The Villas™ at Retention Pond®
November 24, 2015 8:08 AM   Subscribe

The Frankenburb: Retrofitting most suburbs is less likely than having a few successful ones remain as they are while many more simply fail outright.
posted by Cash4Lead (94 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
 
Whoa this whole site is interesting. Whoaaaa.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:23 AM on November 24, 2015 [1 favorite]




This article is a bit thin on article. The points are all good (and I agree with them 100%), but it feels a bit like a rant. It'd be nice to see steps that could have been taken to improve the development or perhaps comparative pictures of the benefits a city block (or Main Street or straight up suburb) would have instead.

PS: LOVE the quote pulled for the title. Totally referring to these developments as The Villas At Retention Pond from now on.
posted by maryr at 8:27 AM on November 24, 2015 [8 favorites]


Ooooof. This is awful. And I'm ok with a rant like this. The author articulates a number of things that have always bothered me in a vague way about these types of developments--the stupid names (The Landing at Stony Creek Mews Crossing Square), the wide roads and overabundant parking, the pointless art, the "green space" that is occasionally used as a "town square" for "farmers' markets," the terrible terrible bland architectural style. It is a scourge, truly.
posted by witchen at 8:31 AM on November 24, 2015 [6 favorites]


This article is a bit thin on article.

Yes, like most web filler these days it starts with a Big Thought What Comes From Me and My Friends and peters out very quickly, in this case into a bunch of pictures of some silly apartment complex in the middle of Craptown, USA with some captions about how not great it is.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 8:32 AM on November 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


Nice example of a single bad complex, but not much else. Like shooting fish in a retention pond
posted by benzenedream at 8:33 AM on November 24, 2015 [6 favorites]


I'm from South Jersey and now live in Massachusetts, an exact inversion of the author. I can see how the posts might be thin for some people but as a kid who grew up playing in "rivers" (storm run-offs) and "lakes" (retention ponds full of dead carp and goose shit), the observations have a lot of resonance for me.
posted by nev at 8:38 AM on November 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


Hey, I grew up near there! Those development are terrible.

In my childhood, the developments were all planned residential communities with quarter acre+ lots. Some of the roads had sidewalks, but there wasn't really anything you could walk to. The development I grew up in was nestled between two major highways, so getting literally anywhere outside the development required getting in a car.

These modern "urban" development suffer from the same problems, I think. Developers see people desiring urbanism and walkability, so... they make apartments instead of large homes, and put all the parking on the edge of the development. There's still nowhere to walk to - you might as well replace that central park with a giant hamster wheel. You're still right up against a major highway. A small family still needs two cars.

I used to tutor some kids that lived in Haddonfield, and it was like night and day to how I grew up. You could walk from their house to the main street and go to a coffee shop! There were places to hang out, but you could also have your privacy. It felt like a community.
posted by backseatpilot at 8:39 AM on November 24, 2015 [10 favorites]


We were lucky to find an older suburb to live in, that had some charm but none of those hermetically sealed, for-show-only greenspaces. The park gets used, so do the streets. It's still not as walk-friendly as I'd like; it needs sidewalks. But the streets are generally quiet enough that you can get around without a car if you like.

I think at least part of it is that it's modest-sized homes...not huge McMansions with giant profiles blocking out the light, but lower, smaller homes with modest yards, and trees that have had a chance to grow.

I remember reading Bill Bryson, who talked about how we seal off our wilderness and then build development right up to its edge, whereas the UK seems to have a better system of interspersing human settlements with wilderness in a more graceful way, and encouraging people to walk through both.

We don't seem to have any setting between sterile (and expensive) prettiness and ugly/run-down/forgotten.
posted by emjaybee at 8:39 AM on November 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


My favorite what-the-hell-were-they-thinking gated community name is for a cluster of pink New Mexico hacienda fashioned mcmansions, surrounded by a high adobe-like wall topped with clay tiles. It's dubbed Maida Vale.

Because nothing invokes the romance of the American Southwest like the name of the BBC's broadcast studios.
posted by ardgedee at 8:40 AM on November 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


As a much more nuanced example of his thoughts on bad planning, check out this recent post instead on SFHs in overdeveloped areas. I think the main point that this site posits, which has been bouncing around for a long time but is rarely so well articulated, is that developers should be forced to consider the livability of an environment they design. Forcing people to live bereft of an agora in isolation in their homes or apartments, no matter how spacious or cheap, is both economically doomed and morally bankrupt.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:43 AM on November 24, 2015 [4 favorites]


I nosed around the entire blog and I think it's best taken as a whole.

Anyway, that "urbanist" development makes me want to run screaming. But so much of what people say about urban vs. suburban seems to kind of take as read that urban means a Giant Megalopolis With No SFHs Or Yards. There are many, many cities where urban living can also mean yards, and single-family dwellings, and even cul-de-sacs. You can combine all sorts of different ways that people want to live, inside an urban core, as long as you don't try to cram every single human being in the country into four enormous cities.

Looking at the comments, it seems the author has become a Rust Belt convert. Good. Come to the interior, folks. I'll show you my cute bungalow with large yard (raspberry patch! chicken coop! vegetables! wooded area!) on a cul-de-sac, 3 miles from the downtown skyscrapers. It's a good life.
posted by soren_lorensen at 9:03 AM on November 24, 2015 [15 favorites]


The problem with "forcing" public spaces is that it will be done in the cheapest, most half-assed way possible, just like the "high-density" burbclave in the article, which looks like a couple of dozen double-wides piled on top of each other, surrounded by vast tracts of astroturf and eventually a barricade. Developers will defeat the spirit, and given enough motivation, the letter of any law meant to force them to provide humane places to live. Our whole paradigm is fucked and I don't have an answer.

I liked the post. It is more of a photo essay than a meaty, long-form article, but the pictures really say all that needs to be said.
posted by Vulgar Euphemism at 9:03 AM on November 24, 2015 [8 favorites]


Yeah, these sorts of developments really raise my hackles. My brother-in-law just took a job in far-south New Jersey and rented an apartment in a ridiculous complex sandwiched between an abandoned racetrack and an unbelievably huge shopping mall. There are streets and sidewalks and greenspace but it's pretty much unwalkable and a pretty grim place to live, if you ask me.

We spent more than we'd have liked for a smallish old house on an eighth of an acre or so. We walk to meals in town all the time. We walk to the park. We walk past our daughter's future middle school. We walk to the train station. We could walk for groceries, but it's just a little bit too far to be worthwhile. It's not a perfect setup by a long shot (and my commute sort of stinks), but I realize how good we have it every time I take off on a walk.
posted by uncleozzy at 9:03 AM on November 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


This comment goes into why the new development of Main Street towns like Collingswood (and my own current fabulous residence Melrose, MA) would be totally illegal.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:06 AM on November 24, 2015 [14 favorites]


Feel free to criticize retention ponds in suburbs all you want for the aesthetics but several hundred thousand people in England would have loved to have storm sewers, spillways, retention ponds and other water management in the winter of 2013/2014.
posted by srboisvert at 9:07 AM on November 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


I don't have an answer.

Gather the best/most dedicated Cities: Skylines players in the world and have them do urban design forever.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:08 AM on November 24, 2015


(I'm only about 20% joking)
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:08 AM on November 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


100% with FFFM (as I am 90% of the time)- An obsession with SimCity and/or Cities: Skylines should be a prerequisite for any position that holds any policy power in this arena. I nominate myself: I actually paid good money for a game that was a public transport simulator.

