore?

  • charlie

    I think the question is ultimately economic. And what point does an agglomeration achieve ignition and becomes a self sustaining economic unit?

    Take out the federal government funding, and Tysons does dark in 2 years. Although you’ve got Microstrategy/AOL/Gannet/Hilton/NII/Cap one/ which are all non-federal.

    I’d argue the new developments in Columbia Heights/U st etc are more “suburban” because they are being built as places to live, not to work.

  • Alex Block

    Charlie, it’s an interesting question for suburban business districts and industrial clusters. They can share benefits (like in Silicon Valley) at larger scales, such as the scale of the labor market. But, as Madrigal’s article shows, they still tend to cluster when they get that critical mass, even within a built environment that we would interpret as suburban. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

    As for Columbia Heights, I think you’re right. Remember that Columbia Heights was once on the fringe of the region, and when it was originally platted out, we would call it a suburb.

    I found some old maps showing this growth in DC, 150 years ago:

    The challenge is that the term ‘suburb’ isn’t a useful way to describe both Columbia Heights and some post-war, car-based, cul-de-sacced subdivision. But, I don’t dispute the point – a bedroom community is a bedroom community.

  • I Also 95

    Tranquil, tree-lined streets and recreational opportunities for children? Heavens, we’re so past that, eh?

    Well, no. Argue as you will over what to call parts of Houston and how packed Columbia Heights ought to be. As long as I or others who wish it are free to choose a spacious-enough single-family home with green space around it that my spouse and children can call their own, with civil peace and restrained, reasonably priced government, I’m satisfied. Suburbs exist because urbs or demi-urbs or neo-urbs-around-Metro-stations do not satisfy all people’s needs for living situations.

    The difference, however, is that people living in suburbs rarely — at least in my experience living in both city and elsewhere — regard cities as a cancer to eradicated. The culture wars and rhetorical battles generally have consisted of suburbanites saying of cities, “Boy, that’s crowded. It’s not really for me.” To which urbanists reply, “You soulless viruses.”

  • Alex Block

    I Also 95,

    Absolutely, you and others are free to choose the housing you like. I just ask that the same freedom be applied to the place, allowing places to develop and intensify over time.

    That’s part of the terminology discussion. At some point, Columbia Heights was the fringe of DC, but things change over time. Downtown had single family houses, too – but places evolve over time. That ability for a place to evolve is directly tied to the freedom of choice you talk about. Suburbs indeed do exist because there is some demand for them, but there is also demand for other stuff. And today’s suburbs are not destined to forever be suburban (however you define that term). Just like Columbia Heights, they will evolve.

    It’s a difference between defining things solely through the lens of personal choice (as you do in your comment) to looking through the broader lens of a collective voice, or the voice of future residents that do not yet exist.

  • I Also 95

    Alex, I’m as eager to apply freedom as the next person of libertarian sentiment, though your reply raises some questions.

    One is what, exactly, is meant by granting a place the same freedom to choose as is granted to people — places and people being separate things.

    If one is speaking strictly, rights inhere to people in our system and not to places. Northern Virginia as a place did not as of 20,000 BC have some right to remain forested and unpeopled. It evolved for the benefit of individuals.

    If what you’re saying is that communities can and do change — well, sure. That goes without saying. It seems to have worked best when we let markets work to satisfy changing populations’ changing tastes. That’s the mechanism that turned low-value cornfields into immensely more useful backyards for millions of families.

    And if some of my neighbors sell to developers who satisfy demand by putting up high-rise luxury condos — as happened in one former city neighborhood of mine — so be it. It’s their land, not mine. It’s not right for me to use the power of the state to compel them, by zoning, to obey my tastes.

    But if you’re saying that some will of the community, discerned by political process, should push the inhabitants of some place into “evolving” past a suburban form seen as socially undesirable by those who presume they know best — well, no. That may be planning, it could even by called democracy if you stretch things, but it is not freedom.

