There was a time when the idea of moving from the city to the suburbs defined success for many Americans; for those masses, owning a house with a white picket fence was the embodiment of the American dream.
Suburbs, mostly residential communities within commuting distance of a city, flourished after World War II. Originally, suburbs were designed around families with children with their local schools at the center. Social life revolved around the school, while bars and other kinds of nightlife were not seen as having a place in these family-centric communities.
However, many of the post-war suburbs are aging badly — with dead or dying shopping centers, empty big box stores, and abandoned office parks — and that white picket fence many Americans were so eager to attain, is now the very thing holding them back.
“The suburbs were built for the Baby Boomers [people born between 1946 and 1964] but they will not be able to age gracefully there,” said Ellen Dunham-Jones, a Georgia Tech professor of architecture and urban design. “The privacy that they valued when they were raising their family, now entraps them and isolates them.”
While suburbanites might still love their individual homes, they are not enamored of all of the driving, traffic and congestion they often encounter.
Atlhough the burbs were designed for kids and stay-at-home moms, the majority of modern-day mothers work outside the home. Dunham-Jones believes the working mom who is trying to shuttle her kids around to all of their activities is probably the least served by the suburban model.
And then there’s the inconvenient fact that although the suburbs were designed with families in mind, since 2000, two-thirds of suburban households have not had kids in them.
All of which means, the suburbs don’t seem to be serving anyone effectively — not the aging baby boomers, the working families with children, or the majority of households with no children.
“The vast majority of households in the suburbs do not have a connection to the schools and the majority of households in the country right now are one- and two-person households and they’re craving places where they can still feel some kind of social connection,” said Dunham-Jones.
Increasingly those places are retrofitted walkable urban spaces that give these communities a downtown they never had. These town centers often have retailers and restaurants at the street level, with office and residential space on the upper levels. A little farther from the center, you might find townhouses, and then single family homes, as well as open spaces that allow for social and communal interaction.
“Millennials [people born between the early 1980s to the early 2000s] want an urban lifestyle, they want to live in the cities,” said Dunham-Jones. “But most of their jobs are out in the suburbs, so they’re often really driving this kind of redefinition of a form of urbanism in the suburbs that can include nightlife and can include places to go and hang out as adults that aren’t focused on families and kids.”
These centers also serve the aging population by allowing them to stay in the same community as they age, where they can maintain friendships, see the same doctors, and live where they can walk to a variety of their daily needs. There are also the undeniable health benefits of living in these urbanized spaces, because, overall, people are less sedentary.
However, not every dying suburban strip mall or deserted office park is a viable candidate to become a town center. Some are repurposed to serve the community in other ways, such as when big box stores become medical centers, churches or schools.
In some cases, regreening is the best solution. That means reconstructing wetlands or establishing parks or community gardens.
The ideal future suburb might be a combination of all three: urban centers, rehabilitated buildings to serve community needs, and green spaces. Far from being dead, the suburbs are being retrofitted to address 21st century challenges and, for many people, they still hold the promise of a slightly retooled American dream.