The problem, of course, is that we treat homes as investment vehicles and not as a human right that is essential to building a proper society. Take that pressure to make money away and suddenly suburbs are no longer appealing to anyone.

except me. I live in a 'successful' suburb and I love it.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 9:12 AM on November 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


I've been reading Let's Go LA a lot lately and they love to point out that SFR-only zoning in cities is a terrible scourge that prevents affordable and interesting neighborhoods AND ends up concentrating new development in mega projects that require deep-pocketed developers (like those along arterials mentioned in the post Potomac Avenue linked).

Allowing small 2-6 unit apartment buildings, like LA's dingbats, on some of those 1/4 acre lots doesn't dramatically change the built "character" of a neighborhood but adds a more variety of choice and can be a big increase in density. And, the project is small enough that they're attainable investments for small-time local investors.
posted by ghharr at 9:19 AM on November 24, 2015 [5 favorites]


His "The Lost World of the Solvent American" post is blistering in it's takedown of fiscal responsibility in the Greatest, Boomer, GenX and Millennial generations. I don't agree with all of it, but it's an interesting read.
Thanks, Cash4Lead, for introducing me to this blog/site!
posted by eclectist at 9:21 AM on November 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


We just had some in-laws move to join us in what may be the most walk-, bike- and public transit-friendly cities on the West Coast, which is great. They came from the suburbs outside of Philadelphia, and ended up in a brand new development far from downtown. It isn't nearly as bad as the one in the article, but is still basically inexpensive cookie-cutter homes in cul-de-sacs.

It was partly for financial reasons, but also partly because that's just what they're comfortable with. We're perplexed at the mindset that demands a two-car garage in a place where everyone parks outside year round. (They actually got a three-car garage, which is something I didn't even know existed outside Texas.) But hey, burb life is what some people know and want.
posted by gottabefunky at 9:32 AM on November 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


This is where my hometown of Arlington, Virginia excels. It has the advantage of originally being a streetcar suburb, so the bones were there, but when the Metro system was planned, Arlington was very careful about running it through logical places for central development, and then modifying the zoning laws to match. So close to the stations there's a lot of taller buildings with offices and apartments and stores at the street level, and then townhomes -- but if you want a detached home, there's plenty of those too, and yet you'll still be within walking or biking distance of stores, libraries, etc. Or bus lines to take you into Metro lines.

They've also made a point of preserving and redeveloping shopping/social areas throughout the county, like Shirlington and Westover. It's been a lot of focused effort over 40+ years, starting way back when the Arlingtonians for a Better County overthrew the Byrd organization and wrested control into progressive hands.
posted by tavella at 9:43 AM on November 24, 2015 [4 favorites]


The basic problem with the arterial lining high rises and non-urbanization density is that the development is still separating where people live from where they work and from where they shop. My city finally got it right a decade ago and is allowing/requiring mixed use development. Apartment buildings have a floor or two of commercial or retail space at ground level. Now there is a place to walk to. Geography has unfortunately constrained most development to long thin strips so you have very busy streets bisecting everything
posted by Mitheral at 9:48 AM on November 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


But so much of what people say about urban vs. suburban seems to kind of take as read that urban means a Giant Megalopolis With No SFHs Or Yards. There are many, many cities where urban living can also mean yards, and single-family dwellings, and even cul-de-sacs.

Indeed. Another area that seems to do it well is Cambridge / Somerville MA. There is the obvious university presence, but even outside of that it's a nice mix of SFHs, 4-stories-or-less apartment buildings, and of course the rows and rows of triple deckers in Somerville. All with good walking access to groceries, restaurants, and bars, and good public transit as long as you can walk to the red line instead of relying on the 1 bus.

It was really a revelation to me when I moved to Cambridge - until then I'd only ever lived in suburbs, either of the rural/exurban variety or the wide-lane, tract-house variety. I knew they were stultifyingly boring, but I have to admit I was afraid of moving to a really really big city like Chicago or New York. It felt very vibrant, and Somerville is one of the densest cities in the US, so it is a decent aspiration even for people whose highest priority is density.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 10:05 AM on November 24, 2015 [5 favorites]


Jane Jacobs really did nail it.

For the Villas at Retention Pond to work they need a walkable highstreet, not a neat common used only for dogs to poop on, not a big box mall a 15 minute drive by white SUV. And that means mixed-income housing so that the shop and chic restaurant employees can live nearby. And suddenly, it's not a sterile segregated development but a real town.
posted by bonehead at 10:09 AM on November 24, 2015 [8 favorites]


Another area that seems to do it well is Cambridge / Somerville MA

Unless you want to, say, buy a house on a middle class salary.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:12 AM on November 24, 2015 [9 favorites]


You can have single family houses in a walkable neighborhood, just build them close together. There are lots of city neighborhoods in my city that a full houses on their own lots but are still a short walk to a local business district or a bus ride downtown. There are choices in-between cul-de-sacs and apartment buildings.
posted by octothorpe at 10:18 AM on November 24, 2015


You can have single family houses in a walkable neighborhood, just build them close together.

Exactly! Lots of the newer suburbs have zero lot lines. You are already looking in your neighbor's windows. At least you could get a chance to walk/bus somewhere out of the deal. Then maybe people in those houses wouldn't need so many cars that the whole subdivision looks like a parking lot with some houses sprinkled in.
posted by emjaybee at 10:25 AM on November 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


Unless you want to, say, buy a house on a middle class salary.

Fair enough (seems to have gotten a lot worse since I lived there). But I didn't mean to suggest that everyone should literally move to Camberville - more that its mix of small-lot SFHs and moderate condos, with narrow roads and zoned to allow lots of street level retail nearby, might be a good approach to emulate elsewhere.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 10:27 AM on November 24, 2015


srboisvert: "Feel free to criticize retention ponds in suburbs all you want for the aesthetics but several hundred thousand people in England would have loved to have storm sewers, spillways, retention ponds and other water management in the winter of 2013/2014."

It's not that retention ponds are bad, per se. It's that less paved surface = less need for them in the first place.

My friend keeps urging me to move to the suburbs, where she has "trails" (paved running path next to a 4 lane road) and "ponds" (retention pools). I have a fully detached home with a 2 car garage, sidewalks, multiple parks within a few block radius, and am within easy walking distance of a grocery store, several coffee shops and restaurants, a hardware store, post office branch, bowling alley, and a library. All that plus a 1 mile commute to work.

We need to remind ourselves that a group of houses close to each other is not a neighborhood.
posted by caution live frogs at 10:30 AM on November 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


The problem is that some people - hell, I'll say it, people like me - don't /want/ mixed use. They don't want where they work and where they live to be blended. No matter how attractive the blending, some of us don't want it at all.

My ultimate preference is to live in a purely residential SFH community, bordered by at least several blocks the size of avenues in every single direction also residential housing. I want a low traffic location, where if I see people walking in my neighborhood they probably live there or their car broke down on the way to somewhere else. I have precisely zero interest in walkability, and would prefer not even a corner bodega within five blocks of my house. That is genuinely what I want! I understand that other people want to live differently, and think that's fine, but think there's room enough in the world for both types of communities.
posted by corb at 10:30 AM on November 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


Oh: Should add - my house was about half the cost of my friend's place. Plus she has a 45 minute commute, depending on traffic. If I didn't drop my kid off at school, my commute would be even shorter than the current 5-6 minutes it takes me now.
posted by caution live frogs at 10:33 AM on November 24, 2015


Post-war suburban / exurban apartment buildings are going to tend to terrible because few people who care and have purchasing power live there. If you care and have purchasing power, you have a nice house with a yard, or you live in the city. If you don't care, then the last thing you want to do is to pay for design features that you'll drive past on the way to the office or wherever you really want to be. If you don't have purchasing power you just want the cheapest rent you can get.

