Increasing the density of London’s suburbs

The mayor of London recently released a new planning document for the city and it includes more housing in the city’s suburban areas:

Often, [suburbia] stays under the radar of urban theorists and policymakers. But it is emerging as a major untapped resource and, therefore, a battleground in the struggle to find somewhere, anywhere, to put new housing. Last week, the mayor, Sadiq Khan, revealed his draft for the new London Plan, the document that will guide the planning decisions of the city’s boroughs. He wants – and who wouldn’t? – more housing, more of it affordable, well designed and energy-efficient, complete with spaces that encourage walking, cycling and the use of public transport. He has limited powers – he can’t, for example, ordain the large-scale public housing programmes that even the estate agents Savills now thinks are necessary – but he can manipulate the planning system to promote some kinds of development over others.

His eyes alighted on the suburbs. Between the First and Second World Wars, while London’s population increased by 17%, its land area doubled, a reflection of its rapid suburban expansion at a much lower density than its historic centre. In theory, this means that if suburban densities could be nudged up, very many more homes could be accommodated within London’s boundaries. As Professor Tony Travers, of the London School of Economics, says, Greater London could house 20 million people if it was all built to the same density as the inner borough of Islington.

So Khan wants to encourage, within 800 metres of transport links, developments that provide more housing in the same space. In doing so, he hopes to encourage smaller-scale developers and lower-cost housing, in contrast to the luxury towers promoted by his predecessor, Boris Johnson, in the name of meeting housing needs. This might mean building on gardens or building at four storeys instead of two.

He has, say Tory opponents, “declared war on the suburbs” and will make them “overcrowded and harder to get around”. Yet making suburbs denser could make them better. In principle, having more inhabitants means more life in town centres and high streets, which makes shops and businesses more viable and makes it easier to sustain such things as local bus services.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Building suburbs to higher densities is a popular idea among a number of architects, planners, and urbanists in the United States for many of the same reasons but opposition from established suburbanites can be fierce as increased density is perceived to threaten a suburban way of life (more land, more driving, more exclusivity in terms of class and race).

I wonder if the solution in the London area is in the part cited above: keep the higher densities to mass transit nodes. Plans do not necessarily have to include higher densities everywhere in suburbs; rather, transit-oriented development could concentrate more and cheaper housing in locations where new residents can easily access mass transit options for the entire region.

The difficulties in changing bedroom suburbs into vibrant mixed-use places

What does it take for a bedroom suburb – the stereotypical placeless home to subdivision after subdivision – to change into something else? Here is a quick summary of the efforts in one Chicago suburb:

Bartlett was a typical “bedroom” community — people who worked in downtown Chicago took the train back and went straight home. The Metra station used to be surrounded by industrial buildings, said Tony Fradin, the village’s economic development coordinator. There was no reason to hang around downtown, and no practical way to avoid driving everywhere you needed to go.

The process of transit-oriented development, like the growing of a sapling into something that will provide shade, takes a long time and a lot of patience, said RTA and village officials. Bartlett got started by putting more development near its Metra station in 2005, replacing the obsolete industrial buildings with three-story condominiums and two-story mixed residential and retail space near the train. The complex includes the popular 2Toots Train Whistle Grill, which carries customers their food on a model train, and O’Hare’s Pub, which offers live music. The developments were backed by a tax-increment financing plan…

But the recession put a stop to further development. In 2013, Bartlett tried again to improve its downtown, applying for an RTA grant in 2014, and completing its TOD plan late last year, said Fradin.

Fradin said Bartlett hopes the plan, which includes ideas to improve pedestrian safety such as new crosswalks, will create a more urban, “walkable” feel. Bartlett plans to market a 1.8-acre site across from the Metra tracks and hopes to attract a developer in the next year or two for a high-density residential building, as outlined in the TOD plan. Another possible development site is a 5-acre, Metra-owned patch of land directly adjacent to the tracks, which Metra has held for years for possible parking.

Three things stand out to me from this example as well as the efforts I have observed in my research of suburban communities:

  1. These redevelopment efforts take time. The story above cites 2005 as the starting point of this kind of development and the suburb is still working at it twelve years later. One or two significant buildings or developments might be exciting but more is likely needed. The transformation of downtown Bartlett could take decades.
  2. Not all bedroom suburbs will be successful in developing a vibrant downtown, even if they follow all or many of the steps that characterized other successful suburbs. Sometimes it works but a lot of things – including internal decisions as well as outside forces that are beyond the control of a suburb – have to go right.
  3. Even if this more vibrant, around-the-clock downtown develops, it would be interesting to see what happens to all of the community since many do not live right downtown. Do these new developments around the train station cater primarily to young professionals? Do people from the edges of Bartlett regularly go to their own downtown or do they seek out other suburban spots (like Elgin or Woodfield/Schaumburg or the I-90 Corridor)? Do all residents want the quiet character of their bedroom suburb to change or feel that resources should be diverted toward

The permanent placelessness of suburbs

Can suburbs provide permanence or a sense of place?

