Best of 2012: Time to stop snubbing the suburbs?

The mixed-use Bravern development includes Microsoft office towers, linked courtyards, and high-end retail. Credit: Payton Chung/Flickr (CC)

Editors' note: Each day during the holidays, Crosscut is presenting two of the top stories from the past year on subjects that our writers regularly cover. Today, we are looking at some of the urban affairs and architecture stories. Please check the "Related Stories" box on each story for more of the best work by our writers in 2012. This article was originally published Feb. 28.

Several weeks ago I sat in a seminar on the development of suburbs in a national conference on Smart Growth. As is the case with these kinds of meetings, a series of people present their own community as a case study. I observed the eyes of an attendee from a small town near Des Moines, Iowa glaze over when a planner from Bellevue zipped through PowerPoint slides of that city’s glistening towers. I think it's probably time to stop referring to Bellevue as a suburb.

It occurs to me that the very term “suburb” may have outlived its usefulness. In an earlier era, when large, mature cities were surrounded by expansive subdivisions and shopping malls, this might have reflected a definite distinction. In those times, “bedroom suburbs” lived up their name as nighttime havens of mostly white families, often with a stay-at-home mother and a commuting father. Those were your grandfather’s suburbs.

Today, in many parts of the country and certainly Puget Sound, the pattern — both physically and demographically — is quite different. In less than a century, the average family size has halved. The largest portion of American households fall into the categories of singles, childless couples, and seniors. And vast swaths of formerly “whitebread” suburbs are a now made up of a widely varied ethnic and racial soup. Sometimes the result has been startling.

Auburn, 10 miles south of downtown Seattle, is home to a population of Ukrainian families so substantial as to support their own brand spanking new supermarket. Walking through the clean and commodious aisles of Marvel foods, one barely hears any English being spoken. Customers jostle the sumptuous bread counter stuffed with dark loaves, while a few yards away diners are slurping down big spoonfuls of borsch from the take out counter. Precisely in the style of American capitalism, the store grew  from a cramped storefront to occupy its own custom-designed structure.

Almost while we weren’t looking, towns around Seattle have acquired a range of people, goods, and services that belies the idea of the snooty, isolated, and exclusionary suburb of popular and professional literature. For a while, there was a gap politically, as the old guard of elected leaders presided over newcomers who were busy trying to figure out how to get their kids to school and run a business. Now, people of many different cultural backgrounds occupy positions on city councils, planning commissions, and other elected and appointed decision-making boards. This has essentially happened in less than 20 years — not even a generation.

Jobs are not just located in Seattle anymore, nor even in downtown Bellevue. They are found throughout the region and over time many people have tried to locate where they need not spend hours on the freeway. Our regional network of trains, express buses, and local buses has also allowed people to make choices that they didn’t have before. Not long ago, most new immigrants had little choice but to work and live in Seattle.

The very term suburb implies a we/they, superior/inferior type of thinking. As if there were only two models: urban and not. In fact, the multiple variations of urbanity are what make a region both vital and interesting. Although we still have a dominant central city, we also now have dozens of places that are wonderful in their own right and offer people lots of different choices.

And people are finding those choices and making them even more diverse and, yes, dense. Virtually every town in the region has been busy making its own center more interesting, more lively, filled with more public spaces and varied shops and restaurants. There has been a gradual erosion in the old fear of density with the realization that people do appreciate having choices rather than hewing to the old attitude that detached houses were the only acceptable form of housing. Many people understand now that having lots of people living close together supports local shops and services.

In some ways, this has been the result of the “inevitability of demographics” in which aging, smaller households of Boomers become more predominant and change the forms of development. But its also the case that many people in younger age groups of Gen X and Y see little merit in owning a car; instead, they would prefer to live in places where they can walk and bike. Both groups want to be around lots of other people, with lots of different choices.

In this region there have been a gradual convergence of demographic change, consumer preferences, and public policy, with cities and towns of all sizes and locations finding ways to not just accommodate but encourage higher densities in their centers. This is perhaps most visible in the downtowns of Seattle, Tacoma, Bellevue, and Kirkland, where many thousands of people now live. But it is also being seen in smaller cities such as Bainbridge Island, Burien, Mercer Island, Redmond, Renton, and Mill Creek. Mountlake Terrace is seeing construction of mixed-used development with multi-story residential dwellings right in the midst of the recession.

The term “suburbs” just doesn’t fit the constellation of communities we are now seeing. All these people, making different choices, are causing the introduction of all sorts of businesses, from the vast array of Korean  businesses in Shoreline and Federal Way, to an explosion of family-owned ethnic stores and restaurants. Ten years ago, Mill Creek had no main street. But now it does, and it is teeming with shops, cafes, a supermarket, and a string of public spaces.

This has been a remarkable transformation. Most significantly, these places have weathered the great recession reasonably well. As recent articles in The Seattle Times have shown, as well as a previous article here, it’s the outermost areas of the region that have seen the greatest problem with foreclosures and drops in values. Recent research by development economist Christopher Leinberger at the Brookings Institute has shown that the most stable residential values are found in the places with higher Walkscores — a metric system that originated in this region and that is used in marketing homes throughout the country.

Even the lordly Museum of Modern Art has mounted a new exhibition, "Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream," that is an effort to get the best architectural minds to stop snubbing the burbs and try to reimagine how they can be made to work better. Reviewing the MoMA show, Justin Davidson calls it "small but magnificently ambitious." Some of the ideas unleashed are fascinating, such as plopping down avant-garde apartments in the middle of too-wide suburban streets.

Walkable places, livable places, and places of cultural diversity are now to be found throughout the Puget Sound area. Not something “lesser” or “sub,” they are simply cities and towns, albeit of different sizes and types. The term suburb is rapidly becoming as useful as “buggy whip” — a true relic of a bygone era. 

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