Reinventing ‘the Burbs’ with an Urban Twist

By: Haisten Willis
In: Washington Post

Mixed-use real estate, walkability and mass transit part of the new mix

The back-to-the-city narrative that took hold in the years after the Great Recession described a new generation — millennials — eschewing suburban life to ride public transit back into the urban core of America.

It wasn’t to last.

The upward trend peaked in 2012 and waned toward the end of the 2010s as suburban growth outpaced that of major cities.

But many younger people still want urban amenities, such as local shops and restaurants, a sense of place and a measure of walkability, and suburbs have in turn raced to create their own downtowns. In some cases, it’s revitalizing an area that thrived before the automobile. More often, “downtown” is a new creation providing a city center with town squares, walkable zones or mixed-use spaces to a formerly shapeless place dominated by subdivisions and strip malls.

“The first part of the last decade people were writing about the return of the city, that people flocking to the city is the future of America,” said William H. Frey, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program in Washington. “I was a little skeptical of the whole thing. Suburbs have grown faster than cities since they invented the car.”

Statistics back up Frey’s words. Just four of America’s 80 largest cities lost population in 2011 and 2012. That grew to 20, or one in four, from 2015 through 2018. The suburbs have always been a value play, offering a bigger house and usually better schools at the sacrifice of commuting to the city for work, sports and cultural offerings. As millennials follow in the steps of their predecessors, suburban downtowns aim to once again provide the best of both worlds, with a mix of urban amenities at a lower cost.

Joel Kotkin, a Chapman University professor who specializes in urban issues, says the novel coronavirus could drive millennials to the suburbs even faster, thanks to anxiety about spreading infection on public transit and in shared workspaces, with more people telecommuting and stay-at-home orders making big backyards all the more valuable.

“People will be less likely to want to take transit,” he said. “Some will eventually go back, but transit ridership was fading anyway. People are also finding that telecommuting works pretty well. They’re finding out they can do work as a financial analyst, media member or programmer from [New York City suburb] Putnam County in a place that costs one-third of the rent in Manhattan and is much nicer.”

As more suburbs create a sense of place and better amenities through downtowns, it could become just one more factor in their favor, he contended.

“People still want places to hang out, they still want cultural events, still want a shopping experience, and that’s where you get these changes in the suburbs taking place,” said Kotkin.

Read the rest of this piece at the Washington Post.