Fortunately, the perils of mobility have not gone unrecognized. Those who care about place, permanence, and civil society have taken up the argument for remaining in one’s hometown. Justin Hannegan, writing in The Imaginative Conservative, presents a compelling case for hometown living, urging Americans to consider that “perhaps permanence—the guardian of family, tradition, practical wisdom, environment, and culture—is worth it.”

But what happens when suburbia is our place? The explosion of the suburban model of development in the postwar period has put record numbers of Americans in the uncomfortable position of having no other place than placeless suburbia to call home. By some estimates, as many as 53 percent of Americans describe their residential area as suburban. Adolescence in suburbia has become such a common experience that it now pervades our pop culture, as the familiarity of the references on (and, frankly, the mere existence of) Buzzfeed’s list here shows. The ubiquity of suburban modes of development has pitted the ideals of permanence and place against each other.

The inverse of Kauffman’s question, then, becomes arguably more pressing for those who value permanence and place: Why not just move from your manicured suburb with high average SAT scores to a small town (or city neighborhood) with a built environment much more conducive to fostering civil society? It seems many millennials are making the gamble to do just that, as demand for walkable, mixed-use developments is on the rise, and increasing numbers of city dwellers are eschewing the previously obligatory flight to the suburbs as they start families.

Yet is this really the solution to the ails of suburbia? As much as flight from suburbia may help to mitigate the aforementioned obstacles to a robust civil society, it will also trigger the malevolent effects of rampant mobility. It’s quite possible that those who settle in small towns or city neighborhoods from the suburbs will develop a sense of rootedness in their new place. But in doing so, local and familial ties to place are necessarily severed, which simply further atomizes American life. Mobility, even if undertaken with the intention of building community, is by its very nature an act of severing previous communal bonds.

This is a question that has plagued suburbs for decades: do they have their own unique and enduring qualities even though people regularly move in and out and their physical form looks similar to other suburban places?

I think this conflates two issues: (1) mobility and (2) whether suburbs are truly places. Regarding mobility, Americans are historically a mobile people (though this has decreased a bit recently). The suburbs were a place where a good number of people moved in and out regularly as they became the primary places for Americans to live after World War Two.

The second issue is trickier. I suspect much of this idea comes from critics of the suburbs. Such refrains began decades ago as mass produced subdivisions and suburbs (though the Levittowns put together by one builder were the exception, not the rule) became more common. All the similar-looking houses within new suburban street patterns were assumed to lead to conformity and a lack of individualism. Later critiques added that such places were not all that social: even with plenty of families and children living near each other, social ties were limited. (There is more academic support for this second claim: see The Moral Order of a Suburb.)

Yet, this does not necessarily mean that suburbs have no place to them or lack permanence. I’ll bring up two points of evidence from my own research to counter these. First, different suburban communities do indeed have different characters as a result of numerous decisions made by local officials and residents. See my study “Not All Suburbs are the Same.” Second, suburbs do have permanence. The oft-criticized postwar suburbs are now at least several decades old but many having already passed the fifty year mark. Additionally, numerous other suburbs were founded prior to World War II and have longer histories. For a case study of one such suburb, see my study “A Small Suburb Becomes a Boomburb.” Even these transient suburbs have unique features accrued over decades.

As a final thought, the final two paragraphs cited above suggest that moving to either small towns or city neighborhoods would provide residents a stronger sense of place and permanence. I am not so sure. A good number of Americans think of their suburbs as small towns. Plus, urban neighborhoods often involve a good amount of change. Simply having more history or time as a place does not necessarily mean that a sense of community organized around this occurs. Placemaking is a process in cities, suburbs, and small towns that for a variety of reasons happens more or less in different locations.

In the end, suburban communities do not have to be placeless. This is one way to look at them but I’m not sure it is a sentiment shared by many suburban residents nor is it something that worries them if they do acknowledge it.

Self-driving cars could benefit suburban residents the most

While reading an article considering what daily life may be like with autonomous vehicles, a thought hit me: suburbs – compared to cities and rural areas – will benefit the most from self-driving cars. Sure, cities could remove a lot of cars off the streets and enhance pedestrian life. Rural areas could benefit from easier driving and trucking. Yet, as far as daily life is concerned, not having to pay attention to driving could help suburbanites the most as so much of their life involves driving from one place to another.

Here are the primary advantages of self-driving vehicles for the suburbs:

1. The commute to work changes as passengers can now work or relax or sleep on the way.

2. The other various trips in the suburbs now can be more enjoyable (like commuting in #1).

3. Suburbanites do not need to own as many vehicles.

4. Two groups disadvantaged by auto-dependent suburbs – teenagers and the elderly – now have access to transportation.

5. Suburbanites can live even further away from work and urban centers, possibly providing cheaper housing as well as more options regarding what communities they can live in.

6. The cheap goods suburbanites expect from big box stores and online retailers may be even cheaper as retailers and businesses also utilize autonomous vehicles.

7. Suburban congestion and traffic will be decreased due to both the new vehicles handling roads better and a reduction in vehicles (#3 above).

Granted, these reasons might not account for the ongoing costs of driving. For example, suburbanites may not need to own as many cars or may enjoy their regular drives more but roads still need to be built and maintained.