    The frame of property and voluntary transactions is the one that historically has produced the greatest human flourishing. It would be prudent to let that be our primary frame here when it comes to development.

  • Alex Block

    I also 95,

    My point is that your distinction between individual decisions (neighbors decide to sell to a developer) and the collective ones (planners target an area for additional density) isn’t a real one; those are just two sides of the same coin, or two ways to look at the same process.

    Much of the demand for the intensification of today’s suburbs is a natural outcome of the growth of our cities and regions. At the same time, the shape of our land use is heavily regulated. The suburban form we see is not just some market outcome, it is the product of regulation.

    Given the demand for intensification, we also need to have the de-regulation of those land use controls to allow that process to happen. Your neighbors can’t sell to a developer looking to build condos if condos are not allowed to be built. The individual decisions and the collective ones (often facilitated by planners with an eye for the public interest) are inseparable.

    To be clear, I’m not arguing that we push any evolution on people that isn’t already happening. Instead, I would propose that we merely allow that evolution to take place. Get out of the way, facilitate it where necessary. I would argue that is a net increase in freedom for land owners.

  • I Also 95

    With respect, I think you’re talking about two highly different coins.

    The one involving real demand for densification (or sparsification, if we’re talking the market for 2-acre semi-rural lots) necessarily means liberating landowners from the dictates of zoning. As you point out, zoning is bossy. Places without it, such as Houston, prosper. Want to get rid of it? I’m with you.

    This is far different from the notion that planners selected via political process should discern what is best for a community and command it. They do so via zoning. They are no less bossy when “nudging” people into high-density arrangements than they are when prohibiting high density. A mandate against cheap multifamily housing is the corollary of a mandate for “walkable” development — they are both a form of command-and-control. Oppose it with all your might.

    Individual decisions and collective ones, even those facilitated by planners with an eye for what they imagine is the public interest, are not inseparable. They are mutually exclusive. They are competing claims on where the locus of decision-making will be.

    What bothers me is that a number of people who oppose usual suburban forms, usually for what amount to aesthetic reasons, seem willing and even eager to embrace collective decision-making when it is used to quash that suburban pattern but reject it when those zoning rules permit or protect suburbia. I say reject it in both cases and let people decide.

  • Alex Block

    My premise is that given a) the idea that suburbs will evolve to more intense uses, not less intense ones, and b) that the regulatory changes to allow this would occur via loosening zoning restructions rather than focusing them on other elements; I’m not sure that you’re arguing agains my point, but rather against some sort of strawman.

    I will also disagree with your point that the individual decision-making and the collective are mutually exclusive. Again, because I think we’re talking past each other. Even if you consider the collective decision-making to be nothing more than the aggregate of the individual decisions, the ‘game’ still needs some rules to play by; the private developments must still interface with collective responsibilities (utilities, transportation, etc) within the realm of the ‘public interest.’

    Also, if opposition to suburban form upsets you, I’m curious what brings out that comment here. Have I made some such claims here?

  • I Also 95

    Provided change is not compelled and people’s choices are not constrained by law or administrative fiat or the narrow fence around what is defined as acceptably “smart” growth, then we’ve got no problem.

    But while you, Alex, have expressed here no particular repugnance at suburbia (thank you for that), your mention of culture wars involving urbanists brings to mind exactly such scorn swirling in the other pieces I’ve read elsewhere on Ms. Gallagher’s book.

    “She shows why suburbia was unsustainable from the start,” her publisher blurbles on Amazon, and in her interviews with the WaPo, with Forbes, with the inveterate suburb-hater John Norquist at the Congress for a New Urbanism site and in other places, she makes plain that she regards popular suburban forms to be a disease.

    Now, that she feels so does not upset me. It’s a free country; she may hate what she will. What’s troubling is a widespread tendency in the planning community to regard similar loathing as a basis for coercive policy: “The little boxes made of ticky-tacky that I so disdain must not be a permitted choice for you,” as one might summarize it.

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