What Is The New Suburbanism?

Joel Kotkin, author of the November 2005 report "The New Suburbanism", introduces the new planning theory, clarifies what it means, and describes how it remains very much a work in progress.
April 24, 2006, 7am PDT | Joel Kotkin
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Joel Kotkin

Ever since The Planning Center published its original report last year on "The New Suburbanism", my colleagues and I have been asked repeatedly for a more precise definition of what we mean.

Put simply, New Suburbanism represents an effort to create better suburban communities. It is a philosophy of planning, design, and development that aims to improve all of the complex elements that make up a successful community -- governmental, physical, economic, social, and environmental -- creating a flexible template for a wide range of existing and newly designed suburbs.

One critical aspect of New Suburbanism lies in its pragmatism. One cannot always assume, for example, that building a new town center, constructing denser housing, or introducing mixed-use development would automatically improve quality of life -- though these strategies can be useful, as we illustrated in our report. In some communities, physical infrastructure systems may be more important, such as schools, parks, and water systems.

New Suburbanism is not a new design paradigm that seeks to compete with or discredit principles of New Urbanism. Instead, our perspective represents a broad-based attempt to find the best, most practical ways to develop and redevelop suburban communities.

Suburban Inspiration, Old And New

New Suburbanism embraces many of the principles championed by the smart growth and New Urbanism movements, but finds most of its inspiration in already successful developments dating well before the development of New Urbanism. These include The Woodlands, outside of Houston, Texas; Irvine, California; Columbia, Maryland; and Reston, Virginia.

These market oriented developments have successfully incorporated a mix of uses and ethnicities, while providing a well-balanced ratio of jobs and housing. They have also usually managed to preserve a significant amount of open space, featured neighborhood centers, steered away from strip commercial development, and integrated extensive bicycle and pedestrian paths.

In addition to an examination of relatively recent suburban development in the United States, an even longer historical perspective has also been critical to our viewpoint. Looking over the historical evolution of cities, particularly during the writing of The City: A Global History, it became clear that suburbia grew not merely as a result of "white flight", or a conspiracy of oil companies, auto firms, developers and governments. All may have played a role, but we believe suburban, multi-polar places flourished mostly because they offered consumers something traditional cities all too often could not: safety, good schools, privacy, and space.

Flawed Anti-Suburban Arguments

As a result, we do not approach suburbs with the disdain and contempt that unfortunately informs much contemporary thinking. Many students I run across now equate suburban development with monotonous, irresponsible sprawl. More extreme New Urbanists, such as James Howard Kunstler, regard suburban development as inherently wasteful and evil, adding hopefully that due to rising energy prices, suburbs "are liable to dry up and blow away." "Let the Gloating Begin," he says, predicting a general catastrophe will impact the suburbs, and urges people to leave these places as soon as possible.

A less extreme but still flawed notion contends that metropolitan areas dominated by auto-centered suburbs somehow lack the intrinsic community values that informed traditional cities. Andres Duany, for example, has written that in sprawling, multi-polar cities like Phoenix and Houston "civic life has almost ceased to exist" and that many people in these areas complain about their quality of life.

Yet one would be hard-pressed to say a Phoenix or a Houston has a less vibrant civic culture -- witness the remarkable grassroots response of Houston to the Katrina disaster. Nor can one say that there has been more widespread disenchantment there than in more traditional transit-oriented cities like Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco. After all, these cities have been losing population and jobs while the sprawling ones have been growing. Places like Houston and Phoenix are also developing many of the elements of civic culture, such as great hospitals, museums, and cultural centers, that tend to arise in vibrant, commercially vital cities.

Suburbs Are The Future

Rather than reject such cities, we are committed to their improvement. All our analysis of current and likely future trends reveals that sprawling multi-polar cities with overwhelmingly auto-dependent suburbs will continue to enjoy economic and demographic growth over the next several decades.

Specifically, we looked at where jobs are being created. Fortunately, my work for the annual Inc. Magazine "Best Places" survey with economist Michael Shires has given me access to the latest data. Overwhelmingly, the fastest job growth -- including in fields like information and professional business services -- has taken place in suburban areas around older cities, or in the famously sprawled out multi-polar cities of the west and the sunbelt, places like Boise, Ft. Myers, Las Vegas, and Reno.

We believe developers and planners must look at what consumers are communicating through their migration patterns. Although there is a strong market niche for traditional urban living, surveys and census data reveal that this niche remains relatively small, perhaps no more than 10 to 20 percent of the total population. Surveys conducted in California, a heavily urbanized state, show that most people -- upwards of 80 percent -- want a single family home.