I'd also note that dense single family homes are not really a solution ... outside of the highest end, extremely dense has been the standard for the suburban subdivisions for the past 20 years and it does nothing to create a real walkable-amenities lifestyle, because it's still not dense enough. You need for dense single family home blocks to be cheek by jowl with apartment buildings -- which is what we see in the townhouse / brownstone blocks in New York City, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and DC.
posted by MattD at 10:35 AM on November 24, 2015


Writer seems like a less abrasive version of James Kunstler, which is good, because snark, gloom, and doom wears thin very quickly, at least with me.
posted by Beholder at 10:38 AM on November 24, 2015 [6 favorites]


its mix of small-lot SFHs and moderate condos, with narrow roads and zoned to allow lots of street level retail nearby, might be a good approach to emulate elsewhere.

Hi 5 on that, but the issue is that the area was supported by several major universities before it started to be a techhub. It's already combined Urban/Residential, and the people living and working there have a long long term stake in (and have been struggling to find the right laws to allow) sustainable growth. You can't reproduce that history.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:42 AM on November 24, 2015


I'm still waiting for the Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:43 AM on November 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


His "The Lost World of the Solvent American" post is blistering in it's takedown of fiscal responsibility in the Greatest, Boomer, GenX and Millennial generations. I don't agree with all of it, but it's an interesting read.

The article pretty much says Gen X is hosed unless the Millennials can patch things up. As a Gen Xer, my response is "whatever."
posted by Fleebnork at 10:44 AM on November 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


but think there's room enough in the world for both types of communities.

In the world? Yes. Within or in easy driving distance of the city limits of every major city while not interfering with the rights of the people who live in those cities to plan their own communities as they see fit? No. Nobody is talking about eliminating any kind of development that farther-flung towns, counties, unincorporated areas, etc. would like to support, but what is it issue is the fact that certain types of development within the center of gravity of metropolitan centers create a tension between the desire of people to live reasonably close to their jobs, shopping, etc. and the desire of others to have a big lawn and not see anyone they don't know in their neighborhood.
posted by tonycpsu at 10:46 AM on November 24, 2015 [8 favorites]


My response as a Genxer is "More OK soda snoochieboochies? As if!"
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:47 AM on November 24, 2015


Unless you want to, say, buy a house on a middle class salary.

If there is anything that fixing would make life better it would be this. And by this I mean the way places seem to go from Slummerville to the Bees Knees and most everybody who I recognize as being from my class gets priced out.

We own 3 houses in reasonably close in NE Portland and woohoo, cha ching. But its BS if you ask me to be infatuated with the "success" of the neighborhood as it is only through which lense you look at it that success is measured and myself, I'd prefer a lower middle income neighborhood, hold the social problems and violence, but that, I guess, is a fantasy.

Sadly, parts of Portland, now that the city has been discovered or recovered, (or whatever has happened here in the last 25 years,) whose tree covered gridded streets of modest traffic capacity and small houses on 5000sf lots seem positively edenic to refugees from more truly urban cities and hip and connected to refugees from more truly horrible suburbias, are in the process of being feasted upon.

The cold rationality of the marketplace is everywhere espoused as the solution to our housing crisis, the intangeables and externalities are derided as NIMBYism, rent control is for fools the experts tell us, the intractability of the problem against the existing toolkit sends us all to our own bunkers of self preservation. Our actions are rational for ourselves but in the aggregation of our pursuits the city as it is is lost. So now, you can just afford that apartment if you AirBnb it a weekend a month, so you do, and now you have to. Since land is merely capital and fungeable there is no rational reason to keep a house of modest size, scrape it and fill the lot with fossilized dreams that can put the land to its highest and best use. Housing is not a right in anyway it is an item at auction, morally available only to the highest bidder.

And while this goes on, has always gone on I guess, the trees that line the streets are replaced with their sanitized parking lot cousins, the informal greenspace of small yards and setbacks are covered in building, (sometimes of the most plausibly progressive and enlightened, e.g. an ADU for granma that in the meantime is a nice little earner as a vacation rental,) and the flickers, the cedar waxwings, and racoons and possums and the GREEN
are shown the door.

I don't know how you don't build souless medium density suburbs, but we had better figure it out because this constant cycle of renewal just seems stupid and wasteful and hard on the psyche of people who just want to live somewhere pleasant and not fight about it.
posted by Pembquist at 10:50 AM on November 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


But why should people within city limits be able to control the suburbs outside city limits simply because they're in driving distance? That's the part I don't understand. If the people in the cities want high density living, why not build it up within the already existing cities, rather than cannibalize communities that are already working for the people living in them?
posted by corb at 11:03 AM on November 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


Why did the article have all those photographs of prisons?
posted by alms at 11:07 AM on November 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


Corb: Because your personal preferences aren't as important as sustainable, equitable communities. And the winners don't get to drink the sweat of the losers anymore. Read this.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:08 AM on November 24, 2015 [14 favorites]


Not that there's anything wrong with wanting to win. It's what we all do! But allowing wealthy communities to do whatever they want with the land they own isn't working for anyone in the long term. It's just creating an ouroboros of decaying sprawl when each generation of winners moves on to a different community.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:10 AM on November 24, 2015


Also, don't you live in the UWS? Heh.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:11 AM on November 24, 2015


As a condo-owner in Camberville I'm finding that even in our relatively dense, relatively interesting, relatively walkable towns, there is tremendous diversity of opinion about development. Prices keep going up, and I'm all for increased density, especially close to public transport and main streets. But I'm also acutely aware that a lot of the people fighting those things are the people who've been here longer, often have less money, and provide some of the ethnic diversity we all recognize as key to great neighborhoods.

It seems counterinuitive to me, but I haven't had the guts to really probe my neighbors about their strongly held beliefs involving increased traffic, shade, etc.
posted by ldthomps at 11:16 AM on November 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


What? I don't know where you got that. I'm a Brooklynite, but when I came back from the Army, I found my PTSD wouldn't tolerate high density environments anymore, so I moved out of the city. At first I was sure I would miss all the walkability, but I found the peace well compensates for it.

Not everyone who wants to live in the suburbs, even nice suburbs, are some kind of moustache-twirling railroad barons who want to baste themselves in your tears. Most of the people who live there are middle-income. And honestly, you could buy about fifteen suburban homes for the cost of a brownstone in, say, Park Slope.
posted by corb at 11:18 AM on November 24, 2015


Although not very deep or insightful, this article captures exactly why I never have and never could live in a suburb. I know I could get a lot more house and lot in the 'burbs, but I'm attached to my soul, thank you very much. Every time I have to go to the suburbs for some errand or other or to visit an unfortunate friend, it takes a little piece of that soul that I'm never going to get back. How folks survive out there I have no idea. The complete lack of any sense of place or community is disheartening, and the infrastructure blight is eye-stabbing.
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:19 AM on November 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


But why should people within city limits be able to control the suburbs outside city limits simply because they're in driving distance?

As near as I can tell, the push for walkable suburbs/exurbs isn't coming from city residents who are already in walkable cities. They already have what they want, and those who don't are likely trying to push for that walkability in their own neighborhoods, and don't care about how walkable it is toward the outskirts of the metro area. So it would seem you're just burning a straw man here. Yes, there are real tensions between the way people out in the burbs build their neighborhoods and what would allow for a more egalitarian approach toward letting more people live closer to work, but the notion that it's "city residents" dictating anything seems to be something you made up.
posted by tonycpsu at 11:25 AM on November 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


Sorry corb, got ya confused. Brooklyn is DEFINITELY unsustainable too, NYC is just bonkers in a lot of ways. I guess what the blog is trying to say is that walkability is important for suburbs if they want to be thriving in the long term as viable economies beyond the short term for a single generation.

