Building suburbs in “the city”

Are some cities starting to transform into suburbs?  Here’s how I see the dynamic (and then I welcome your responses):

Aside from their frequent auto-dependence, suburbs often offer the characteristic of “sameness.”

  • Homes in each subdivision all tend to be the same, or at least very similar.
  • The same type of people tend to purchase them–one subdivision will be popular with young native-born middle-class families while another will attract more immigrant families and still another older families or empty nesters.
  • The nearby retail, chain-based big box or strip centers.

This is often contrast with life in many traditional inner-urban neighbourhoods:

  • Homes reflect a variety of architectural styles, stemming from the different decades in which they were built.
  • Because of the different eras when various owners bought into the neighborhood, a wide range of people live there.
  • Retail also may have evolved gradually, with ownership fragmented into small units, often family owned, which tends to support more independent retailing and fewer chains.

More recently, to combat sprawl, many cities are re-zoning large swaths of industrial or commercial land into high-density residential.  But what gets built in many ways resembles the suburbs in character.  Buildings and units look very similar; everyone buys in at the same time so will tend to be of similar backgrounds; and the large retail chains scoop up the retail spaces.  Put all this together and you get a suburb in the city, even if the residents take transit to work and live in condos.

My question to urbanistas is whether this matters?

My thought is that it  could. Recent research on Generation Y suggests that this cohort group prefers to consume from smaller, independent businesses and organizations.  This new generation of talent may not be as attracted to vertically-oriented suburbs as they are to more authentic neighbourhoods.    Moreover, if the knowledge economy really needs creative inspiration, are you going to get it in these new milieus?

On the other hand, this style of development may be the only way to quickly offer more housing options in the city. Perhaps it’s not ideal, but it’s the way cities will develop.


  1. Adrian says:

    There’s a lot of this happening in Sydney Australia. Large swathes of previously industrial land are being turned into a sea of virtually identical condos.

    The big difference with traditional urban neighbourhoods though is transport – these new condos all come complete with at least one off-street car space. This means that the residents drive everywhere, leaving the sidewalks ghostly quiet and crushing any hope of neighbourhood retail. In traditional urban neighbourhoods there is no off-street parking, so the sidewalks are full of people, neighbourhood retail thrives, and there’s a buzz in the air.

    So the solution is simple; ban off-street parking for these condos! Unfortunately that’s difficult when the developers can command a higher price for a condo-with-parking than for one without. In the one case I know of in Sydney where the local government stuck to their guns and required a limited amount of off-street parking on a big new infill residential development, the developer pulled the plug and preferred to wait a few years until that local government either changes its mind or gets voted out.

    I should note that Sydney has many condos with no off-street parking, and these are some of the most expensive housing per square metre in Australia. Parking is not required to command a high price in the market.

    I can live with architectural sameness in the city, and even with homogeneous residents, but suburban driving patterns are truly incompatible with urban life.

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  3. Wendy Waters says:

    Excellent point Adrian–providing suburban levels of parking can invite both the suburban issue of not spending time out on the street, in the community–combined with the urban issue of adding to gridlock.

    It’s interesting that in most cities there are minimum parking restrictions for new developments, not maximum ones.

  4. Emma says:

    More cars also increase environmental pressures in densley populated areas.

    Worse still, in Brisbane, Australia, regulations are even more pro-car in the inner-city. Small lot houses – sitting on blocks that can be as small as 150 sq metres -are required to have not one, but 2 car spaces!!

    Many people moving into new inner-cty developments seem to have a preference for 4WDs. These oversize vehicles clog up narrow roads and shopping areas and are totally inappropriate for the inner-city. I’d loved to see them banned.

  5. Drew Weaver says:

    It does not matter — I lived on College Terrace in San Francisco; by 1998 the 20 houses (all built in 1914, a tract) were 84 years old and featured the inevitable diversity that you seem to find appealing. But I’ll bet that College Terrace was not very diverse in 1914 when those humble 1880 sq ft. Edwardians were spankin’ new and right off the truck. My family has been in real estate for years and have seen many neighborhoods go from “sterile” and “homogenized” to “diverse” in 25 years or so. Some even devolve into ghettoes that are not at all sterile or diverse. It’s inevitable in mid-priced housing.

  6. “But what gets built in many ways resembles the suburbs in character.”

    That’s because it’s financed by the same people funding suburban malls – distant bankers.

    You can’t have local authenticity without local capital, and you can’t have that if you buy into the big bang theory of urban development, and try to create instant cities. Better to have one-by-one redevelopment of stores and homes, and to focus on one use at a time, not a mixed-use “lifestyle center” patrolled by mall cops and inspired by the Magic Kingdom.

    You also don’t need transit. Look at all of Seattle’s great pedestrian neighborhoods, most have no train service, and none did until 11 months ago.

    In DC, transit actually has led to Cheesecake Factory-anchored shopping areas that look like they were exported from a highway off ramp mall, while local merchants have played a large role in redeveloping areas distant from Metro stops. Local banks, credit unions, and friends and family funding a new store or restaurant does far more to create a real place than faraway bankers financing a “transit-oriented” development.

  7. Vince says:

    DC Metro stations are the problem? I think you misunderstand what Transit Oriented Development is…..obviously sponatnious development is better, but most residents will still need to commute to the office, woulden’t you rather have them do it by subway as opposed to vehicle?

  8. Global Urbanist says:

    Condo tower units have a disadvantage to detached homes in their structural limits to adapt units to changing market requirements. When a development gets built it is a snapshot of the market requirements (usually small units meant for singles or roommates). When the housing market falls, a prosperous household can take advantage of the cheaper construction costs and expand a detached house vertically or horizontally. A not so prosperous household can subdivide it into apartments. A condo owner may be able to subdivide, but may be limited in expanding their unit by structural requirements. Condo towers with adjecent units that can evetually be joined vertically or horizontally have the potential of eventaully adding diversity to the building. City government should address this issue through building requirements so a depressed market has the potential of producing large luxurious condo’s rather than a high-rise ghetto of small units.

  9. Wendy Waters says:

    Enjoying reading these responses. It’s certainly not black and white as the conversation has revealed. Yes, for the environment having the Cheesecake-factory patrons taking transit to work instead of driving is a huge step forward. But then again, have we lost economic and retail diversity in achieving this?

    David makes an excellent point about the size of developments and how they are funded. Retail space is sold off to a big retail owner/manager who has deals elsewhere in the portfolio with the Cheesecake factory and voila, there’s your occupant.

    Urbanist — I agree that somehow having more flexibility to downsize and upsize condos would be great for adding diversity. I think it’s often possible to blend two or more units together; but being able to subdivide off say the master bedroom into a separate studio suite is something that is less common.

    Keep discussion coming….

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