Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Suburbia as Smart Growth

This may not make you very comfortable to hear.  Suburbia may have inadvertently arranged itself, despite our grumblings and crinkled noses, in a manner that shockingly resembles that of Smart Growth or New Urbansim.  Now before you brush me off as some mild-mannered troll, let me say that I do not mean all of suburbia.  I’m not talking about single-family housing (there is no hope for that), but rather I’m referring to multifamily housing.  An Oregon Transportation Research and Education Consortium (OTREC) report states that “since 1970 suburban multifamily housing has been the largest growing family housing market” and currently comprise a quarter of the housing units in the suburbs.  It goes on to say that these units are typically built 20 to 30 an acre, which is a sufficient density, according to an Access report, for a bus or even light rail corridor.
  What’s even more is that these multifamily units are often wielded by the single-family housing neighborhoods next door as a buffer against commercial properties thus creating high-density within walking distance of grocery stores, banks, restaurants, post offices, etc.  Now assume there is at least one bus line nearby and you’ve got yourself 20 minute neighborhoods that planners completely overlook.
SW Beaverton intersection: All of these housing units are within a one mile walk of the commercial center, many are within a half-mile (not as the crow flies).  Many more could be closer if these were designed with the pedestrian in mind.
Well, so what if suburbia has dense housing?  Density isn’t the only thing that drives smart growth.  Indeed!  For example, Seoul, South Korea, as described by Eric Jaffe in an Atlantic Cities article, is essentially a giant 233 square mile suburb with a population density of 52,500 people per square mile (for the record, I read elsewhere that it was 27,000).  In comparison, Portland is 145 square miles at a population density just exceeding 4,000 people per square mile.  Despite such density and a vast subway system which alone carries 10 million people per day, Seoul’s auto usage continues to increase.  Jaffe explains that most of this high-density residential living is just that: residential.  With nowhere to go nearby, residents resort to driving for small trips.  If we as planning students want to create neighborhoods that make active transportation a more enticing alternative than the car we must combine high-density with access to commercial districts, access to transit, access to jobs.  Now back to our American suburbs.
The density of the suburbs of Seoul
While the OTREC report makes us aware of the wealth of high-density multifamily housing that has been built up in the last four decades, it also identifies some reasons why it isn’t living up to its Smart Growth potential.  Many of these could be addressed by altering local level building codes and policy.  The key issue, like Seoul, has much to do with access, namely the enclaved model:
“In this model, street networks have their own logic, strictly internal to a development, rarely connect to adjacent parcels, and provide only minimal linkages to arterials or collector streets.” (OTREC 17)

Limited by design, the typical multifamily housing is plagued by walls, vegetation barriers, and sometimes a single (but always very few) entrance and exit.  One might live adjacent to a grocery store, but walking there could involve a circumambulatory route just exiting the apartment complex.  Common zoning practices strictly enforce separation between parcels to “minimize nuisances”, e.g. noise from the businesses, patrons parking on neighborhood streets, people driving through.(OTREC 20)  Changing the local zoning rules to allow greater connectivity between parcels would create a more accessible neighborhood.  Not only greater accessibility for pedestrians and bicyclists, but also for large emergency vehicles whose response time would be greatly improved if more than one or two entry and exit points. 
Local government could also call for more regulation so that there is more forethought to planning multiple multifamily housing units.  In the google map above, you can see that each individual apartment complex has its own layout that is wholly independent from adjacent developments.  This disconnected way of development leaves behind “virtually no street network” creating essentially large swaths of walled off parking lots.  A high-density suburban housing design plan could require a minimum number of vehicular and pedestrian entrances and exits on each possible side of the development; direct pedestrian connections to commercial centers; an absence of walls or at least a presence of gates around the periphery; adequate bike parking in the commercial centers; and more concentrated parking in the development as opposed to parking throughout.  The OTREC report also brings to our attention that both the demand for active transportation in these developments and the willingness of contractors to provide greater connectivity is much greater than expected.
In the article Walking and Cycling in Western Europe and the United States, the authors write of Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands altering their land use policies to “emphasize development in the neighborhood centers, not on the suburban fringe.”  In the planning world we are experiencing a conflict between perception and reality.  We label far too much of what are actually potentially great “neighborhood centers” as “suburban fringe.”  We advocate for high-density, walkable neighborhoods and denounce suburban sprawl, while ignoring the almost textbook models of smart growth development that suburbia generated herself.  Working with what we have is far cheaper (and more sustainable mind you) than always starting new.  More connectivity, less separation, more regulated design forethought, and a greater consideration for active transportation would tweak suburban multifamily housing just enough to create the kind of neighborhoods a New Urbanist kind of city could boast about.

Dense suburbs of Talinn, Estonia

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