Check out this other post on a small town in Kentucky with two halves, one built on a main street model and one built after WW2.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:25 AM on November 24, 2015 [8 favorites]


Not that there's anything wrong with wanting to win. It's what we all do! But allowing wealthy communities to do whatever they want with the land they own isn't working for anyone in the long term.

IMO allowing people to do what they want with land that they own is great and should not be trifled with. What I find icky is wealthy homeowners using their political power to prevent other people from making better use of land that they own. Some people seem to think that buying 1/4 acre should entitle them to everything around their home staying basically the same, forever. With zoning in the US handled on such a local level, incumbent homeowners are able to get their neighborhoods downzoned, or get "historical" overlays to limit development. And they reap the benefits of their home values going up due to limited supply, to the detriment of every non-homeowner in the region.

I'd like to see states wrest some control over zoning decisions from municipalities (as is common in other countries) to allow more by-right development. I'm sure it couldn't be directly imposed, but tying infrastructure spending to zoning liberalization could help.
posted by ghharr at 11:27 AM on November 24, 2015


The only way this is going to change is if some generation makes it cool to get involved in local instead of national politics. I'm looking at you Millenials (I was born a Slacker and I'll die a Slacker dammit).
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:30 AM on November 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


My ultimate preference is to live in a purely residential SFH community, bordered by at least several blocks the size of avenues in every single direction also residential housing. I want a low traffic location, where if I see people walking in my neighborhood they probably live there or their car broke down on the way to somewhere else. I have precisely zero interest in walkability, and would prefer not even a corner bodega within five blocks of my house.

That's fine--to each his own. Just so long as you recognize that such neighborhoods are a possibility because of a historically-rare combination of low energy prices, heavily-subsidized transportation networks favoring the automobile, and tax policies that favored the middle class over the wealthy. Two of those three things appear to be on their way out, which means that the future of development needs to either be denser and more walkable, or that homeowners need to absorb the externalities of inefficient communities like these (your suburban SFH is no longer going to be the default option when gas is $10/gallon and the roads leading to your front door aren't subsidized by income taxes from us city-dwellers)
posted by Mayor West at 11:36 AM on November 24, 2015 [10 favorites]


backseatpilot: " You could walk from their house to the main street and go to a coffee shop! There were places to hang out, but you could also have your privacy. It felt like a community."

This is why I'm fascinated with a local streetcar-era neighborhood -- it's got single-family detached houses with yards, but intermixed commercial, small shopping nodes, etc., and it's extremely walkable. I've started documenting it as a hobby (instagram linked in my profile), partly because it's such an unusual style of development anymore. I think this neighborhood's fabric survived mainly because it got really rundown starting not long after WWII, so the commercial properties weren't snapped up and converted into homes.

corb: "If the people in the cities want high density living, why not build it up within the already existing cities, rather than cannibalize communities that are already working for the people living in them?"

Because suburban sprawl has externalities and you shouldn't be able to shift the cost of those externalities onto urban dwellers? Like, for example, the suburbanish residential SFH neighborhoods in my city are currently in revolt because they don't think they should have to pay for sewer repairs in the older, run-down parts of the city where infrastructure hasn't been maintained (due to a century of racism, but I digress). HOWEVER they totally neglect the fact that if THEY PAID THEIR FULL FUCKING FREIGHT on the sewer system, their bills would be three times what they currently are; they benefit from the sewers charging per-household (and, to a lesser extent, per-gallon-used) instead of charging the much more accurate PER-LINEAR-FOOT-OF-PIPE that would cause big-ass sprawl developments to have to pay a SHITLOAD of money to have their loads of shit carried away by the sewer. However, they voted the per-household as more a more "fair" way to spread the costs, because it benefits rich homeowners with big fucking houses on the edge of town who reliably turn out in off-year elections, and negatively impacts poor renters and immigrants in shitty neighborhoods.

We will not even talk about my feelings on their water bills and the extra pump stations required for their sprawl-tastic neighborhoods, that the rest of us subsidize out of the kindness of our wallets.

I don't actually have a problem with people wanted to live in exurban sprawl if that's what makes them happy. I have a problem with them expecting government subsidies to do so, and refusing to pay for the costs that they externalize on the rest of us. Which they don't, anywhere, because zoning, property taxing, and utilities are all structured to favor single-family sprawl even though they cost considerably more to service.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:41 AM on November 24, 2015 [31 favorites]


Fair enough (seems to have gotten a lot worse since I lived there). But I didn't mean to suggest that everyone should literally move to Camberville - more that its mix of small-lot SFHs and moderate condos, with narrow roads and zoned to allow lots of street level retail nearby, might be a good approach to emulate elsewhere.

I totally agree, but part of me wonders if there's a causal arrow here. Cities that are laid out like this (easily walkable, decent public transportation access, lots of mixed use zoning) are suddenly so popular that they're becoming unaffordable across the board. People really, really want to live close to where they work, and where they can walk to the pub and the grocery store. That can mean one of two things. Either we start curating design philosophies to create a lot more of these communities (which is next to impossible given the state of public transit funding in the 21st century--how likely do you think it is that Schenectady or Columbus is going to install a $10 billion rail system?), or we watch as communities like Camberville become the sole purview of the wealthy.
posted by Mayor West at 11:42 AM on November 24, 2015 [7 favorites]


No problem, Potomac Avenue. Though my husband reminds me that because I was raised in NYC, my perception of what a suburb is may be crazily skewed, and that the place we are hoping to buy is just in a quieter area of what is apparently a large-for-here city. I don't want to mislead! I guess honestly I feel like there isn't a great definition of what precisely a suburb /is/. Is it any smaller city that lives close enough to drive to a much larger city? Is it only a city designed after the 50s, planned to take advantage of cars? Only a city designed from the ground up as a suburb?
posted by corb at 11:43 AM on November 24, 2015


There are many options in between Super Dense High-Rise Megacity and The Villas at Retention Pond of Exurbia. Smaller cities with 19th century streetcar suburbs (which at this point are not really suburbs but fully integrated into the urban fabric) offer a wealth of Main Street, mixed use and single family dwelling patterns for use as models for future development.

When my parents moved here 40 years ago from Toronto, they looked around and couldn't figure out where anyone rented, because in Toronto, renting = high-rise. We still, decades later, have very little in the way of high-rise residential. It took my parents a few weeks after moving to figure out that people rent homes here--either a former single family home that has been converted to multi-unit, or a duplex/triplex. There's yards and parks and on the residential streets, it is pretty darn quiet after rush hour is over.
posted by soren_lorensen at 11:51 AM on November 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


Check out the superfund toxic sites in the red triangles on the map of Mountain View and Sunnyvale in this gizmodo article.
posted by bukvich at 12:04 PM on November 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


Dear California,

Welcome to the remnants of the Industrial Revolution.

Love, always,
Massachusetts
posted by maryr at 12:20 PM on November 24, 2015 [4 favorites]


The complete lack of any sense of place or community is disheartening, and the infrastructure blight is eye-stabbing.

One of the reasons I don't like to visit my brother's place on the southerly Gulf Coast of Florida is because he lives in a suburban development we've labeled Free Market Hellscape. There are four standard models for the houses; there is little to no variation, and every block blends into the next. Every 3000 square foot house is set back on a big piece of land, the lawns sucking up water that Florida can ill afford to lose.

There are no sidewalks, only drainage ditches. When I tried to take my then-toddler daughter on a walk, the only noises we heard were the low hum of insects and the loud thrum of every air conditioner on the block going at once.

