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The Suburbanization of Urban Areas


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Innovative changes to urban areas are occuring rapidly, spurred by social media connectivity that has launched "livability" initiatives that are adding parks, green plants, bike lanes, and other transportation and environmental enhancements to cities. The goal is both to enhance their own living area while also attracting residents back to urban cities. Much of the change, when you think about it, is actually a suburbanization of cities. People living in the suburbs already have green all around them, whether it is their own yards or the big park down the street and along their drive to work or in their school playgrounds. Urbanists want that sense of fresh air and ability to connect and meet with neighbors more easily. Hence, the suburbanization of urban areas, creating meeting areas and bringing more green to the city.

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The Suburbanization of Urban Areas

  1. 1. 1 The Suburbanization of Urban AreasAssessing the trend to green citiesCities are turning green. Examples abound of changes to pavement, concrete, and parks thatare adding fresh life to cities, including tree-lined park areas and new street landscapes. At themacro-level, development oriented changes include LEED building design standards and “smartgrowth” zoning. The Ballston-Rosslyn orange line corridor in Arlington, VA is an example of thelatter. At the micro-level, bike lanes are being added, innovative pedestrian crosswalks areimproving safety and accessibility, and pedestrian plazas are sprucing up views; creating newurban meeting areas. In between, redevelopment of abandoned areas, such as the High Line inNew York City, represents perhaps one of the finest examples of this trend to greener cities.The High Line is such a revolutionary form of urban redevelopment, both for what was changedand improved, but also for how it was accomplished. Its ‘double grassroots’ I guess you couldsay: real world locals growing plants in the city. Robert Hammond1, Co-Founder of Friends ofthe High Line, in a 2012 commencement ( was filled with counter intuitive lessons amid the story of how the project started andreached its current thriving success.2The park is open from 7am-11pm during the summer. It currently has 9 entrance pointsstretching from 11th Street to 30th Street on Manhattans west side. The High Line is a uniquepublic-private partnership as explained on their website3:1 Pictures from and Marcus Bowman, 3G Mobility, LLC, June 2012 1
  2. 2. “The High Line is a public park built on an historic freight rail line elevated above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side. It is owned by the City of New York, and maintained and operated by Friends of the High Line. Founded in 1999 by community residents, Friends of the High Line fought for the High Line’s preservation and transformation at a time when the historic structure was under the threat of demolition. It is now the non-profit conservancy working with the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation to make sure the High Line is maintained as an extraordinary public space for all visitors to enjoy. In addition to overseeing maintenance, operations, and public programming for the park, Friends of the High Line works to raise the essential private funds to support more than 90 percent of the park’s annual operating budget, and to advocate for the preservation and transformation of the High Line at the Rail Yards, the third and final section of the historic structure, which runs between West 30th and West 34th Streets.”What to make of it all? Well, when you step back and think about what is happening, a themeemerges. Urban livers want to get out in the fresh air. They want to see trees and parks aroundthem. They want less noise and fewer fuming trucks. They want a bit less concrete and asphalt.In short, they want to look more like the suburbs. They want to walk out of their livingenvironment and see some green, to chat with a neighbor, and have a place to catch a breathof air. Recently, listening to a talk about these great new urban advantages I was struck by thefact that I have all that. I live in the suburbs. I have a yard and neighbors. I can walk out in thebackyard and see some trees, water the plants, and mow the lawn. I can walk out in the frontyard and chat up a neighbor. The air is fresh, the views green. That’s every day. People livingout in the suburbs have plants, yards full of grass, trees, and gardens that they tend to daily.They often have big parks near where they live. So, what is striking about this urban trend ishow city dwellers now wish for their area to look more like the suburbs.We are seeing what I call the "suburbanization of urban areas”. The suburbs do have a lotmore cars and a lot more driving. And they have their share of asphalt and concrete, but to theidea of having more green around. They beat the urbanists to it. By a century or more.Critics can surely, and quickly, snap right back about strip malls and all manner of things Butcalling out what many might consider a true flaw of the suburbs is just that, one possible flaw.And you can number up the flaws. The point is not necessarily a point-by-point pluses andminuses comparison of urban areas to suburban ones. Any way you slice it, on a macro level oran individual household level, there is a lot more green in the suburbs. The strip malls androads with seemingly endless miles of parking lots and big box stores. That’s the suburbs thatsociety brands. And it’s the one urbanists see when they rent their Zipcar to pick up a couplethings at Wal-Mart.Urban areas started realizing why they have lost people. Populations shrank in urban areasbecause their cities are dark and filthy. To correct the problem, cities are starting to greenthemselves up. They are planting more trees. They are reclaiming old infrastructure and re-making it in a more nature-oriented manner, such as The High Line in New York City. Marcus Bowman, 3G Mobility, LLC, June 2012 2
  3. 3. And so urban areas are suburbanizing in order to keep and attract residents. The real trend—both in terms of census statistics as well as look and feel—is suburbanization.The pace of change in cities has been admirable and astounding. In such a short time, so manydifferent initiatives have occurred. There is little doubt how much the internet and especiallysocial media have enabled such rapid change. A broad array of people can more easily connectand engage to bring about change. And at the same time, a 10-fold size of supporters is able totrack and promote initiatives. Even more are educated. New urbanists are on the cutting edgeof implementing new projects, socially, and quickly. But the trend of suburbanization is notjust a green one.Lest you doubt this trend of The Suburbanization of Urban Areas, consider how many urbanareas are adding a Target, Best Buy, or Wal-Mart in the heart of a revitalizing area. It’s not justabout parks and fresh air. Cities are trying to attract residents. And to do that, they need totake all that the suburbs do, and plop it in the middle of their cities. Thus it will likely extendbeyond transportation and living patterns. Might improving urban city schools come next? Wecan only hope!Not everything of course is a perfect bed of roses in the suburbs. It’s not always efficiently laidout, etc. However, there is surely more to learn from, and less to correct, about the suburbs.There is a reason people have chosen, over decades, to move out to suburban areas.Will any of it matter? I would contend, as part of this hypothesis, urban areas have been wellbehind on green change and will remain behind the curve. Suburban areas will be able to takewhatever is done in a city, and do it better. In other words, the suburbs have led the changes todate; urban areas are trying to catch up; and while they do that, the suburbs will move beyondto a next best thing. And/or, the suburbs by this, or by some other adaptation, will continue tobe ahead of the game—living greener whether they wear it on their sleeve or not.Finally, and most radically, I would speculate that it might end up being small towns, in theexurbs and beyond, that might beat them all. The right places, will be located within reach of abig city, and yet small enough to have some flat out innovative initiatives and rules that takeadvantage of their advantage—that they are the greenest places of them all, with the freshestair. Anyway, in the middle will be the suburbs—able to easily dabble in the city and the exurbsfrom their cutting edge, central location. Marcus Bowman, 3G Mobility, LLC, June 2012 3