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.

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.



Kotkin the Hypocritical Idea Thief

I was fascinated to read New Urban News' Editor Philip Langdon pull no punches in his commentary on Joel Kotkin. He accuses Kotkin of shoddy research, false claims, misrepresentations, and disingenuous behavior. According to Langdon, Kotkin has decided that “New Urbanism and Smart Growth cannot be defeated on honest grounds,” therefore Kotkin has stooped to “generating resentment against those who advocate compact development, mixed uses, and a less automobile-dependent way of life.” “He ridicules or misrepresents New Urbanism and then turns around and presents New Urbanism’s accomplishments as if they were his own.” “It’s hard to imagine a tactic more cynical: Take projects built through the enormous perseverance of new urbanists, rechristen them as examples of “New Suburbanism,” and present yourself as an expoert on this new phenomenon. Evidently it’s possible to be an expert without being weighed down by principles.” Langdon calls into question the journalistic standards of LA Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and NPR for using Kotkin as an “urban expert.”

Langdon's full commentary: "The strange career of an ‘urban expert’":

- Steve Raney, Cities21, Palo Alto, CA

Glad to see this is getting attention

IMHO, Kotkin is rigorous in promoting his ideas, but not so rigorous in pursuit of the facts.




Wow! Let the Sour Grapists begin their character attacks!

Fact is, most Americans with kids (like me) love suburbia. If we can afford to get away from crime, crowds, pollution, and poor schools, we're outta there. Why try to design planning systems that deny us that choice?

As a kid in the 1970s, I grew up in an older, more urban neighborhood, and seriously, I was at times stressed out by the problems of violence, theft, and intimidation at school and in the neighborhood. There were racial tensions and economic tensions that we'd all wish Americans could overcome, but they exist. I couldn't have been happier when my family moved to a small ranch just outside a suburban community right before I entered high school. I felt much safer, enjoyed school, learned more, and developed into a better human being because my parents cared enough to find a more supportive environment for their kids.

I feel the same way today, and I think you'll find that most of us suburbanites are there for the schools, the peace, the space, the beauty, the quiet, and the friendly (or at least non-violent!) neighborhood relations. I commute to a downtown job, and the long drive is annoying, but what's annoying compared to the peace I have knowing my kids are safe at school and at home all day?

Long Drives and Peace Knowing the Kids Are Safe

Do you also get that feeling of peace knowing that your long drive to work is causing the global warming that will leave your kids a less livable world when they grow up?

New Urbanists have designed many streetcar suburbs, such as Orenco Station in Oregon, which have all the benefits of the auto-oriented suburbs that you live in but that support walking and transit use rather than making people totally auto dependent.

If you lived in one of those new streetcar suburbs, you could say: "the long transit ride to work is annoying, but what's annoying compared to the peace I have knowing that my kids are safe at home all day and that my kids will have a decent world to live in when they grow up rather than facing energy shortages and climate chaos."

Charles Siegel

Planning systems for more choice.

QOL asks:

If we can afford to get away from crime, crowds, pollution, and poor schools, we're outta there. Why try to design planning systems that deny us that choice?

Who said anyone is? Because the density some don't like but some do is proposed in some areas doesn't mean it's proposed in all areas.

If you think planners are trying to cram everyone into density, I suggest you start looking around a bit more.

Anyway, one day the land-use pattern you like so much won't be possible and the patterns talked about here will be the ones most widely used. And the 'sour grapists' namie doesn't help you any.





Although the mishmash and stealing of ideas here is questionable, obviously it appeals to people who like their lives in the suburbs, and who feel that density threatens their way of life, and who feel threatened by the idea that the type of place they have chosen to live represents a failed, bad or even evil system (even if some of that is true). So, I think there's something here for smart growthers and new urbanists to learn, in terms of who we need to be appealing to and communicating clearly with.

I grew up in the suburbs - no town center, a place built at the intersection of two highways, no sidewalks anywhere, very little to walk to anyways, etc. - and, personally, I found it to be sterile, confining, stifling... When I think of choice, I don't see that the suburbs really offer any... I do see the appeal of single family home, perhaps for certain parts of my life, but on a small, managable property that is within walking distance of a vibrant center, even a small one.

Part of the challenge we face as we begin to think about retrofitting suburbs to be more walkable and to have commercial centers, higher density in many places, and more living choices overall, etc. will be to help our society shake off the idea that density is bad and that cities are terrible places with crime, dirt, bad schools, lack of open space, etc. Unfortunately, in the past, that has often been true. In fact, density, if done well, can actually bring many good things that enhance quality of life. As much as this is about reconfiguring suburbs, this is also about redefining and changing people's attitudes towards our traditional "sustainable" building blocks: cities, towns and villages - and making them into places that DO meet basic human needs for safety, peace, open space, etc.

What is the New Suburbanism?

I read with interest Joel Plotkin's recent article on suburban planning theory. How intriguing that Plotkin would cite Reston, Virgina and Columbia, Maryland (a master planned and greenbelt city, respectively) as an inspiration for "the new suburbanism." The only problem with this theoretical framework is that modern suburbs resist master planning, mixed-use zoning, multi-family housing and open space planning - all of which were essential elements in the success of both Greenbelt and Reston.

In fact, it is American suburbs' market orientation that is essential to understanding their development - now and in the future. While Plotkin defends edge cities' hegemony in job creation (in fact, one could argue that both Phoenix and Houston are largely agglomerations of suburban edge cities since neither metropolis has a definable city center), Plotkin fails to cite what makes suburbia attractive to soccer moms and CEOs alike - free and easy transportation networks, corporate office parks, and cul-de-sac housing on quarter-acre lots.

Of course, all of this is made possible by gobbling up cheap farmland, or in the infamous phraseology of America's number one homebuilder Toll Brothers, "chasing ground." As Plotkin and his "new suburbanism" acolytes attempt to address (re-direct?) the misuse of open land and scarce natural resources, market forces will continue to withstand any attempt to shape the great American Frontier.

Are better suburbs possible? Certainly, but the market forces that were unleashed over a half century ago to create the modern American suburban landscape, much of what I term faceless sprawl, are unlikely to succumb to better design or planning.

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