The Evolution of the Burbs

Leigh Gallagher, assistant managing editor of Fortune magazine, made a big splash last year with her book, “The End of the Suburbs.” While she added little new to the urbanism vs. suburbanism debate, she did a superb job of articulating and popularizing the urbanism side of the argument. The title is misleading — probably dictated by her publishers looking to make it more controversial — in that Gallagher doesn’t predict the demise of the suburbs but rather their transformation. In the TED speech shown above (Hat tip: Strong Towns blog) she makes the case that the “suburbs,” by which she means the lower-density, autocentric communities built since World War II, will take on more traditional urban forms: more density, greater walkability, less cookie-cutter building types.

It would be safe to say that Gallagher sees little future for the low-density “cul de sac” suburb and predicts a revival of the older, trolley-stop or train-station suburbs of the early 20th century where houses were close together, blocks were lined with sidewalks, and there were local downtowns that people could walk to. “A lot of people think these kinds of suburbs are really well positioned for the future,” she says. Whether you call them “urban burbs,” or “vintage burbs,” (after the movie) “Silver Lining Playbook burbs,” or, following the The New York Times, “hipsturbia” (gag), they represent a mid-density development type that Americans will see more of.

Many people want the real thing — the excitement of living near the urban core. But due to NIMBYism and urban zoning restrictions, the supply of urban-core housing can’t come close to keeping up with demand. Inevitably, the interest of developers and home builders will shift to the vintage burbs. Unfortunately, NIMBYism is likely to limit re-development there as well. If the urbanists are right about housing demand drying up on the metropolitan fringe, the action by necessity will shift to the in-between burbs.

The pattern that seems to be emerging is this: The new suburban regime will protect existing neighborhoods of Single Family Dwellings from re-development because most people who live in them like their lifestyle and want to protect it. But the market for new cul de sacs will shrink markedly as lifestyle preferences shift. We will see more mixed-use development, apartments, condos and townhouses in areas once zoned for commercial and light industrial where re-development at higher density does not threaten the integrity of existing neighborhoods. There is enough land dedicated to these uses that Virginia (and the rest of the United States) should be able to accommodate population growth for the next two or three decades with relatively little conflict.

The great planning challenge of the early 21st century will be re-developing and retrofitting these “suburban” places .


Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


4 responses to “The Evolution of the Burbs”

  1. Tysons Engineer Avatar
    Tysons Engineer

    I took a look at strip malls, parking lots, and warehouse spaces within 2 miles of metro stations alone in Fairfax a month ago. There was more than 1000 acres of developable land that would have zero impact on any suburban residential neighborhoods fitting that criteria. 1000 acres of developable land, even with arbitrary 6-story maximums and TH mix (50/50), could provide more than 30,000 housing units without much ado, ~enough for 75,000 people to live in.

    This is just land that is pretty much waste right now, just in fairfax, just within 2 miles of a metro station. The return of towns is really only just beginning, and the housing starts prove it. The types of construction are heavily leaning towards infill, as opposed to green field. That trend doesn’t look to be ending anytime soon, the only question will be, will new towns(former burbs) also understand that its not just 20 somethings that will choose to live there. When 20 somethings become 30 and 40 somethings, they will be more likely to remain in those areas than prior generations, and need housing mixes that also accommodate those choices without losing out on the benefits they enjoyed. Townhomes and 3br condo/apartments are just as important as getting college grads. Arlington shows that is the case.

  2. larryg Avatar

    What I might agree with – is an evolution but to what, I’m not smart enough to know… and I’m not sure even “smart” folks really know either.

    Let me note a couple of things.

    1. – VDOT is putting in HOT Lanes from NoVa to Fredericksburg and both VDOT and the toll road operator – believe that congestion tolling still has a “future”.

    2. – Fredericksburg, Va – a true urban enclave , an historic old town at limits of the tidal Rappahannock. I’d estimate at least 50 standard blocks of urban residential/commercial – and there is more development going on inside on the town limits – but it’s not connected to the existing core and it’s classic cul-de-sac suburbia style single-family detached … whose occupants chose the city over the two counties because they are “closer” – including to the VRE commuter rail station.

    3. – Spotsylvania is building a VRE station SOUTH of Fredericksburg and the area around the station – HAS been rezoned to multi-use and 8du and higher density – but the real land boom is the area that radiates out from that station where over 2000 standard cul-de-saced single family detached are going to be built.

    4. – The local I-95 interchange is going to be upgraded to expand it’s capacity to handle more commuters –

    5. – At Spotsylvania CH – a crossroads of the Civil War with a minuscule historic district – probably less than 2-3 dozen truly historic urban structures, a local developer was convinced to build a spec New Urban development – which has sidewalks, a wonderful gazebo that sports bands all through the summer, floor level businesses with upper level residential apartments. The county put up a building on the property..and there is a bistro and a few other businesses but the real development from the same developer is about a quarter mile away (where the new sewer lines are) – 200-300 new homes (and apartments).

    5. – we are seeing an almost equal amount of apartments being built in our area – workforce housing, upscale apartments for the retired and those who got out of their underwater mortgages and are considering rental/condo life rather than a mortgaged single family dwelling..

    so.. I agree.. we are seeing changes… but I don’t see the suburbs going away at all… at least not 50 miles south of NoVa.

    Finally, if you really want to see major changes – either take away the home mortgage deduction or scale it back to one house – capped at a median price…

    I believe that would have a far more profound effect on suburbia that other things.

    and it’s not like we don’t already have that kind of thing in the tax code to start with.

    for instance, you cannot deduct health care expenses until they exceed 10% of your AGI…

    just make the home mortgage deduction – similar.. Not only would it change the way we develop but it would help reduce the deficit and debt.

  3. Darrell Avatar

    I’ve kept hearing about this great urban renaissance for 30 years now. Billions in taxpayer supplied incentives have gone into developer pockets, and in most cases the cities are in the same condition they were after the real money making workers beat feet to the suburbs. What may seem appealing in NoVa is not going to happen in cities that don’t have federal supplied deep pockets.

  4. […] “End of the Suburbs” Author Leigh Gallagher Gives TED Talk (via Bacon’s Rebellion) […]

Leave a Reply