Bringing the cool parts of suburban life to urban settings

Can the suburban life be imported to residential units in the heart of the biggest American cities?

Your own slice of suburbia within city limits is a concept that developers and retailers across the country have been pitching a lot recently, subtly or not. The pendulum swings of socio-economic and demographic changes over the past two decades in some thriving cities are partly behind this shift…

The dividing line between urban and suburban limits has always been a little murky in most cities, many of which have their own vast stretches of single-family homes with attached garages. But the general idea was that the suburbs offered comfort and personal space, private backyards and a bedroom for each kid. City living was more exciting and offered culture and a more diverse mix of everything, but required some sacrifice. Apartments were smaller, parking a headache and a backyard unimaginable…

One of the Dahlia’s biggest selling points? It has its own parking garage. “You can pull in with your S.U.V., unload and take your things in a private manner,” said Shlomi Reuveni, the president of the company that is handling sales for the building. “That’s very appealing.” And very suburban.

In some high-end buildings, architects are giving apartments the feel of single-family homes by replicating the layouts of suburban houses. At the Quay Tower, which overlooks Brooklyn Bridge Park, there are just five condos on each floor, two of which have private elevator access. Inside, the larger units have something you see a lot of on HGTV suburban house renovation shows: large mudrooms off the back door with locker-like cubbies and sturdy ceramic-tile floors.

As the article goes on to note, more suburban features like mall food courts and white people are headed to cities.

On one head, the melding of lifestyles is not too surprising. In the suburbs, a “surban” lifestyle helps developers and residents differentiate their product and life from the typical suburban lifestyle. Both producers and consumers can seek out new niches.

On the other hand, that the suburban lifestyle may be a selling point is kind of funny because of all the flak the suburban life takes. I thought the suburbs were about exclusion, homogeneity, wastefulness, and individualism? It is not just that some of these features of suburban life have urban analogues. After all, they are both situated within American culture. The idea that certain suburban features, such as garages or mudrooms, will be replicated in cities flies against the claims about tacky suburban life. Suburban consumer goods and lifestyle markers are now cool?

When growing rural communities are reclassified as urban communities

James Fallows points to a Washington Post piece that discusses the reclassification issue facing numerous rural communities:

 

A few years after every census, counties like Bracken are reclassified, and rural or “nonmetropolitan” America shrinks and metropolitan America grows. At least on paper. The character of a place doesn’t necessarily change the moment a city crosses the 50,000-resident mark…

The sprawling, diverse segment of the United States that has changed from rural to urban since 1950 is the fastest-growing segment of the country. Culturally, newly urban areas often have more in common with persistently rural places than with the biggest cities. Most notably, in 2016, Hillary Clinton would have won only the counties defined as urban when the metropolitan classification began in 1950, while Donald Trump would have won every group of counties added to metropolitan after the initial round….

About 6 in 10 U.S. adults who consider themselves “rural” live in an area classified as metropolitan by standards similar to those used above, according to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted in 2017. And 3 in 4 of the adults who say they live in a “small town”? They’re also in a metro area…

If rural Americans complain of being left behind, it might be because they literally are. In government statistics, and in popular conception, rural is defined as what’s left after you have staked out all the cities and their satellites.

This is a measurement issue. What exactly counts as an urban, suburban, or rural area? This is a question I frequently field from students but it is more complicated than it looks.

My short answer: everything in between larger central cities and rural areas is a suburb.

My longer answer: metropolitan regions (encompassing the suburban areas around central cities) are drawn with county boundaries, not municipal boundaries. This means an entire county might be part of a metropolitan region but significant portions of the county are still rural.

My longer longer answer: the official boundaries do not truly capture a suburban way of life. This could be mimicked in numerous urban neighborhoods that contain single-family homes, yards, and families as well as more rural communities.

All of this may help explain why Americans tend to say they like or live in small towns even when these communities are not, by certain measures, not small towns.

The last quoted paragraph above is also intriguing: is rural truly whatever is leftover outside of metropolitan areas? At the start of the twentieth century, the vast majority of Americans lived outside cities and suburbs. As urban and suburban populations swelled, so did their geographic area. It is hard not to think that we still have not quite caught up with these major changes in spaces and communities a little over one hundred years later.

What suburbs want when they say they want a second downtown

After reading several recent stories about suburbs desiring or planning a second downtown, I wanted to summarize what exactly they mean by a “second downtown.” Here are a few of the patterns at work:

1. Downtown in this case tends to imply a sort of walkable, cozy, family-oriented place full of small businesses and eateries. There is an atmosphere invoked here that is the opposite of shopping malls surrounded by parking lots or mile after mile of strip malls. Still, since this is the second downtown and likely to be located some distance away from an original and/or historic downtown, this new downtown will not look like the old downtown.

