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cloudship

What is a Suburb, and how does it relate to sprwal?

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I know this has gotten a lot of discussion, both here as well as on many other forums. But I have yet to find any thread that is clearly devoted to discusing this issue, and I think it needs to be clarified.

This is in two parts, but they are so closely related that I think they need to be discussed together. First of all, what exactly is a "suburb"? I know it sounds like a simple question, but I think there is a lot of disagreement over it. Some people think of suburbs as fairly urban areas - grids of housing developments interspered with malls and supermarkets. Still other people think of them as smaller communities without any real business of their own, simply places where people live, often quite rural.

Likewise, what is sprawl, and why do we almost always tend to lump the two together? Can a suburb not be urban sprawl? Does sprawl always have to be a suburb? Is there such a thing as an attractive suburb?

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Not all suburbs are sprawling. Old streetcar suburbs (i.e. Queens) are actually very dense and able to support public transportation very well. Additionally, "suburbs" around many northeast cities are really just other dense places that happen to be their own municipality, like Cambridge and Somerville, MA, Central Falls, RI, Hoboken, NJ, etc.

Automobile suburbs are the typical ones thought of now: single family homes, surface parking for everything, strip malls, non-mixed uses, etc. IMO, the one thing distinguishing a real suburb from an older dense "suburb" is the massive parking lot. That's how you can always tell. These suburbs usually just have bad bus routes as their form of transit and are horrible for pedestrians. And basically every automobile suburb is sprawl. I hate suburbs.

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I think this is an excellent question & would love some consensus to be reached on this topic. So far I have never heard of a decent definition - even at Cyburbia.

This is just a refresher - suburbs developed as a description of towns / developments that served a primary urban center. Sounds basic - but the key is that everything that was contigiously developed until the 1800's was considered 'urban', that it was one single urban mass. Suburbs described those developments that served the urban center but could only be reached by some long distance method - such as streetcar or commuter rail.

But now that definition does not exist anymore - most suburban areas, typically inner-suburban, merge into urban areas. There is no clear defining moment - often inner-suburbs are denser than older urban neighborhoods. Suburbs can also be based on the same street grid as well, though that is generally a major difference between the two.

I think one significant question could be this - can suburban areas become 'urban'? If so - that would mark a major fallacy of what we consider the traditional urban definition that too often sets sunbelt / traditional cities apart from each other. If we accepted suburban areas of becoming urban, due to increasing density & being contigious with an accepted urban area, then it is a question of how fluid even the concept of 'urban' is.

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I think this is an excellent question & would love some consensus to be reached on this topic.

These are the assumptions I've always gone on...

Suburb: Predominently commuter based, residential areas without a central core whose defining feature is that they are designed almost exclusively around automotive transit and access.

Sprawl: suburban style-development that is occuring in or adjacent to regions of already established density.

So, for suburbs, again, the key is being designed around automobile access. I think a prototypical example is Warwick, RI, a suburb of Providence. It's an area where pedestrian access isn't often possible (no sidewalks) or desirable (you'd need to walk 25 minutes from the average SFH to the nearest big-box supermarket and brave crossing roads of 6 lanes) and mass transit isn't available to 98% of the town. Most of the contemporary retail is big box and set waaaay back in enormous parking lots, again, all without sidewalk access. This is why when big retailers or condo complexes based around huge street-front parking lots are built, we call them "suburban-style."

For sprawl, I think of Rochester, MN as a great example. The old core of the city is actually pretty dense, walkable, and easily served by mass transit. But most of the newer residential development of the last 20 years is, by land area, probably 400% bigger than the old core but only increased area population by about 60%, and it's all suburban style, strip plaza, cookie cutter SFH's in a layout that abandoned the old street grid for the curvy residential style streets. This inefficiency is why it's "sprawl." The sad part is this development is literally grafted on to the old core, which would have been soooo amenable to just continuing the street grid and keeping the density high. But at some point in the area's history, they just decided to go all suburb, and now the downtown core is stuffering while all of the "city's" agenda is completely suburban issue focused... Look at this map of the northern part of the city, and you can almost see exactly where someone decided density should end and suburbs should start... That's sprawl...

map.jpg

I think one significant question could be this - can suburban areas become 'urban'? If so - that would mark a major fallacy of what we consider the traditional urban definition that too often sets sunbelt / traditional cities apart from each other.

