The Suburbs’ Second Growth

Reprinted from the April issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine (LAM). In honor of National Landscape Architecture Month, the April issue is available for free online.

For decades, people have bewailed sprawl and demanded that we stop developers from spreading it any farther. While urbanists have proposed numerous alternative development patterns and zoning regulations that might improve the quality of future new construction, there hasn’t been much discussion about the millions and millions of acres that already exist.

The attention that has been paid to this existing suburban landscape has been primarily form based, when it should have been concerned with how to change that landscape and should, therefore, have been process oriented. It finally is time for a process-oriented approach, because the existing single-function landscape, created for an automobile-dependent population, is getting steadily older and obsolescent—sufficiently so that we need practical proposals for what should come next and how to make it happen.

Because the mid-20th-century suburban landscape is aging, there is an opportunity for second growth. Many single-story manufacturing facilities are closing down, open-air shopping centers find it difficult to compete with big-box retailers and climate-controlled malls, railroads have abandoned once-profitable rights-of-way, and aging office parks with out-of-date infrastructure are being taken out of service. Moreover, development has now leapfrogged into the exurbs, and residents and businesses that once occupied mid-20th-century suburbs are following farther into the hinterland. We need to recognize this mounting problem but think of it as an opportunity to shape what will be inevitable second growth.

Underused manufacturing properties, shopping complexes, and office parks can now be purchased by county and town governments in suburban areas and reused as public parks. Some vehicular lanes on major traffic arteries can now be replaced with wider sidewalks, bicycle lanes, and light rail or bus rapid-transit corridors. Some clusters of small, deteriorating bungalows can now be replaced by higher-density residential development. We should seize this opportunity by eliminating single-function zoning, introducing alternatives to private automobile travel, acquiring sites for the development of new public parks, and providing a public-realm framework that ties these communities together. All this can be accomplished once there are models to be used in local redevelopment efforts, financial mechanisms to pay for them, and agencies established to implement schemes for second growth that undo sprawl.

The model I propose is similar to what my firm proposed and was adopted by the County Commission in DeKalb County, Georgia. It can be financed through a tax increment district, which uses the increased taxes paid by properties whose value has been increased by investment in the public realm and rezoning to pay debt service on the bonds that would finance the investments in the public realm. While the money for these public-realm investments would come from bonds, the construction itself could either be done by private developers implementing a government-approved plan or by a redevelopment agency set up for that purpose by the local government.

At the start of the 20th century there may have been a rationale for separating land uses. But much of that rationale is now irrelevant. Environmental regulation now precludes the air and water pollution that made it essential to separate manufacturing from residential areas. Similarly, bicycle and light-rail networks in Denver, Minneapolis, and other cities are being extended into the suburbs, thereby diverting enough traffic to reduce the rights-of-way used by motor vehicles. As a result there is a growing opportunity for a major change in land-use patterns and, with that change, major improvements in the quality of life throughout suburban areas that were once decried as sprawl.

Alexander Garvin is president of AGA Public Realm Strategists, author of Public Parks: The Key to Livable Communities, and Professor of Urban Planning and Management at Yale University.

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