2. This second downtown location is intended to be a center of commerce, and, perhaps more importantly, a second major center of revenue for the community. This goes beyond just property taxes as the suburb often desires sales tax revenue.

3. Simply creating a second downtown and all that implies is not easy. A typical formula is a sort of walkable outdoor shopping area where someone could park in one location and then walk among stores and other interesting places. A fuller vision might include mixed uses where new enterprises and new residences help create a kind of neighborhood synergy. A second downtown is often very intentionally planned though not easy to pull off.

4. The location of an intentional second downtown is less likely to be in the middle of a suburb – the suburb can often grow around an original downtown – and more likely to be located at the intersection of several major roads. This may be good for access and trying to divert heavy flows of traffic but it may not be conducive to promoting walkability and a more permeable membrane with nearby residential areas.

Perhaps the planned second downtown in a suburb can work but it is not an easy space to develop.

Publication in Soc Quarterly: “Would Prefer a Trailer Park to a Large [Religious] Building”

The quote in the title for my newest article just published in The Sociological Quarterly comes from a comment made at a 2011 public hearing in the Chicago suburbs involving a proposal from a Muslim group to buy land. At face value, the claim is preposterous: what suburbanite living in a well-off suburb would want to live next to a trailer park?

My study titled ““Would Prefer a Trailer Park to a Large [Religious] Building”: Suburban Responses to Proposals for Religious Buildings” looks at what factors lead to more opposition from neighbors and local leaders when religious groups look to buy land, construct a building, or renovate/use an existing building. Is it related to the size of proposed building, the setting for the building, or the group making the request (thinking of multiple cases of Muslim groups facing opposition in the Chicago suburbs – see examples here, here, here, and here)?

The abstract to the study:

To worship in the suburbs, religious congregations often have to apply to local  governments for zoning and building approval. Examining 40 proposals from religious groups in three Chicago suburbs between January 2010 and December 2014 shows that local governments approved the majority of requests. For the proposals that received more negative attention or “no” votes from government bodies, opposition was related to locations adjacent to residences, experiences with one local government, and requests from Muslim groups. These findings have implications for how suburbs address pluralism and new development as the application of zoning guidelines can make it more difficult for religious groups, particularly ones involving immigrants or racial/ethnic minorities, to find and establish a permanent presence in suburban communities.

In sum, religious groups in the United States can theoretically worship in many places – until a local government suggests otherwise, often due to zoning concerns. Religious groups can counter with the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) but lawsuits require time and effort and can hinder positive community relations.

The comfortable suburban afterlife

What if humans after death end up in a suburban community? This is the premise of the Amazon show Forever:

Starring SNL alums Maya Rudolph as June and Fred Armisen as her husband, Oscar, the eight-part series, which dropped in its entirety in September, does a deep dive into the meaning of life by exploring what happens when it ends…

For the couple, the hereafter is ambiguous — neither heaven nor hell. Rather, it seems a lot like their former life in a subdivision of tidy ranch-style homes in suburban Riverside, Calif.

Familiar, safe, comfortable…

Oscar spends his days struggling doing crossword puzzles at the dining room table. June teaches herself how to make vases and bowls on a potter’s wheel on the back patio (a nod, no doubt, to the famous Demi Moore/Patrick Swayze scene from “Ghost”). They go for strolls through the neighborhood, where the weather feels perpetually like early autumn with its amber light and just enough of a nip in the air to make you reach for your flannel shirt or lightweight cashmere pullover.

Apparently the show then moves on from this suburban start. Given that Americans moved to the suburbs in large numbers in the last century plus the goal of attaining the suburban American Dream is well-established, is it much of a stretch to cast the afterlife as a comfortable suburb?

I imagine critics of the suburbs might have other views. Indeed, they might suggest a suburban afterlife would be hell. (Bring back the TV show Suburgatory!) This reminds me of C. S. Lewis’s description of hell in The Great Divorce (as noted by an astute commenter):

As soon as anyone arrives he settles in some street. Before he’s been there twenty-four hours he quarrels with his neighbour. Before the week is over he’s quarrelled so badly that he decides to move….Finally he’ll move right out to the edge of the town and build a new house.

