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 re-scaling their suburbs into vibrant, walkable places built for people.
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.
2. Identify Assets. Many local governments struggle to determine where to focus their initial visioning and planning efforts. The following kinds of questions can help to identify which assets to leverage. Is public transit available? Where will existing infrastructure dollars be spent—for example, on roads, water, sewers, schools, civic structures, parks? Are there vacant or underutilized parking lots, buildings, or strip malls near these infrastructure investments? Which of these areas have redevelopment plans in place or neighborhood support for new development? Which of these areas are near or adjacent to other public assets such as schools, libraries, parks, or open space? Can any of these sites align with existing or emerging employment areas? Are any of these properties available for redevelopment?
3. Leverage Infrastructure Investments. To attract private investment and new development, local governments can make significant public investments, either by upgrading existing infrastructure or by investing in new infrastructure. Many cities and towns seize the opportunity to direct these investments to the neighborhoods they would like to revitalize. Research has shown that by leveraging public investments, communities can increase land value from 70 to 300 percent and can boost private investment, social capital, tourism, and retail activity by an average of 30 percent (Litman 2010). They can also achieve key “placemaking” goals, communally shaping public spaces to heighten their shared value.
4. Align Codes and Ordinances. Outdated, disjointed codes and ordinances are among the greatest barriers to re-scaling suburban environments. These land development regulations—from zoning ordinances to street standards, parking requirements, site coverage, and height limits—are often responsible for existing transportation and land use patterns, and serve as the default legal structure for new development. The upshot is that building a walkable mixed-use neighborhood is often illegal, requiring the developer to seek variances or special permits, which can create uncertainty and delays in the development process or discourage redevelopment in the first place.
5. Get the Streets Right. A community’s street network is fundamental to any redevelopment efforts. Typical suburbs have wide, high-speed travel lanes designed to move cars efficiently through the area. But the primary focus of any suburban rescaling effort should be on moving people, not cars, through an area. This goal can be accomplished by building wide, inviting sidewalks; installing lanes and parking for bicycles; creating buffer zones between people and moving traffic; developing interesting places to walk; and making it safe to cross the road. Well- conceived streets can also kick-start investment and the redevelopment process.
6. Get the Parking Right. Parking is a challenge for any development, but it’s particularly tricky in suburban areas where the community is trying to pivot from auto-dependence to auto-independence. Conventional wisdom holds that parking is essential to retail survival; consequently, many suburban areas have an oversupply, owing to various code, design, or bank requirements. But any successful effort to rescale a suburb will require planners to balance today’s parking needs with a creative vision for a less automobile-dependent future.
7. Add More Green. Suburban landscapes have been described as “hostile” and “unhealthy” because of their wide, underutilized zones dominated by hard surfaces. But many communities are bringing nature back into these built environments and transforming the streets and alleys between buildings into attractive, thriving pedestrian hubs.
8. Change Land Use. Many suburban areas are littered with abandoned or underperforming big box stores and outdated shopping centers. By reusing these buildings as libraries, schools, housing, and even churches, communities can activate a dead zone and create demand for a location. They can also prevent or slow an expanding sprawl pattern by reducing the need to build new big box stores on undeveloped parcels. Without a broader redevelopment strategy, however, reuse of big box stores will not change the physical landscape to support significant pedestrian activity.
9. Provide Catalytic Leadership. Catalytic leadership is equal parts mediation, facilitation, and leadership. It is based on respecting each department’s traditional approach while acknowledging that no single department will have the answer or data to resolve some issues. Catalytic leadership can build the trust and respect needed to foster more collaborative and innovative approaches to the challenges presented by suburban placemaking. It is essential to orchestrating these efforts, mediating among parties with differing agendas, and achieving desired outcomes on time and within budget.
10. Anticipate What’s Next. The process of rescaling suburban communities can be long and difficult, but there are a number of possible starting points—from visioning and planning, to making infrastructure investments, to building the first project. As municipalities begin, leaders should keep several issues in mind:
• Determine how to measure success.
• Manage redeveloped places for all income and age
• Respect and celebrate local and regional uniqueness.
Excerpt of an article that appeared in the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy Land Lines, July 2014. For the full article, read here.