Many suburban areas in the United States are showing signs of deterioration, with foreclosed properties, vacant retail centers, and underutilized space. These landscapes have come to epitomize sprawl— places built for the car and accessed only by the car. But they also hold enormous opportunities for creative reinvention. A number of communities across the country are rescaling their suburbs into vibrant, walkable places built for people.
Reoriented for pedestrians, suburban neighborhoods can thrive and diversify to better support local economies, raise quality of life indicators, and improve local and regional environmental conditions. Even deteriorating suburbs plagued by disused structures and other dead zones have the potential to generate new housing infrastructure, transit access, open space, and local retail.
The University of Utah estimates that 2.8 million acres of parking lots and other greyfield areas are ripe for redevelopment, and 1.1 million acres are available in underutilized shopping areas, such as strip malls and vacant storefronts (Dunham Jones and Williamson 2009). Transforming these landscapes will be a 21st-century planning and development priority in the United States.
Many cities are steadily redeveloping and capitalizing on recent demographic trends supporting urban revitalization, but economically robust regions need flourishing suburban communities as well. Recent surveys by the National Association of Realtors and the American Planning Association found that a majority of potential homebuyers seek to live in walkable neighborhoods with a range of housing types and a mix of residential, business, and retail options. As baby boomers age and more of the millennial generation enter adulthood, an increasing number of Americans are leaving their cars behind to live in more centrally located, walkable environments. In 2012, roughly half the population preferred smaller houses in well-connected neighborhoods with places to live, work, shop, and play (National Association of Realtors 2011, American Planning Association 2014).
Despite this mounting evidence in favor of suburban redevelopment, many local leaders remain uncertain about how to begin. This article explores 10 ways that communities across the country have rescaled significant parts of their sprawling suburbs into thriving social hubs.
1. Share a Vision and Draft a Plan
Many communities start by imagining how they want to grow and then develop a plan to realize that vision. Do residents want more housing, a walkable entertainment center, a new arts district, or an urban farming zone? Is it most important to increase the tax base, reduce pedestrian and bike fatalities, or increase access to fresh food? Specific goals will help to steer redevelopment efforts.