So perhaps the suburbs are actually a decent middle ground between heaven and hell, containing elements of either depending on who is doing the evaluating. Then, perhaps the real debate starts: if suburbs are in the middle, are cities heaven and rural areas hell or vice versa…

A test of taking Lyft from the train to the suburban office park exposes mass transit issues in the suburbs

One company in the Chicago suburbs is running a test to encourage employees to take the train to get close to their office and then use Lyft to complete the trip:

The two-year program aims to solve the “last mile” problem — how to bridge the gap between the train station or bus stop and the rider’s final destination. This problem is especially nettlesome for reverse commuters, who live in the city but work in the suburbs at jobs that are sometimes far from transit stops. More than 400,000 people commute every day from Chicago to jobs in the suburbs, according to the RTA…

GlenStar Properties is paying 75 percent of the cost of transporting employees at its Bannockburn complex on Waukegan Road to and from Metra stops in Deerfield, Highland Park, Highwood and Lake Forest. The Regional Transportation Authority is picking up the rest of the cost, up to $30,000 during the pilot…

The program, which launched in March and is the first of its type in Illinois, is starting small with just a few trips a day, according to the RTA. Bannockburn Lakes tenants get a monthly Lyft pass for the rides.

Many suburban companies, including Walgreens and Allstate, have some kind of shuttle bus program to get workers to and from Metra stations, said Michael Walczak, executive director of the Transportation Management Association of Lake-Cook, a nonprofit that works with companies and the private sector to figure out transit issues.

This is an interesting way to solve a common problem in both cities and suburbs: how to get people and goods that last step (or “last mile”) between a mass transit stop and their destination. Even in cities with good mass transit, the last step can cause a lot of problems.

This strikes me as the pragmatic solution to the larger problem of limited mass transit in the suburbs. The Chicago train system runs on the hub and spokes model where suburban communities, typically their downtowns, are connected to the Loop. This system may help funnel people into the center of Chicago but it is both difficult to get around the region and the train lines run into historic town centers, not necessarily the work and residential centers of today. Ride-sharing can help make up the difference by connecting train stops to workplaces. This can limit long-distance solo trips by car and allow more workers to not have a vehicle or to drive significantly less.

On the other hand, this solution could be viewed as less-than-ideal reaction to the real issue: sprawling suburban sites do not lend themselves to mass transit and the ride-sharing solution is just a band-aid to a much bigger issue. Chicago area suburbs have tried versions of this for decades including public bus systems in the suburbs to connect office parks to train stations, buses from remote parking lots to train stations, and private companies operating shuttle buses (as noted above). This all may work just for a limited number of workers who are located near rail lines and who are willing to use mass transit. But, most suburban workers – and they tend to work in other suburbs – have no chance of using timely and convenient mass transit to get to work. The densities just do not support this (and the office park in the story illustrates that this may be more feasible with denser concentrations of workers).

If companies, communities, and regional actors truly wanted to address these issues in the Chicago region, a more comprehensive plan is needed to nudge people closer together to both take advantage of existing mass transit and develop new options.

The suburban way of life is not the result of free markets

Even as Americans have exercised some agency in choosing to live in suburbs, the whole system cannot truly be described as being the result of free market activity:

I get the concern and rarely disagree with Shelley, but there’s nothing free market about current single-family zoning rules. The suburban landscape largely is a creation of subsidies and zoning rules, which mandate only one house per certain size of lot and require umpteen parking spaces for every new shopping center, restaurant, office and church. Everything is micromanaged in the planning department.

I’m on the building committee of our church and have closely examined many proposed construction projects. It is so hard to build, expand or try any new development ideas because these planning edicts—designed mainly to protect our suburban way of life, and backed by residents trying to bolster their property values—are costly and inflexible…

But the underlying debate is about two visions of our California landscape. One side wants to protect our suburban model and the other side wants to urbanize. It’s a false choice driven by their own personal preferences. We need more apartments and condos. We need more single-family neighborhoods. We need to allow builders to provide the housing products people want, and different people want different things. The same people want different things at different stages of their lives. I live on an acreage, but now that we’re empty nesters, my wife and I plan to move into the city. That’s why I’m squarely on neither side.

After my housing column last week, I’ve heard from readers who oppose the legislation. Frankly, I’m frustrated by some of their arguments. To summarize some comments: If you can’t afford to live around here, then maybe move someplace else. There are too many people here already and too much traffic congestion. If your kids can’t afford California, they should consider less-costly states. Such views transcend political affiliation.

Zoning is a good example of how regulations can dictate what communities can construct and then who can reside or work in such locations.

Add two other other less-than-free-market aspects of suburbia:

1. A legacy of racial and class discrimination in suburbs.

2. Government subsidies for highways and other local services as well as propping up suburban housing in the form of single-family homes.

Americans might not acknowledge the ways suburbs developed and may even resist seeing them as social products. But, addressing tough suburban issues such as affordable housing probably requires thinking and acting at more collective levels than letting the beloved local governments dictate what they want (which can often deliberately lead to exclusion).