Remember the Suburbs: Why Suburbs Matter and Need Good Planning Just as Much as Cities Do

By Wendy Sov, Master of Public Policy, Class of 2017

Are cities of the future urban or suburban? What kind of urban developments would you like to live in throughout your life, and how do those desires affect urban systems?

From what I have observed at Stanford, academics in urban planning like to talk about cities as if they are the next big thing, as if cities will increasingly draw people like millennials from suburbs, and as if growth in suburbs will slacken because people are supposedly flocking to cities. However, cities of the future are both urban and suburban because the livelihood of one depends on the livelihood of the other. Contrary to popular belief that urban areas will attract more people from suburbs because of their high commercial activity, suburbs will not be phased out because modern suburban communities provide residents with the same, if not better, amenities as cities do. If anything, suburbs have developed an ability to attract wealth through increasing commercial activity and, as a significant sustainer of cities, must not be forgotten in urban planning considerations.

As mentioned in class, the suburb and city are mutually dependent on one another, so while all the attention for urban development is focused on cities, it is important not to forget the significance of good planning in suburbs. Cities are the hub of economic activity and networks – the type of place that attracts Richard Florida’s so-called Creative Class (Florida). Despite the decentralization of the workplace via new telecommunications technology, there is irreplaceable value in in-person interactions, disproving “the death of distance” concept predicted as a product of globalization. In short, people will continue to flock to cities because in-person networks matter. However, that does not negate the significance of good planning in suburban areas. Suburbs provide the residential space for employees who keep the city employment centers alive. Given the increasing rate of gentrification and the high housing costs in inner-city regions that are displacing low-income workers to outer regions today, suburbs become all the more important to cities’ economic vitality by providing housing for those who can no longer afford to live within the city. While cities provide essential job opportunities and social networks, suburbs provide the necessary housing for the regional population, and it will become increasingly important for suburbs to grow to support cities as this population continues to rise. It is consequently essential for modern urban planning concepts to be applied in not just cities, but also suburbs. Even better, local and state policies should actively take a regional approach, pursuing integrated planning between suburbs and cities.

Furthermore, contrary to what academics suggest, cities will not supplant suburbs because modern suburbs provide not just housing but also the same, if not better, amenities as cities. As much as academics like Richard Florida like to talk up the value of cities, suburbs are here to stay and will continue to grow alongside cities. In part because of the career-centered stage of life they are at, a lot of college students and young professionals see themselves moving to/living in the city and consequently believe cities are the future of society. In all of my urban studies courses, “urbanization” and “globalization” seem to be the sexy, trendy topics of discussion, calling for environmentally sustainable urban development and design strategies to anticipate and plan for future population growth that will supposedly concentrate in inner-urban regions. But when I return home to my suburban community in Chino Hills, CA, no one is talking about environmental sustainability, smart growth, “pedestrianizing” streets and walkability, increasing accessibility to transit, etc. Unless it’s one of my friends in the same career-oriented stage as me – and even then – no one is aspiring to live in the city in the long-run. Big-box retail development and distinguished schools allow modern suburbs to offer the same amenities as a city would without the perceived crime, congestion, and pollution. Furthermore, big box retail development in suburban communities like Chino Hills have been increasing job opportunities and economic growth by attracting more commercial activity to the city. So despite what the academics are saying, globalization and urbanization do not mean the death of suburbs. This is partly due to cultural and policy factors such as our nation’s love for Manifest Destiny and the American Dream, federal mortgage policies promoting homeownership, highway developments, new telecommunications technology, etc. But more importantly, suburbs will continue to persist and grow because suburbs are themselves living, breathing, self-sustaining systems with both housing and similar amenities as those found in urban areas.

As may be the case with many other people, where I want to live then depends on at what stage of life I am at, and this in turn affects the demographics of urban forms - namely, concentrating older and wealthier populations in suburbs. The stereotypical millennial, I think I would like to focus on my career after graduation in the city, which according to Florida has high creative capital because of its diversity, abundance of job opportunities, community engagement, “third places,” and authenticity (Florida). But in the long run, I hope to eventually move to a suburb to raise a family. It is this set of desires (that many others probably share, at least from what I have gathered in conversations with friends) that explain more family households and wealth in the suburbs, and more diverse, young people in the city. Both cities and suburbs are attractive, but to different people depending on personal preferences and (to a large extent) what stage in life they are at.

At the end of the day, urban issues are regional issues that cannot be siloed within jurisdictions, so both cities and suburbs need to be planned for. The former will of course continue to grow, but so too will the latter because suburban communities provide housing and attractive amenities for families and older folks. Like cities, then, suburbs need rules to incentivize good planning. As Emily Talen emphasizes in City Rules, urban form is heavily influenced by rules. It is because of rules that cities today have functioning wastewater management, fire prevention and protection, and pervasive accessibility to utilities, but now that conditions have improved, we as society sense less the importance of the connection between rules and physical outcomes. Smart urban planning then becomes all the more important in today’s relatively more sophisticated cities to anticipate and accommodate future growth, and especially because suburbs have carbon footprints that are proportionally and absolutely larger than cities, it is also all the more important for urban planners to focus their attentions on suburbs as well as cities in order to build environmentally, economically, and equitably sustainable regional communities.

Sources:

Florida, Richard L. The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2002. Print.

Urban vs. Suburban. Digital image. True Performance. 15 August 2016. Web. 28 November 2016. <http://trueperformancerealestate.com/urban-vs-suburban-living/>.