Suburban Remix: The Next Generation of Urban Places

A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​ This Excerpt Was Originally Published March 16, 2018 in Urban Land

North America is in the midst of “suburban remix.” A perfect storm of challenges has broken apart a 70-year-old suburban growth model shaped around car-focused, relatively affluent, and dispersed development. But as this model falls apart, another far more resilient model is taking shape: walkable, dense, diverse, compact — and urban.

The storm’s disruptive power is real. The core market for suburban single-family houses — families with kids — represents roughly half the share of North America’s population that it did in 1970. This share will continue to shrink through the 2030s, just as the share represented by households over 65 — net sellers of single-family houses — grows rapidly. Meanwhile, younger, educated workers are moving into urban cores, and knowledge industry office demand and investment are following. (Downtowns and dense, walkable suburbs fill Amazon’s list of finalists for HQ2.)

Unsurprisingly, suburban housing and office values have lagged their urban counterparts since 2000. And, in a dramatic reversal, more people living in poverty now call suburbs home, while affluent households are relocating to cities. This has slowed tax-base growth, battering local budgets. Demographic and economic trends suggest that these dynamics will grow more disruptive over the next two decades — reinforced by the arrival of shared autonomous mobility (see sidebar below).

On the green fringes of Washington, D.C., Fairfax County, Virginia — long an archetype of affluent, prosperous suburbia dominated by single-family subdivisions — demonstrates the stresses these trends have unleashed. Since the Great Recession, poverty across the county has grown by more than 50 percent; county revenues have not kept pace with the accompanying costs; and residents have watched as housing values have risen 300 percent faster in nearby Washington.

Yet Fairfax County is anything but broken. Spurred by the region’s Metrorail transit system, Fairfax has emerged as an early leader in replacing sprawl with a new urban growth model. Over the past decade, the county has approved more than $20 billion in higher-density, walkable, mixed-use centers that replace millions of square feet of malls, strip retail centers, and office parks. More important, places like Tysons, Reston Town Center, and the Mosaic District aren’t emerging as “developments” but as lively new suburban downtowns and Main Streets that function as the heart of their increasingly diverse communities. Similar transformations are underway in other D.C. suburbs, such as Arlington County, Virginia, and Bethesda, Maryland.

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Urban Resilience