I read something about this in an urban planning book several years ago... In general, it's probably possible for some older suburbs to be absorbed into the urban core. The already given examples of Cambridge, MA and Queens, NY are terrific examples. There are some suburban style neighborhoods here in Providence, RI that are slowly being integrated into the city at large and Providence is set to hopefully pass some density enhancing changes to zoning that will speed up that process.

However, according to that book, many older suburbs near urban areas were still built on the same planning assumptions as core urban areas. They had street grids, central core retail and commercial areas, and mass transit access. This eases their general absorption into the "city" later on. The newer suburbs are built purposefully against urban assumptions as a selling point. Buyers want privacy, isolation, and the feeling of being "cloistered." Thus, diffuse development, no mass transit, no street grids, and no central districts.

I think of that Rochester, MN sprawl above, and it'll be impossible to ever "urbanize" those neighborhoods. They are too spread out, too diffuse, to hard to access, too pedestrian unfriendly, and there's no "center" or "main" foci in them at all. Even now, the mass transit authority in that area is starting to complain that the layout is too difficult to provide even minimal main artery service in a cost efficient fashion. Again, inefficient sprawl.

So, I still think that "fallacy" about the potential urbanization of newer cities is not a fallacy at all, but is actually likely an unfortunate truth... Contemporary sprawl is probably a "hundred year" mistake that'll haunt us for a long time as basic resources become more scarse and expensive...

- Garris

Providence, RI

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IMO, the only real way today's sprawling suburbs can be made urban is through "greyfield infill", mainly redeveloping things like abandoned shopping malls/big box strips into denser urban areas. Since these sites typically exist on major corridors, if you were to redevelop them and build them into a walkable urban neighborhood, then connect them to the core city via transit on that corridor, you could successfully transform them from suburban to urban. Then little by little, infill could result around them as the transit became more popular. the key to this is transit and walkability though, without it there is simply not enough space to accomodate auto-dependency.

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Garris - haven't responded, but you pretty much nailed what needed to be said.

Recchia - don't think post WWII suburban regarding 'urbanizing' but inner-suburbs, the bungalow type of neighborhood. These are predominately single family neighborhoods that are loosely gridded. They are pedestrian friendly but are still often aimed at the automobile driver. Though some in Atlanta - such as parts of Virginia Highlands are over 10k people per square mile, many others are not & are in fact nearly the same density as a post-WWII suburb - Inman Park.

So barring any redevelopment, infill that involves demolishing any historic home. What is the future for these largely historic-managed neighborhoods that will most likely remain static. Most locals would consider these places as 'urban', meaning they are pedestrian friendly & often require street side parking - but they are still quite managable by automobiles.

Does urbanism provide 'grandfathering' of established neighborhoods or is the definition of urbanism static?

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I wonder if we are trying to lump too many things together in our definition. For instance, grid versus curved streets. Certainly there are city cores which have a nice grid pattern, and city cores (for instance Boston) which has a fairly haphazard pattern to it. Likewise some suburb developments are grided, some are curved.

I also wonder how big a suburb is. Another discusion talked about Exurbs, is there something between a city and a suburb? When I think of suburbs I often thing o smaller towns a way away from the city core, which at one time was a small town or village, but now is a bedroom comunity only. Yet it has a core, and even has it's own activity center in the schools and childrens sports and such. In other cases, there are esentially areas, for instance the west side of Denver, which is essentially it's own set of services - people live, work, and play there, yet it has no core and no identity of it's own. Is that a suburb or not? ertainly I think it could be considered sprawl, but if we then give it a name and a core location, is that then it's own city?

Lastly, is Public transit an overiding feature? Does the suden introduction of busses suddenly make something not a suburb?

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^ Precisely, I don't think our past definitions of 'urban' & 'suburban' are helping us any. A suburban locale can theoretically exhibit all of the characteristics of an urban area without 'looking' urban.

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IMO, the only real way today's sprawling suburbs can be made urban is through "greyfield infill", mainly redeveloping things like abandoned shopping malls/big box strips into denser urban areas.

That's an interesting theory, Recchia, but has it ever happened? Going back to my RI example of Warwick, you could urbanize Route 2 in Warwick (one of the ugliest and least pedestrian friendly big-box strip routes I've yet seen, for those of you who don't live here) all you want, but it'd be an anomaly in the area... Doing that still would be waaay far from urbanizing Warwick as a whole... It'd still be hard-core suburb. It's just not organized in a way to be anything else...

