Feature

The Civic in the Suburbs

How to put the "park" back in the business park.
April 2, 2018, 5am PDT | Kathryn Firth
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Burlington, Massachusetts, straddling I-95, east of Northwest Expressway.

Over the past decade, the public realm—comprising streets and public spaces like parks and squares—in downtowns and urban neighborhoods has been recognized as critical to the functioning and livability of a city. The public sector is increasingly allocating funds—or trying to allocate funds—for the provision of usable open space. In city centers, developers are wise to this renewed interest in public space. A "public realm" provision is integral to the branding of new developments: these spaces are heavily programmed, hosting everything from yoga classes to farmers’ markets.

Meanwhile, ULI's Emerging Trends in Real Estate report for 2018 [pdf] notes that as Millennials are beginning to reach their home-buying and child-bearing years, there is an expectation that demand for suburban office space will rise, bringing with it an expectation for "urban" amenities in suburban locations.

However, in the suburbs there is little or no space provided for true civic interaction.

The Challenge of the Civic in the Suburbs

Why should we care about the civic? The civic is the acknowledgement of our responsibilities to our fellow citizens; it promotes social cohesion, and, one could argue, is more important than ever in this era of political discord. Perhaps fostering a civic realm will help us know our neighbors, and we will look out for, and respect, each other; perhaps it will help mitigate the marginalization of the elderly, the infirm, and those simply viewed as "the others."

The civic also allows us to navigate what sociologist Richard Sennett in "The Spaces of Democracy," the 1998 Raoul Wallenberg Lecture at the University of Michigan College of Architecture + Urban Planning, described as the fundamental diversity of urban environments:

"Difference" today seems to be about identity—we think of race, gender, or class. Aristotle meant something more by difference; he included also the experience of doing different things, of acting in divergent ways which do not nearly fit together. The mixture in a city of action as well as identity is the foundation of its distinctive politics. Aristotle's hope was that when a person becomes accustomed to a diverse, complex milieu, he or she will cease reacting violently when challenged by something strange or contrary. Instead, this environment should create an outlook favorable to discussion of differing views or conflicting interests.

Ride the Market

Private enterprise, for one, is beginning to recognize the importance of the civic realm. Life sciences campuses, technology parks, and enclaves of light industry are embracing what it means to be a contemporary and appealing workplace. They recognize that facilitating collaboration and knowledge exchange is key to attracting the best and the brightest. They understand that their employees have rising expectations about access to amenities, the outdoors, and activities that contribute to well-being.

Certainly the likes of Google, Amazon, and Facebook have suggested new paradigms for how to fulfill these objectives. Encouragingly, even housing, supporting services such as grocery stores, and community infrastructure are being introduced to business parks. Business Insider reports that "Facebook, for example, plans to put 1,500 new housing units, a grocery store, pharmacy, and shopping center in the 56-acre Menlo Science & Technology Park it bought in 2015. The company calls the development a 'mixed-use village.'" Facebook has agreed to pay $15 million in support subsidies and projects for Menlo Park, in addition to bringing $636,000 in revenue annually.

While Facebook seems to be taking a very progressive and inclusive approach, the creation of competitive corporate campuses inevitably focuses on the employee. However, we are citizens first, and then employees.

As business parks are redeveloping to include a greater mix of uses, as defunct malls are being repurposed or literally turned inside out, and as retail spaces become harder and harder to maintain in an era of online retail, this is an opportune moment to reconfigure the suburbs, make sustainability more than a buzzword, and create inclusive places and spaces that are truly imbued with a sense of the civic.

The Civic as Connective Tissue

To provide truly public and civic space, workplaces and retail parks must not only provide for their workers and shoppers, but must also contribute to their wider environment. Similarly, adjacent neighborhoods must be able to "infiltrate" the territory of the technology, life science, or healthcare campus, as well as the shopping mall. It is the generally underdeveloped zones between the campuses and the host suburb or town that provide the greatest opportunity.

Perhaps the suburban civic realm should reflect why people moved to the suburbs in the first place—they wanted access to open space and proximity to nature and natural systems. Or they wanted a more intimate lifestyle, in contrast to the anonymity of the city. As we consider the suburban context, we need to find opportunities to connect with natural systems, even if only remnants exist, and exploit their potential as a civic realm. After all, hikers greet each other on a forest path despite not knowing anything about each other. People do not do this in a public square or a shopping mall.

We must find ways to extend forest into the civic realm—literally and figuratively. The often daunting physical and perceptual distances between dispersed neighborhoods and diverse people can be bridged using natural systems, much like the BeltLine currently being completed in Atlanta, or the Old Croton Aqueduct trail that connects the small towns and suburbs north of New York City. (Indeed, a retail main street could never span the full length of some of these connective routes.)

Common Ground

The civic in the suburbs has the potential to manifest in destinations that, in the best cases, provide social cohesion—the recreation center, the legion hall, the youth club. Indeed, it provides an opportunity to explore new typologies—the primary school integrated with a seniors’ home by shared outdoor ground and roof space, or the library providing apprenticeships and workshops.

No uses are better positioned to provide an environment that fosters spiritual and physical well-being than those related to science, education, and healthcare. The built form should maximize accessibility and frame a public realm that allows for inter-generational interaction, recreation, physical and intellectual mentoring, debate, and collaborative production.

As "making" and a return to the trades becomes more prevalent, we can look to these sorts of activities to frame and activate the public realm. The Design Center in Boston, which houses Autodesk BUILD, is headed this way, as are many innovation districts. We need to ensure there are activities people can participate in for free, from gardening to outdoor chess to sports—activities that cut across generations and income groups. To this end it is worth learning about temporary uses from tactical urbanism and guerilla urbanism, which allow diverse communities to collaborate to test their vision of citizenship.

Next Steps

It is a timely moment to infuse the suburbs with a civic and meaningful public realm. Unfortunately, this is also an era when public resources are scarce. Therefore, to incorporate these civic spaces into re-configured portions of the suburbs, we will need to find ways to leverage space to accommodate them. To achieve those goals, we should consider mechanisms such as:

  • development impact fees that require the private sector to provide spaces dedicated to civic activity;
  • Business Improvement Districts or Public Improvement Districts where adjacent land owners support yet give over some of their control of the space;
  • locational criteria to ensure the allocated spaces can be active and safe; 
  • and design guidance and form-based codes that all new development and redevelopment must conform to—which should be produced now, before the market dictates its approach.

If we are to create a civic realm in the suburbs, we need to be proactive. The market is advanced in ensuring its own needs are satisfied, but less so for ensuring a true civic realm for all. While urban design alone cannot reinstate the civic, it can provide much-needed platforms and forums for the interaction and shared experiences that suburbs—no less than their urban centers—want and deserve.

Kathryn Firth, an urban designer with more than 25 years of international public- and private-sector experience, oversees NBBJ’s Urban Environments practice in Boston. Originally from Toronto, Kathryn spent 20 years in London, where she worked in private practice and as chief of design at the London Legacy Development Corporation, directing the transformation of the 2012 Olympic Games site.

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