Douglass: humans may not be able to adapt to cities but suburbs could work

Church researcher Harlan Paul Douglass concludes his 1925 work The Suburban Trend with his ideas about human nature and cities:

Human nature, all agree, is capable of a certain measure of adaptive elasticity. Village life, which was its typical form of civilization up to the beginning of the era of steam-driven machinery, little more than a century ago, was not, so far as determined, an undue strain upon it. The city does overstrain human nature, and relief must be looked for in the direction of the village. JUst how far back, then, is it necessary to go? Perhaps no further than the suburbs, and to a different balance between the urban and rural elements in civilization. One cannot prove just where the broken ranks of civilization will hold even if it is possible to rally them again. But it is worth trying along this line. (p.311)

Four quick thoughts:

  1. Here in the second decade of the twenty-first century in the United States, it is hard to remember how big of a social change the move to large cities is. It changes everything for social relationships. It is still happening in numerous parts of the world as rural life is disrupted by huge flows of people to large cities. And even in the United States and the Western world, in the limited time of recorded human history, this urbanization happened not long ago.
  2. Given #1, it serves as a reminder of how quickly we have adapted to big city and surrounding suburbs life. This is all relatively new yet we take it for granted.
  3. Douglass hints at the work of others like Simmel who were also concerned about whether humans could survive in big cities. Few urbanists would raise such concerns now; instead, cities are often held up as the solution to numerous social problems. Humans are indeed adaptable.
  4. At the same time, Douglass does presciently hint at the appeal of suburbs for many Americans. It may not be cities themselves that are the problem – many Americans left cities for issues such as race, social class, and immigration – but in the decades after this book was published, the suburbs became the home for a plurality of Americans.

 

Once the housing line has been crossed, time to fight over the schools

An interim school superintendent in a suburb north of Chicago recently summed up the battle over redistricting in the school district:

Rafferty broke into a school board discussion on school boundaries Tuesday to express shock at the “exclusionary” attitudes that he said have surfaced in recent weeks. Rafferty said many of the emails and comments from parents and community members regarding proposed boundary changes have been “shocking, embarrassing and ugly.”

“We have families telling us they do not want this population of kids with their population of kids,” said Rafferty, a retired Schaumburg superintendent who has shared superintendent duties in District 112 since February.

“We have other families telling us, ‘Don’t you dare move my students or my neighborhood, but I would love for you to move X, Y and Z to another school to achieve a balance,'” Rafferty said…

His remarks came during a school board discussion of the administration’s recommended boundary changes to accommodate students from Lincoln Elementary School and Elm Place Middle School, which are closing at the end of the school year. Board members set aside the proposed map for a variety of reasons, including the discontent voiced by some parents over the number of low-income pupils attending Northwood Junior High.

This reminds me very much of what I thought was the best chapter in anthropologist Rachel Heiman’s recent book Driving After Class (see my quick review here). That chapter described how a large suburban district in New Jersey decided to move students around based on capacity in schools as well as by race and class. In that case, as a number of the less wealthy and non-white residents of the districts had suspected might happen, the wealthiest community was able to keep its students nearby and severely limit how many outside students were able to attend.

Wealthier and whiter suburbs – Highland Park has a median household income of over $122,000 and is over 92% white – tend to first try to limit poorer residents by limiting the number of cheaper housing units. If that is not completely successful, the next battleground can be schools as residents of such communities tend to prefer that their children go to school with other wealthier children.

Politicians should not anger the “prosperous but far-from-rich suburbanites”

According to the Washington Post, one group that may not like the Trump tax cuts includes wealthy – but not too wealthy – suburban residents:

The tax push illustrates the political risks of attacking provisions favored by prosperous but far-from-rich suburbanites, a powerful voting bloc that often faces the financial stress of living in increasingly pricey neighborhoods. Many in the GOP already are worried about losing their grip on this important group after Tuesday’s result in the Virginia governor’s race, where Democrat Ralph Northam crushed Republican Ed Gillespie by running up votes in the dense areas outside cities.

Alpharetta is part of a booming region known as North Fulton, where no one bats an eye at $600,000 homes, Whole Foods and West Elm are eager to locate, and property taxes are relatively high to fund the top-performing public schools that attract striving white-collar professionals. And when it comes to their taxes, residents often have more in common with people living just outside New York City and Washington, D.C., than those in other parts of Georgia…

North Fulton seems like a place that could afford to pay more in taxes, but residents say their low-six-figure incomes obscure the economic challenges of living here…

Other residents say North Fulton is a place where earning $100,000 — nearly twice the national median household income — means a surprising degree of struggle.

I’ll refrain from saying much about whether suburbanites who are in the top 20 percent of American earners are leading difficult lives.

I will note that the true battleground between Republicans and Democrats is in suburbs just like this. Studies in political science and other disciplines from the last ten years or so suggest that cities and inner-ring suburbs vote consistently Democrat, exurbs and rural areas lean Republican, and the middle suburbs – including these sorts of communities outside of Atlanta – are up for grabs depending on the election cycle and the particular issues at stake. There actually may not be that many people who fit the bill of this article but (1) they can be very vocal and (2) they can be swayed in elections.