There were no green spaces, no walking or biking or jogging trails, no parks or playgrounds, no schools nearby, no libraries, no public spaces to meet your neighbors. There is nothing within walking distance -- the suburban development is hemmed in by highways and piney forests filled with broken-down trailers and wrecked cars.

People there live lives where they move from car to house to car to house to car to house. They have no integration or interaction with each other or the outside world.

The last time I visited, I came back to my SF Bay Area island -- basically a streetcar suburb thanks to its 19th-century roots -- and spent a day just wandering around, walking to the park two doors down because I could, walking to the coffee shop a block down because I could, dashing out for a quart of milk at the small, locally-owned grocery across the street from the coffee shop because I could, eating dinner as a picnic in our 6'x10' yard where I could wave to people and watch the flow of the world and the arrival of the evening fog.

I don't know how people in the Villas At Retention Pond handle living someplace where they're so disconnected from their surroundings and their people.
posted by sobell at 12:37 PM on November 24, 2015 [10 favorites]


I'm glad to know that others find the villas at retention pond model kind of horrifying. Lately I've been reminding myself that we all have different values and make different choices and my friend Loves living in the suburbs, so I've been trying to view the ticky-tacky subdivisions more charitably. And, heck, I can see how nice my brother's streetcar suburb is for nephews walking to school. But it's also nice to know that there are others who find some of these suburbs alienating and awful.
posted by ldthomps at 12:58 PM on November 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


No problem, Potomac Avenue. Though my husband reminds me that because I was raised in NYC, my perception of what a suburb is may be crazily skewed, and that the place we are hoping to buy is just in a quieter area of what is apparently a large-for-here city. I don't want to mislead! I guess honestly I feel like there isn't a great definition of what precisely a suburb /is/. Is it any smaller city that lives close enough to drive to a much larger city? Is it only a city designed after the 50s, planned to take advantage of cars? Only a city designed from the ground up as a suburb?

I agree that your perception might be skewed a bit, if not crazily, because you mention "at least several blocks the size of avenues" of residential development, which is probably not an enormous issue for 90% of commenters on this thread. That seems to fall well within the purview of the "streetcar suburbs" or the "main street towns" that are being discussed as an alternative to super-dense urban development and pure sprawl. (Evanston, Illinois comes to mind as a place where you could absolutely live, say, 5 blocks away from commercial activity in all directions, though there would be some apartment buildings sprinkled in with the SFHs. But it also has sustainable transit and areas of dense mixed-use building.)

When discussing "sprawl," people are often talking much more about places where there can be at least several miles of residential development in all directions. Not to say that some people don't genuinely love just driving all day long, for miles and hours every day, and returning home to 4500 square feet of pure air conditioning--but ultimately these just aren't economically or environmentally desirable things. We have them, and that's fine, but we really should not be making MORE of them.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 1:02 PM on November 24, 2015 [5 favorites]


I guess honestly I feel like there isn't a great definition of what precisely a suburb /is/. Is it any smaller city that lives close enough to drive to a much larger city? Is it only a city designed after the 50s, planned to take advantage of cars? Only a city designed from the ground up as a suburb?

This is probably a tougher question to answer than it seems on first pass. I live in what I consider an ideal neighborhood - moderate houses in small yards, walkable to shopping and neighborhood businesses, while still only 3.5 miles from the city downtown - but when the neighborhood was built, back in 1946, I'm sure it was considered "the suburbs".

The houses are all built from the same kit, with 4 variants, the yards are all the same size and fenced-off, and the streets are lined with trees planted at even intervals (one for each house!) that would have seemed comical when they were saplings.

It has matured to become a diverse and largely affordable neighborhood more or less hidden inside a city as other neighborhoods and municipalities have bloomed beyond it.

So: once a suburb, but now definitely part of the fabric of the city.
posted by rocketman at 1:06 PM on November 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


Over the weekend I took a drive up to Liberty Center, a new mixed-use development halfway between Cincinnati and Dayton, one of the last places not developed in the conurbation. It was... odd, definitely a Frankenburb, but a little better designed than the one in the article.

For one thing, they did put in effort to make it walkable. All the parking is on the outside of the development, with the exception of a few metered parking spaces(!), and the streets in the interior all have sidewalks and maybe two lanes of traffic, like in a city. If you live in one of the apartment buildings it's definitely no big deal to walk to any of the businesses. There's a few small pieces of greenspace and a kind of community building(?) or something in the middle, so once it gets more established there is a little room for more to come out of it.

One immediate problem I had was how brand new and slick and corporate-feeling it was. The streetlights all had built-in speakers piping in the worst Christmas mall music ever. The park had a big walk-through Christmas tree with a Nativity scene inside it, which would never fly if this was an established community. They call the food court a "food hall" which is something entirely different. Also, there are a few things missing - the Starbucks isn't open, there aren't any libraries or schools or real playgrounds, and there's no real grocery or convenience store, so if you need toothpaste or a bag of chips or whatever you'd have to get in your car and drive somewhere.

Overall, it has potential not to be totally soul-sucking, but for it to survive it needs more shops and spaces catering to the residents instead of things appealing to the people who live in detached houses further from the highway.
posted by Small Dollar at 1:13 PM on November 24, 2015


In Boston I always consider the suburbs to start where the subway stops. Camberville and Brookline? City. Malden and Milton? Suburbs. Newton and Medford are the border cases.
posted by maryr at 1:14 PM on November 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


I was raised in a two hundred year-old farmhouse in Scaggsville, Maryland across Scaggsville Road from a small steer farm. There were no sidewalks, but not much suburbia, either, so a kid with a bike had full access to the woods, a bunch of tributary creeks, the nearby reservoir, and weirdly, the no-man's land spaces of wooded lots with cool former basement hangout places in the loops and arcs of the cloverleaf connecting MD Route 216 and I-95. I could ride my bike into town four miles away, or to my various best friend's houses two, eight, and eleven miles away (and had the muscle tone to do the round trips almost every other day).

Then, I grew up, dropped out of high school, moved around a bit in the DC orbit, and returned to the nearby small town to which Scaggsville was a sort of sub-suburb, and I have been in the same apartment in town for twenty-seven years. I worked around DC for about half this time, then in Baltimore for the next half, and my city friends wrinkle their nose that I would choose to live there instead of in cool, but insanely expensive DC or cool, but blighted and mostly employment-free Baltimore, but I don't want to live in those places.

My street is one block off Main Street. There's an excellent old-school meat market on Main, as well as two small theaters, a few restaurants, a witch store, post office, porno store, used book store, and commuter train stop that'll take you to DC or Baltimore on weekdays and gives some service on weekends. On my bike, I can reach the Amish market or the huge thrift store in a few minutes, or the library, the movie theater, or several grocery stores. Within a fifteen minute bike ride, there is a pawn shop, two Indian grocery stores, one really good Italian market/restaurant, two Asian grocery stores, three pupuserias, and two pho places. I can catch a bus to Columbia, to the horrorshow casino at Arundel Mills, to Greenbelt, where I run a small theater, or to the DC metro.

My curling club is a twenty-five minute bike ride, which is very important.

Public transportation could be better here by just running more buses and trains, but it's a matter of convincing the incoming suburbanites that it's stupid to drive everywhere, then go to a gym to pretend to be exercising when you could just walk in your own town. Suburban inertia is hard to beat, but there's a core of us trying to get people on board. Meanwhile, I go to city planning meetings sometimes and I'm shocked that the people in power have never heard of New Urbanism or the notion that our destination plan should not be so suburban, but it gets a little better all the time.

