Four Ways to Argue for “New Suburbanism”


Maplewood Mall, Minnesota. Picture by Nick Voss


No pressure, but the future of the suburbs may rest in your hands, or at least on the tip of your tongue. Clear communication and good storytelling–whether from a concerned resident, an observant public official, or a community-minded developer–is a vital part of redesigning and redeveloping a community.

Revitalizing an ailing suburban center, making a downtown where none has ever been before, reinventing a strip mall or parking lot, bringing mixed use and diverse housing to a neighborhood of single-family detached houses, or reforming zoning codes–all call for public support and approval. How you make the case for change is unique to you, but here are some approaches that may work.

Advocate through speech, writing, and graphics. Find out who is blogging on behalf of your community, and ask for the chance to guest-post. Ask to speak at a local organization concerned with community issues–maybe not even directly concerned with development or design, but engaged in fighting poverty, caring for children or seniors, working on Vision Zero and transportation safety, and so forth. Give your view through an op ed. You may wish to directly describe and explain the values of the New Urbanism movement, or to discuss a particular project or vision for your community that embodies those values.

If you are developing a site or project, take the opportunity to communicate with passersby. Maplewood Mall in suburban Minnesota used parking lot signs and hands-on exhibits to educate people about how it collected and recycled runoff rainwater.

Guidelines for successful communications include:

  • Know your audience: what you say will be different when speaking to baby boomers vs college students.
  • Connect with the audience’s values
  • Reference local places, not faraway places, e.g., don’t include slides with palm trees when speaking in Anchorage.
  • When presenting to a general audience, e.g., NU 101, go light on numbers and data; use stories and anecdotes instead. For elected officials, numbers, especially those related to economics, can be very effective.

Invoke changing demographics and markets.Ways of life are changing, and suburbs must change with them. In the book Street Smart (2015), author and transportation engineer Sam Schwartz notes: “Whenever I meet civic leaders in transit-poor cities and suburbs, I tell them, ‘If you don’t want to lose your children, invest in transportation that doesn’t depend on the automobile. Build walkable town centers.’ That has been my most effective line in getting hard-core drivers to sit up and listen.”

Urbanist David Dixon of Stantec is a champion for changing the suburbs, which need land-use reform to meet changing demographics and markets. Rather than put suburbanites on the defensive, Dixon likes to tell them that their communities can make necessary changes without harming a blade of grass on a single lawn. In the Bridge Street District of Dublin, Ohio, Dixon’s team helped paint a picture for the community of a walkable town center” not as undoing Dublin’s suburban character but adding a new layer to it,” according to the book Suburban Remix.

Be ready with a quick pitch. Sometimes you have only a few minutes to get your point across. An “elevator pitch” can be stated in just a few seconds—the time it takes an elevator to go up or down a few floors. Focus on the positive, and appeal to shared values. It’s not a bad idea to inject a little wit as well. Make sure your statement is memorable and “sticky” in the mind. For ideas, see this link at the Congress for the New Urbanism. Don’t forget–you should also  be ready for follow-up questions and a longer conversation.

Become familiar with useful terms and strategies. People are suspicious of change, so they need a story or explanation why walkable neighborhoods and centers will make their communities and lives better. This is especially true in discussions of introducing changes into existing neighborhoods, even when the proposed change is very modest.

It’s best to focus on outcomes: Communities need both private life and public life, and mixed-use neighborhoods provide both. Automobile-oriented development patterns offer privacy and seclusion, but little street life and sense of community. The latter approach may have made sense in the 1950s when people were looking to escape from industrial cities, but not today when growing numbers of people are seeking the unique characteristics of complete communities.

Here are some key points to help you frame your argument:

  • It hasn’t always been this way. Suburban development of the type most common in the U.S. is a relatively recent phenomenon, barely 100 years old. Before then, development was planned for walking for thousands of years. Refer to key historical points pre-suburbia, perhaps showing photos of the community before suburban development
  • It’s not market-driven, it’s zoning-driven. Many people in your audience believe that the suburbs look the way they do because of market demand. That’s simply not true. Talk about the history of single-use zoning codes, which in the middle of the 20th Century made it illegal to build walkable places because uses were widely separated. Hand in hand with this, street design turned toward accommodating cars at ever-higher speeds, while federal investments were made in automobile-oriented roads from coast to coast. It is usually best to keep the history short, as many people are familiar with some aspects of this story. Yet it may help answer basic questions, such as “Why does my neighborhood look the way it does?” and “Why should we change policies that were established decades ago?”
  • The suburbs are not just about families or affluence anymore. In the last two decades, traditional neighborhoods in cities have made a huge comeback—prompting officials to revisit their codes and street design standards. At the same time, rising inaffordability in cities has triggered displacement of many longtime residents of urban neighborhoods, pushing them into the suburbs. Added to this, a new, younger generation of Americans can’t afford to live in the cities in the first place, so suburbanites are becoming much younger, and need apartments and smaller housing choices. All of these residents need transportation choices that don’t shackle them to owning and maintaining a car. The desire for walkable, inclusive, affordable neighborhoods is moving to the suburbs.

Let’s talk about the “D Word:” Density. It can be a real sore point in the suburbs. A gateway to the discussion is the term “Missing Middle,” which offers a way to talk about providing more suburban housing choices without increasing the character or perceived density of a neighborhood. “I think missing middle housing has really caught on because it’s a way for people to talk about how to keep their neighborhoods and make them better,” says Karen Parolek, principle of Opticos Design, the firm that coined the phrase.

For some audiences, particularly elected and other public officials, highlighting economic benefits is helpful. When you do the math, the advantages of mixed-use urbanism are obvious, says Joe Minicozzi, who uses economic data to visualize the impact of policy on community design. The advantages to people in terms of health, safety, and welfare are also paramount. For example, the redesign of the once-dying Belmar Mall in Colorado into a true downtown in 2004 now generates $200 million in retail sales and contributes 2.5 percent of the city’s tax revenue each year.

At the same time, don’t shy away from an appeal to values and emotions. Brilliant communicators know how to touch the audience deeply, drawing an emotional response. On behalf of the New Urbanism movement, former Mayor Joe Riley, who held office in Charleston, South Carolina, for 40 years, could lay claim to being the most successful urbanist politician in modern US history. While Riley pays attention to the smallest urban details, his message focuses on opportunity and on letting everyone know that he cares about them. He’s a master storyteller who makes the audience feel how the built environment helps or hurts specific individuals.

Mayor Riley developed his own style, and so can you. In preparing yourself to be a great communicator and appealing to shared values for creating renewed, walkable, lively suburbs, you can help people to understand how the form of community matters–and how they can take part in shaping their own communities.

For more information, see CNU’s webpage, Making the Case.

This article was revised and adapted from one prepared by Robert Steuteville for Public Squarethe journal of the Congress for the New Urbanism.