Now, some will say, "yes, but if you asked them if they wanted a single family home that is two hours away from their job, or a condominium loft only 15 minutes away, they would choose the loft." Yet this may be a false choice. As jobs move to the suburban periphery, the commutes for residents there, as Harvard's Ed Glaeser has demonstrated, tend to be shorter than those who live in denser, more transit-oriented places. Far-flung Houstonians, for example, suffer much shorter commutes on average than New Yorkers or Chicagoans.

For these reasons, it seems a bit quixotic to push for a future that takes its signals from the dense, centralized, transit-dependent urban past. We instead should follow a pragmatic, market-oriented approach to improving the areas in which people increasingly choose to live. For example, in a low-density suburban community that seeks to retain its single-family character, it may be more appropriate to introduce small-lot, single-family detached housing, rather than assume multi-family apartments and lofts must be part of the solution.

Yet for all the growth and evident market appeal of suburban areas, we do agree with critics that many suburbs clearly need to improve, particularly in terms of their public spaces and treatment of the environment. Most importantly, however, we also know from past experience that better suburbs are possible.

This is the primary focus of New Suburbanism. We started last year by setting up roundtables with various developers, suburban government officials, planners, and environmentalists. Our concepts have been informed by their suggestions and insights. We will continue this interactive process, both in our next report and at a conference scheduled for mid-May, to discuss next steps with interested parties from across the country.

In the short run, we will seek to learn how to make the increasingly decentralized metropolis work better. Looking to the future, we envision a heavily wired "archipelago of villages", with relatively compact and economically and culturally self-sufficient communities spread across our landscape. The time has come to acknowledge the dispersed reality of our metropolitan future, and to find out how to make it a better one.

Joel Kotkin is an Irvine Senior Fellow with the New America Foundation and a senior advisor to The Planning Center, a development and environmental design firm based in Costa Mesa, California. He is also the author of The City: A Global History.

References [Links in PDF format where noted.]

Duany, Andres, Elizabeth Plater-Zybeck, and Jeff Speck. Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream (North Point Press, New York, 2000), pp. 95 and 137.

Kotkin, Joel with The Planning Center, "The New Suburbanism", November 2005. [PDF, 2.28 MB]

Kunstler, James.
"Remarks in Providence", October 19, 2001.
"Let The Gloating Begin", November 8, 2004.
Home From Nowhere (Simon and Shuster, New York, 1996), chapter entitled "Coda: What I Live For".
The City In Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition (Free Press, 2002), chapter entitled "Atlanta: Does Edge City Have a Future?"

Single family preferences for suburbs versus central cities are discussed in their complexity at the following sources:

Birch, Eugenie L., "Who Lives Downtown", Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy, Novermber 2005, p. 2;

"Consumers Survey on Smart Choices for Home Buyers", National Association of Realtors and National Association of Home Builders, April 22, 2002;

Kasarda, John, "Comment on Elvin K. Wyley and Daniel J. Hammel's 'Islands of Decay in Seas of Renewal: Housing Policy and the Resurgence of Gentrifcation'", Housing Policy Debate, Fannie Mae Foundation, Volume 10, Issue 4, 1999;

Lang, Robert E., James W. Hughes and Karen A. Danielson, "Targeting the Suburban Urbanites: Marketing Central-City Housing", Housing Policy Debate, Fannie Mae Foundation, Volume 8, Issue 2, 1997;

Myers, Dowell and Elizabeth Gearin, "Current Preferences for Denser Residential Environments", Housing Policy Debate, Fannie Mae Foundation, Volume 12, Issue 4, 2001, p.636;

Public Policy Institute of California Statewide Survey, "Special Survey on Land Use", November 2002 p. v. [PDF, 400KB]

Information on short commutes by suburbanites can be found using the following sources:

Barbour, Elisa, "Time to Work: Commuting Times and Modes of Transportation of California Workers", Public Policy Institute of California, Vol. 7, No. 3, February 2006, p.3;

Crane, Randall and Daniel G. Chatman , "As Jobs Sprawl, Whither the Commute", Access, Fall 2003, p18;

Ferrell, Christopher and Elizabeth Deakin, "Changing California Lifestyles: Consequences for Mobility", University of California Transportation Center, Berkeley, p.13; [PDF, 1.55 MB]

Glaeser, Edward L. and Matthew E. Kahn, "Sprawl and Urban Growth", Harvard Institute of Economic Research, May 2003, p.5; [PDF, 440KB]

Gordon, Peter, Bumsoo Lee and Harry W. Richardson, "Travel Trends in US Cities: Explaining the 2000 Census Commuting Results", Lusk Center for Real Estate, University of Southern California, April, 2004; [PDF, 100KB]

National Association of Realtors, "Making Transportation Choices: Americans Consider Alternatives", Winter 2002;

"Longest Commutes: New York City Tops," Associated Press, Feb. 26, 2004;


Information on migration can be found at www.census.gov and www.demographia.com.

Inc. "Best Places" rankings will be released this week on www.Inc.com.

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