As a single gay dude, though, now that our one smalltown gay bar's gone under and I hate driving to the city, I have to wonder if I'm dooming myself to solo status, but I just like being here, like a person in a place instead of a an occupant in a unit in a nowhere place.
posted by sonascope at 1:17 PM on November 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


One of the reasons I don't like to visit my brother's place on the southerly Gulf Coast of Florida is because he lives in a suburban development we've labeled Free Market Hellscape

No worries, it's probably all going to be under the sea in a few decades :( or less.

As to how people survive it, well; they go out for fun, in their cars, to places you pay to have fun. They have parties you can drive to. They take vacations. They might have a garden. They just don't really ever walk anywhere during the day.

Basically it's like putting yourself into a zoo.
posted by emjaybee at 1:28 PM on November 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


Malden

Malden has 2 subway stops. ;)
It's going to be the next Somerville too, buy your cheap housing now folks.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:32 PM on November 24, 2015


And will be an ideal Main Street suburb with a ton of parks, local businesses, diversity, and mixed housing stock from SFHs to small apartment buildings.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:34 PM on November 24, 2015


One of those planned urban developments went up nearby me a few years ago, and I've had an unhealthy obsession with it ever since.

It's a bunch of townhomes with these totally unconvincing varied facades slapped on the front, and then it has a main street that is, of course, named Main Street, and this fake-quaint church that I have never seen anyone go in or out of and I honestly wouldn't be surprised to learn that it was just a really big storage shed.

When the place was first developed, the 'anchor' businesses on the main street were a yoga clothes store, a baby boutique, and a fish taco chain. They do have a coffee shop now, which is a major improvement, but the rest of the businesses are like the original ones. Little niche kind of Pinteresty shop that might be more appropriate in a large retail center or a tourist town, but are not the sort of thing that a community gets built around.

And it's all in that aesthetic that I'm sure has a name, with beige polished stone flooring, painted metal, and "old timey look" lighting fixtures. Just like the lobbies of most office buildings built in the 90s or later.

The whole thing is weird and sterile and clearly just for show.

Here is the killer, though: There is a largeish older strip mall directly to the west of it, with a drugstore, two small groceries, a gym, a pub, a liquor store, and a variety of restaurants and just generally the sort of businesses that accumulate organically to meet a community's needs; but to get there, you would either have to walk across a large dirt-and-weed lot and jump over a couple of barriers, and you would get there dirty and covered in goat heads; or you would have to go the wrong direction on the ridiculously hazardous street right in front, and drive until you find a place to turn around.

And, for all the studied Disneyland-style twee, the development still faces out onto a dangerous high speed road littered with white crosses and plastic flowers, and very frequently, emergency vehicles; and in the back, onto that dirt lot and the ass end of a strip mall they can't even get to.

It's just absurd and weird, especially how they have sequestered the whole area (none of the main street shops are even visible from the roadway, and they're difficult to get to even when you know they're there). It would be so easy, I'd imagine, to just put a road through that dirt lot to connect the development to that strip mall and vice versa, but I guess that'd ruin the aesthetic?

People live there, though. I hope they like it. I just can't imagine how.
posted by ernielundquist at 1:41 PM on November 24, 2015 [6 favorites]


I think this community could work. Use the scrap tool to turn the fence into steel, then build a water purifier in the pond. Add tato plants and gourds in the dog walking garden— the statue can be turned into scrap. The huge parking lot is a great place for a generator, recruitment beacon, and turrets, and eventually new shacks. The external fence can stay— defends against raiders and super mutants.
posted by zompist at 1:53 PM on November 24, 2015 [11 favorites]


We call those shiny New Urbanist planned developments (we do have a few here--it's a popular use for post-Industrial brownfields after all the arsenic gets remediated) Simulacropolises (Simulacropolisii?).
posted by soren_lorensen at 1:55 PM on November 24, 2015


This thread is rather goofy.

Personally speaking, I'm a city kid, always have been, always will be. I like walkable urban landscapes fine and dandy.

But I do recognise that lots of people aren't like me. People like peace. People like quiet. People don't like people, much. The suburbs weren't imposed on a cowering populace under protest. Developers kept building them because the ones the built before sold, quickly and profitably.

As for all y'all moaning that the technocrats ought to take to the streets and force those no good cheapskates to shell out for the sewers and whatnot, why worry? The switch flipped in the 90s when crime went down --- more and more people are trying to stay in or near urban centers, as best they can afford it. The median price for a single family home in much-praised Cambridge, my hometown, is over $1,000,000, and Somerville's not far behind. Put down the pitchforks, you've won.

What you're really looking at there in the photos on that blog, is 2040's version of a slum. For sure and certain, if google's right about robot cars. We good and holy people of metafilter shall hunker down in the cities with our university educations and our whole foods, and the poor will be driven out to the exurbs, as brick and mortar retail withers such that it will need density to be sustained. The barista at your lovely walkable coffee shop will wake up in a development much like that one and hop in to his robo Uber at 4:30 in the morning for his two hour commute to your coffee shop from your local equivalent of the Central Valley, and he'll have you latte on the counter when you and Jr swing by on your 10 minute walk to Montessori, smiling at the bluebirds and waving to the bike cops as you pass. We have seen the future, and it is San Francisco, where the zoning board meetings draw blood on the regular.
posted by Diablevert at 2:07 PM on November 24, 2015 [7 favorites]


More seriously, I think Ernie above nailed the problems with the sort of gated development in the OP, and in just a couple of paragraphs. Though tastes obviously differ, I'm not sure who really burns to live in a place like that, unless it's exceptionally cheap.

There are many places in between the exurban McMansion or gated community, and the kicky expensive urban neighborhood. My town, for instance: mostly walkable, 15 minutes from the Loop by train, condos available for $50K, bungalows in the next town over available for $189K, plus loads of apartment buildings.
posted by zompist at 2:46 PM on November 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


Diablevert: "As for all y'all moaning that the technocrats ought to take to the streets and force those no good cheapskates to shell out for the sewers and whatnot, why worry? The switch flipped in the 90s when crime went down --- more and more people are trying to stay in or near urban centers, as best they can afford it. The median price for a single family home in much-praised Cambridge, my hometown, is over $1,000,000, and Somerville's not far behind. Put down the pitchforks, you've won."

Uh, because I live in Peoria, not Boston, and we're facing tens of millions of dollars in fines from the EPA if we don't get our sewers remediated fairly quickly, and the median home price is $82,000, and the EAV (taxable property value, essentially) for the entire city is only around $2 billion, so we can't pay very many fines at that level. And also I'm not an asshole so I would like all of my neighbors to have working sewers.

Also I feel like everybody downstream of Peoria, which is the Illinois down to St. Louis and then all of the Mississippi south from there, because you're all drinking our poop until our sewers are repaired. Enjoy your cholera!

And you know, that's great, Boston and San Francisco and New York and Chicago are all great cities. But there are THOUSANDS of other cities in the United States, not all of which suffer from an excess of people wanting to live there, and it's shitty to just be like "Well, live in an overheated coastal property market and the problems solve themselves!" I mean, they don't, but also we're people too here in flyover country!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:57 PM on November 24, 2015 [13 favorites]


Sorry Eyebrows, I don't think you're an asshole, and I didn't mean to make my comment seem a personal call out of you.

It's just that the whole soulless suburbia oh how terrible thing feels to be like the land use controversy equivalent of the Maginot Line. It's fighting the last war. Few cities bar London have housing crisis' as bad as San Francisco. But increasing urbanism is the stronger trend and has been for years. As the baby boomers start to retire in huge numbers, they may quickly find that they aren't going to have the equity they counted on when they go to sell in lots of places. Deteriorating housing stock, people caging in place and stuck too far from services, blight --- these are more likely to be the suburban problems of the future.