Zoning is a big problem in this issue, unfortunately. Look at the quasi-urban neighborhood of Wayland Square, where I live at the edge of the "core" of Providence. It's a mix of urban style retail and development and suburban style homes. It has the potential to go the way of a Cambridge or Brookline in Boston (i.e. more urban and connected to the city), and from what I know of its history, it started to do so in the late 1920's to 30's (that's when the large apartment buildings, commercial buildings, etc here date from). However, zoning was put in place at the time to stop the increased density, and succeeded at doing so for the next 80 years. Now that the city is growing again, there are lots of proposals for increased density, but they all require 20 zoning variances and the NIMBY's fight each one tooth and nail.

Until there is a broader societal demand for this type of urban living (that will likely not happen in our lifetimes), I'd guess we won't see any new Cambridges or Queens unless they are new construction designed that way from the ground up in newer cities... There's just too many codes, laws, and special interest groups lined up to prevent urbanization...

- Garris

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I believe this can be said for all urban areas - the general plan is to urbanize corridors, rather than full neighborhoods. The hope is to increase the level of density & create a transit / pedestrian environment without encroaching into preserved neighborhoods. But I'm not sure if this answers the question of urbanizing adjacent neighborhoods. But urbanity seems to be more of an abstract feel than a specific.

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Garris- I would argue that Warwick is in fact it's own city. A very sprawly city, but it's own city none the less. Yes it benefits greatly from proidence, but if Providence itself was wiped off the map the city could theoretically survive on it's own.

I guess what I am trying to get at is that we tend to toss around the term sprawl and suburb pretty casually, usually in a negative tone. But the fact remains that big urban cores are growing at a much slower rate than those sprawling suburbs. That measn that there is something out there that people like about them, or that is at least functional about them. I think any successful discussion about urban improvements has to at least try to identify what is also positive about these environments, and take whatever aspects they may be and apply them to a more urban setting. It also means understanding the difference between purely visual aspects of a city versus the functional aspects of one.

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How about if it had a transit system? Why is big box retail any different than a larger local store, and if the problem is everyone is driving, what is the big social problem with cars?

Big Box= sending profits away, as opposed to local stores where the money stays in the community.

Cars= disconnectivity, laziness, arrogance, isolation, selfishness, disregard, obesity (in my opinion at least)

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I wonder if we are trying to lump too many things together in our definition. For instance, grid versus curved streets. Certainly there are city cores which have a nice grid pattern, and city cores (for instance Boston) which has a fairly haphazard pattern to it. Likewise some suburb developments are grided, some are curved.

That's true. Some suburbs (older ones especially?) have gridded streets. It's not that unusual. In addition, many older cities have anything but an orderly street system. Most European cities, hundreds, sometimes even thousands of years old, for example, have plenty of winding streets.

What you may be thinking of are the cul-de-sacs so common to suburban housing subdivisions. Usually, a cul-de-sac indicates sparser suburban development, but cities can have them too.

I also wonder how big a suburb is. Another discusion talked about Exurbs, is there something between a city and a suburb?

Actually, exurbs refer to new development on the very edge of metros, so they are farther out from the city core than suburbs. Exurban developments often pop up right next to major highways quite a distance from the city. A tell-tale sign is a large pod of houses and cul-de-sacs (esp. single-family "McMansions" or mid-priced townhomes) surrounded by farmland or greenfields.

When I think of suburbs I often thing of smaller towns a way away from the city core, which at one time was a small town or village, but now is a bedroom comunity only. Yet it has a core, and even has it's own activity center in the schools and childrens sports and such. In other cases, there are esentially areas, for instance the west side of Denver, which is essentially it's own set of services - people live, work, and play there, yet it has no core and no identity of it's own. Is that a suburb or not? ertainly I think it could be considered sprawl, but if we then give it a name and a core location, is that then it's own city?

Placelessness is a common feature of sprawled-out places, especially exurbs, because exurbs are essentially the work of a developer who recognizes a market for homes, finds a spot where land is cheap, and plops them down. Those glass-windowed office parks off the freeway also lack a sense of context, simply because there really isn't any - they were built as utilitarian places of work, not as utilitian places of work that are parts of and function within a community, at least I think that.

Lastly, is Public transit an overiding feature? Does the suden introduction of busses suddenly make something not a suburb?

No, suburbs can have great public transportation. I believe the Boston suburbs have good public transport, as does much of the new suburban Europe.

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