House, car and white picket fence. The modern suburban dream started just as World War 2 ended. 70 years later, that dream is beginning to look as dated as the first houses built in Levittown. Those with choice, typically the young or wealthy, are choosing more central areas of their cities – not just downtown, but with amenities that are only feasible when a certain level of density is present. Others are choosing shiny new suburbs that offer all the same promise of suburbs past, but with every indication they will face the same problems in the future. What does this mean for many aging burbs? Strong Towns profiled the life cycle of the the suburb, the preeminent built typology of 20th century North America, to find out. They found that many suburbs are getting older and poorer. This shift is poised to have major societal impacts. The dispersed suburban environment, a central appeal for many, is now also a curse. Without access to nearby conveniences or high quality transit, the disadvantaged must spend more to operate private vehicles. The elderly who are no longer able to drive must rely on friends, family and (often unreliable) public transit. So what can be done to address these tremendous challenges? I don’t have all the answers, but can identify three important actions: adapt, encourage and learn.
- Adapt the built environment and new mobility options to existing suburbs to better meet the needs of residents locally.
- Encourage denser development that is so appealing it becomes the first choice for many and so widespread that it remains affordable.
- Learn from previous planning, governance and costing mistakes, so the same errors are not repeated.
These are not short-term fixes. However, it was a focus on short-term gains – and an ignorance to long-term pain – that led to this situation. We cannot “solve” the city, but we can support development that is more equitable, sustainable and sociable.