Everybody's town is different, and tax rates and government structures and the local economy may make your particular problems and priorities quite different, of course. But overall, density is winning the battle for hearts and minds.
posted by Diablevert at 3:25 PM on November 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


Diablevert: "Deteriorating housing stock, people caging in place and stuck too far from services, blight --- these are more likely to be the suburban problems of the future. "

I agree; but my biggest concern is honestly that smaller cities like Peoria (Buffalo, South Bend, Durham) will end up 20 years behind the trend and continue handing developers cheap outskirts land for expensive, hard-to-maintain exurban-style developments for ten years after it's become clear they're not only unsustainable, but that the market has shifted and nobody wants to buy them. Some of these smaller cities will collapse irrecoverably and die as a result of terrible planning and slow reactions to changes in living patterns. Which would be especially sad because I think small cities have a LOT TO OFFER in this period of reurbanization and teleworking -- low costs, walkable neighborhoods, smaller more energy-efficient single-family homes, cheap start-up costs for businesses -- but we have GOT to invest in urban infill, new urbanist development codes, high-speed internet infrastructure, public transit, and intercity connections. I'm afraid we won't until it's too late.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:36 PM on November 24, 2015 [5 favorites]


ernielundquist: "I guess that'd ruin the aesthetic? "

The wrong people would be able to use the path.
posted by Mitheral at 3:36 PM on November 24, 2015 [4 favorites]


You know? I thought about this a while, and I realized why positioning things where "walkability" is so important is so upsetting to me. It's because some of us have legitimate needs for sprawl/low density areas, and it just seems like there's so much mockery around it.

I have a disability that makes being in crowded areas incredibly difficult. When I was regularly walking on heavily populated streets/taking mass transit, it was in a constant state of flare up. I started skipping medical appointments and essentially becoming a shut in, trying to minimize the amount of times I would have to deal with it. There were times I would have to call and cancel plans because the thought of going on the subway made me want to throw up. Living in a high density environment makes me a worse person. It certainly made me a worse Mefite. When I live in environments where I have to deal with crowds, my adrenaline starts pumping and it makes things worse for everyone.

Now I drive almost everywhere, and it is not because I'm lazy, or have a car fetish, or whatever shitty thing is being thrown at people who want to use cars. It's because it's the only way I can be a fully functional human being these days. Because inside the sealed environment of the car, I can relax and focus on doing what I need to do. I'm a lot calmer. I can step back from more shit. I can feel like a human again.

I know not everyone living in quiet, sprawling areas is there for disability purposes. But some of us are. And some people are also probably overworked moms who just want to be able to do one weekly shopping trip without having to call a taxi. Or elderly people who can't take stairs in case of a fall. Or people who have good, solid reasons for living the way they live, who really can't just walk everywhere even if it is "better" in the ideal.
posted by corb at 4:26 PM on November 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


Pittsburgh has only very recently gotten over this hump (like, in the last couple of years) and my simmering resentment towards people who fled the city while whining about high taxes and then spent all of their work and recreation time in the city taking advantage of the infrastructure that they refused to pay for has not quite abated yet. Our school system is still blighted, we're still very much suffering the after effects of white flight. The city is still financially distressed.
posted by soren_lorensen at 4:31 PM on November 24, 2015 [4 favorites]


soren, suburban Pittsburghers have to pay that annual $52 commuter tax. I'm sure that pays for all the damage that their SUVs do to our city streets.
posted by octothorpe at 4:43 PM on November 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


corb, I'm not sure why you're taking this as a personal affront. In my experience living on both coasts and a number of places in between, it appears that the vast majority of middle-class housing around most cities (and even in a lot of places pretty far from cities!) is entirely compatible with your preferences and needs. And no one is proposing that we tear down all the existing suburbs - many, probably most, of them are going to exist and flourish for years and years. I for one don't even begrudge the people who actually like living there - I don't, as I've already said, but I'll admit that's an idiosyncratic preference of mine.

It's just that suburbs as currently implemented are very resource-inefficient, often result in an unjust distribution of taxes and services, and are becoming less preferred by a great proportion of urban-bound young people. So as a society we need to (1) figure out how to serve the suddenly-greater number of people who desire urban or at least "walkable town" living, and (2) gracefully wind down or rehab the (relatively small proportion of) suburbs that are becoming abandoned.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 5:48 PM on November 24, 2015 [7 favorites]


I think Diablevert's right about these being the slums of the future. Slums of the present, in some cases, even though they look so nice. Obviously it's different in different geographical regions, but these sorts of developments are the places people buy here in Sydney when they desperately want to get into the housing market and can't afford to. The inner city dense housing median price is over $1 million for a 1-bedroom.

In the outer suburbs, that $1 million will get you a stand-alone 2-3 bedroom house with a garden (if you are lucky, or far enough west), but if you've got less than $1 million, you have to look at denser apartment or townhouse developments that are also an hour or two away from the centre city. And because those traditionally didn't exist until very recently, your only option is these sterile new developments with artificial everything. They are boxy and concretey and fake-looking because they are new and built in bulk, and they have huge parking lots, wide roads and low walkability because they are designed for car commuters. Because, you know, they are an hour or more away from the city. You can get something in one of these developments for around $700k.

So yes, there is absolutely a class issue here, and I find it weird when people are all snobbish about why people would choose to live in these places. Sure, some people do it by choice, but many more would dearly love to instead buy a cute little 100-year-old terraced house in the city centre, or a stand-alone 3-bedroom with a garden in the Blue Mountains. But they can't afford it, so they settle for a suburban fake-pretty box.
posted by lollusc at 6:19 PM on November 24, 2015 [5 favorites]


Deteriorating housing stock, people caging in place and stuck too far from services, blight --- these are more likely to be the suburban problems of the future.

But this is exactly what the linked articles seem to be pointing to, particularly that middle bit, so I guess I'm not sure what point you're making here. More specifically, a few of these essays appear to be arguing that existing regulations ensure that even modern redevelopment of suburbs favors conditions that add to, rather than mitigate, the problems you listed (see the comment Potomac Avenue linked upthread, e.g., or this essay).
posted by en forme de poire at 6:40 PM on November 24, 2015


they have huge parking lots, wide roads and low walkability because they are designed for car commuters.

As the FPP article notes, in a lot of places all that asphalt is required by zoning. That is (thankfully) starting to change in many places, sometimes from changes to parking requirements and sometimes simply in greater willingness to provide variances, but it still remains the norm in most of the US. It's a major part of why new development, both commercial and residential, looks so similar wherever you go.

We are able to have a house in a dense urban neighborhood, with a mixture of single family houses (many with attached small ADUs), and few duplexes, and quite a few low apartment buildings, plus now some new condos. That density of housing means there are thriving commercial areas a couple of blocks away, with bars and restaurants and shopping. Most people live very car-centric lives, but the public transport is decent for the US and you could go from where we live to the city center or most major employers (such as the big university) with a single bus ride. The streets are fairly quiet but nothing like a suburban cul de sac.

We pay about as much for our older, modest-sized house on a small urban lot as you might for a much larger and brand new house on a large lot in one of the suburbs. That's not a lifestyle that interests me, but I can easily see how someone with more kids or different values would welcome that and wouldn't see a reason to pay just as much to live in a smaller place and in a neighborhood with no HOA and with apartment buildings interspersed on the blocks.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:48 PM on November 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


Heh, I like the cottages shown around halfway down here. Reminds me of the grad-student housing complex at my old institution, but actually nice, as opposed to a lot full of of poorly-maintained, originally-intended-to-be-temporary tin boxes. Those buildings were great for people with kids and pets since traffic was controlled well on the interior and there were a lot of eyes on the street.

