A Fresh Take on the ‘Burbs: Re-inventing the Emblem of the American Dream – Part 1

The literary genre of urbanism and new urbanism studies tends to arrive at certain undisputed conclusions, one of which is that the suburbs (or exurbs depending on the criteria) are moribund.  The two-story home on a large, grassy lot at the bottom of the cul-de-sac is an endangered, if not extinct, residential species.  At least from the planning perspective.

While there is fresh evidence to the contrary outside my window in Lakewood, Colorado, where I spend quite a bit of time, the long-term viability of the suburban option has been called into question.   The cost of land and public infrastructure as well as the economics and lifestyle impacts of managing large distances between home and civic interaction may lead to the demise of suburbia as the preferred residential option.  In its place, planners, architects and developers envision a mass migration toward a higher-density or mixed-use residential solution in urban cores.  While this may be the hope, if not the trend, the rush to more “sustainable” alternatives begs the question of what happens to the existing suburban building stock?

According to data collected from the 2000 census, approximately 60% of all housing units were single-family, detached product.  Based on the same census this would translate into roughly 70 million homes.  Although not all single-family, detached homes are synonymous with “suburbia” per se, large percentages are found in the “burbs.”  In his March 2008 article in The Atlantic entitled “The Next Slum?”, Christopher B. Leinberger argues that the sprawling American suburb of today represents the likely ghetto of tomorrow.  Some of the crime fears articulated by Leinberger seem far-fetched outside neighborhoods racked by foreclosures and unoccupied residences.  More likely is the description of suburban blight he mentions, where the lack of quality construction, years of wear and tear, and shifting demographics have left certain suburban neighborhoods in a state of near-obsolescence.

Take the landscape of my youth, for example.   The 2,400 square foot, two-story home where I spent my adolescent years sits on a large lot along the asphalt conduit connecting two cul-de-sacs in unincorporated Jefferson County, Colorado.  The combination brick and aluminum siding maintains its appearance remarkably well considering its 40 years.  Sadly though, the sidewalks connecting the back of the home heave and buckle, leaving fractured ridges of exposed concrete to compete with weeds and gnarled roots from backyard Cottonwood trees for control of the walkways.  The backyard fences erected in the 1970’s to screen the barbeque from the dog-walkers and passersby sit in hopelessly dilapidated condition with wood pickets de-pigmented from almost four decades of endless sun.  Maybe Leinberger is right.

We invite you to return to this blog for future additions to this series discussing the hidden potential for our suburban communities.

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