This site also has a neat essay contrasting some developments in the South Bay, closer to my neck of the woods (and development of these areas is a pretty incendiary topic right now).
posted by en forme de poire at 8:41 PM on November 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


But I do recognise that lots of people aren't like me. People like peace. People like quiet. People don't like people, much. The suburbs weren't imposed on a cowering populace under protest. Developers kept building them because the ones the built before sold, quickly and profitably.

But the OP article isn't really about bedroom community suburbs. It's more about planned 'new urbanist' developments, which are their own thing. They're these little planned communities that seem, more often than not, to be just sort of plopped down in empty lots, often within suburban areas, that are superficially modeled after older business/residential developments, but they're developed all at once, so they don't have that organic quality that you get in older communities.

Stewart Brand's How Buildings Learn goes into quite a bit of detail on the issues with buildings and even communities being developed without careful thought to how they'll be used for real, or without the flexibility to accommodate changing needs. It just seems much more effective overall to build neighborhoods out slowly to adapt to the needs of the community, rather than expecting a community to adapt to the needs of the buildings.
posted by ernielundquist at 9:14 PM on November 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


The wrong people would be able to use the path.
Gates and RFID badges. Or would that be too obvious?

I've been seeing a lot of mixed-use complexes going up, like the one shown in the article but with shops on the lower level. They always get the coffee shop, the etsy store, the too-shiny pub, etc. They always forget the stuff people who LIVE THERE would actually NEED, like the drugstore or heaven forbid, a fucking GROCERY store. So you're still getting in the car.

I have a rule of thumb for homes and businesses both, the fewer cars you can see, the better. I'd almost be happier with a giant single parking lot in a central location and the little Disneyland shuttle-trams than the ugliness of surrounding the building with parking spaces. We actually tried that when we ramped up a new aircraft carrier home-port. Worked great until they cut back on the shuttles and now you had to walk a mile to your car in the rain.
posted by ctmf at 9:24 PM on November 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


I live not terribly far from both Columbia, Maryland and Kentlands, and I run a small community theater in the original 1937 heart of Greenbelt, Maryland—three scratch-built communities with very different ideals. Living (and having grown up) so close to some fairly successful experiments in urban planning makes me a bit fond of the whole idea of trying to do something other than the wretched mess of suburbia, even when each has their own little quirks.

Is Kentlands really a small town? No, but it's a decent try at getting away from the build-nothing-near-anything approach of the previous forty years, and if nothing else, it's creating a generation that understands how utterly stupid it is to build sidewalk-free Frank-Lloyd-Wright-idealism-without-the-genius fake pastoral country houses that require a car for every member of the family for every function.

Greenbelt's a good try, too, once you get away from the American racism of its origin and the sad fact that right-wing idiots like Joe McCarthy hated Greenbelt and its optimistic cooperatives (which persist even now, in the cafe, the movie theater, the original mostly art deco housing stock, and the grocery store). It's walkable, civil, and full of people who get what it's about and who volunteer to make it better.

Columbia's metastasizing, alas, but at it's core, it's a community that includes walkways/bikeways separated from the roads that connect virtually every part to every other, a planned village center system that puts stores and multifaith centers (churches that serve multiple faiths) and community centers into each "village" area, with an increasingly urban core building as it's becoming an actual town. People from outside Columbia bitch and moan that you can't find anything, because Columbia's builders did architectural things like put gas stations into little bermed trenches with signs limited by size, but honestly, that's better than the chaos of commercial bullshit in my less-designed small town. Plus, I can get on my bike in my actual small town (Laurel), ride a harrowing two miles on sidewalk-free Route 1, and hook into a rails-to-trails system that takes me right into Columbia with only 800 feet of road trail (after my harrowing two miles) and hooks me into the trail system.

They are not particularly organic urban spaces, but the people who live there can see a change from the infantilizing isolation of suburban deadland that turns every parent into a bus driver for dumb kids who can't navigate the world on their own until they're grown ("Mommm! I need a ride to the library!"), and benefit from the hard-to-define human-to-world connection you get when you're not stuck in the kind of flatlands Soleri described as suffering from two-dimensional gigantism, with cars like elevators between floors and no outside anywhere. At the same time, I live in an actual small town that came up from a mill and turned into a big town, then festered when the suburbs drained away the population, and is now trying to reconnect with its essential state, and it's almost harder to get through the accumulation of disinterest of the last forty years than it would be to just knock it all down and start fresh, but thus far, it's still usable as a town, rather than being merely picturesque.
posted by sonascope at 6:44 AM on November 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


You know? I thought about this a while, and I realized why positioning things where "walkability" is so important is so upsetting to me. It's because some of us have legitimate needs for sprawl/low density areas, and it just seems like there's so much mockery around it.

Oh, FFS. You're upset about giving people options? Walkability doesn't mean "turn everywhere into Manhattan," it means complete streets-- streets that work for people driving, walking, and biking. Yes, compact and dense development is much more walkable than sprawl, but it hardly like sprawling suburbs are vanishing in your or my lifetime.

The irony here is really amazing to me. You're complaining about giving people better and easier access to the world. Basically, you're the guy who was opposing the ADA twenty years ago.
posted by entropicamericana at 7:59 AM on November 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


Or people who have good, solid reasons for living the way they live, who really can't just walk everywhere even if it is "better" in the ideal.

A primary reason for exurbs historically has been tax flight. True exurbs, separate municipalities, with segregated tax bases, are largely parasites on urban centres. In the extreme cases cities like Detroit are the result, a burned-out core, surrounded by wealthy to extremely rich gated communities.

One solution is amalgamation, creation of a metro area with a unified tax base. When the exurbs become true suburbs, the core, which often provide many of the amenities (sewer, water, shopping, even subsidised parking downtown) on which the outlying communities depend, isn't cash starved. This has worked pretty well in Ontario, even though it was massively unpopular at the time. It's one way to deal with long-lasting urban decay and public infrastructure deficits.

Not everyone has to live exactly the same way or at the same density, but for a city to work there has to be an understanding that infrastructure and services are best provided in common, that externalities like road and bridge maintenance, new sewers and power grids, schools and public healthcare infrastructure (depending on the country in which you live) are not paid for by the central urban taxpayers, just so that the gated communities can have low tax rates.
posted by bonehead at 8:40 AM on November 25, 2015 [5 favorites]


bonehead: "One solution is amalgamation, creation of a metro area with a unified tax base."

Minneapolis/St. Paul has a version of this where the various suburbs are still politically independent entities, but there is a tax-sharing plan in place that allows each municipality to keep part of its property tax increase, and distributes part of it across the regional tax-sharing area. It works pretty well and is part of with MPLS has better public schools than most similarly-situated midwestern cities.

Predictably, high-wealth suburbs are constantly trying to sue their way out of it, because "fuck you, got mine." They feel they shouldn't have to pay for infrastructure they use (like roads), and definitely not for infrastructure OTHER people use (like city school kids). They had the foresight to move to suburbia, so really it should be the city's problem to pay for all the city infrastructure they continue to use. What's the point of tax flight if you still have to pay taxes on the stuff you use?
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:50 AM on November 25, 2015 [7 favorites]


multifaith centers (churches that serve multiple faiths)

Wow, what a great idea. Efficient use of land that's often only occupied a couple of days a week, and a major cost savings on building upkeep for congregations. I've seen a fair number of churches that share space between two congregations (usually one English-speaking and one not) but broadening that seems like it could work really well.

Or it could lead to sectarian violence when it's time for a new roof. I dunno.
posted by asperity at 10:58 AM on November 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


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