New Urbs

This Suburb Won’t Become a Pedestrian Paradise

Courtesy of Johnny Sanphillippo

People who love living in vibrant, walkable, mixed-use urban neighborhoods sometimes look at suburban commercial corridors—and suggest they can be transformed with light rail, bicycles, fine-grained locally owned businesses, clean solar and wind power, and mom-and-pop small scale infill construction.

Others who really enjoy their spacious suburban homes, front lawns, big back yards, and collection of private vehicles tend to project a near future in which self-driving cars, telecommuting, endless supplies of easy credit and inexpensive conventional energy will distribute the entire population to the far ends of the rural penumbra as God intended.

I’ve determined that neither of the above trajectories is wholly accurate. But neither is entirely wrong. It’s complicated. What we’re already heading toward is a weird mash-up of the two. Enter this little chunk of suburbia that stretches for 50 miles across central New Jersey roughly along the Route 70 corridor from Cherry Hill to Toms River.

Courtesy of Johnny Sanphillippo

Do you think the Quakers who settled this area and built their church in 1786 ever imagined a Buick dealership, a strip mall with Chinese food, and a Dunkin’ Donuts going up next door along an eight-lane arterial road? The distant future is unknowable. But the near future is easier to wrap your mind around. It’s going to look a lot like what’s already here, only more so.

Courtesy of Johnny Sanphillippo

For folks on either end of the land-use spectrum I offer Exhibit A. Here’s the density, but not the urbanism. Here’s the green grass and ample free parking, but not the privacy or independence. A 200-unit apartment complex fills a growing market demand for housing with the required features and amenities at a specific price point on the outer edge of mid-20th century tract homes and strip malls. These are designed to appeal to young professionals who work in suburban office parks. The location provides a manageable commute from one periphery to another. The distant city is irrelevant for this self-selecting demographic. Modest two-bedroom units rent for $2,100 a month.

Drive farther down the highway and new homes are being built out in the woods to absorb the people who graduate from apartment living.

Courtesy of Johnny Sanphillippo

The materials, construction methods, interior details, as well as the corporations that build these single-family homes are often exactly the same as the apartment complexes. And a homeowners association does pretty much the same things as rental property management. The primary difference is these units have patches of grass between them. If a down payment and the right financing package can be pulled together a mortgage will be quite similar to rent. “Drive till you qualify” is the persistent dynamic.

Courtesy of Johnny Sanphillippo

As an aside, notice the “gated community” aspect of the development. A three-year-old with a plastic spoon could break into any one of these homes. How hard would it be for a thief to walk through the bushes rather than drive through a designated entrance? The automated gate is security theater. It’s an expected amenity that makes people feel good, but doesn’t actually provide much in the way of enhanced safety.

Courtesy of Johnny Sanphillippo

Here’s a version of suburban infill development. The Greek Orthodox church in a 1950s neighborhood recognized a need in the community for senior housing. Too many older folks were rattling around in single-family homes that they could no longer manage independently. So funds were raised and the paperwork was processed to build senior apartments next to the church close to needed services.

Minimum off-street parking requirements create impervious surfaces. The impervious surfaces require on-site storm water management. The fact that so much land is used for parking and retention ponds requires the building itself to have a smaller footprint and go up rather than out. As soon as there’s a second story an elevator and multiple fire egress stairwells are required. Elevators are expensive so more apartments are required in order to amortize the cost over more units. In the end all such structures arrive at the same destination. It’s basically a Ramada Inn. Or a Khrushchyovka. Same same.

Courtesy of Johnny Sanphillippo

Here’s the adjacent highway. Is it walkable? Sort of. There are sidewalks. And people do walk here at times. Is it safe? Is it convenient? Is it pleasurable? Not so much. Is there transit here? Yes. A NJ Transit bus will roll by once in a blue moon. Will the bus get you to where you need to go? Eventually. Sometimes. But not really. I’ve used the buses here before. It’s not great. Could this landscape be transformed into a pedestrian paradise? Yes. Will it? No.

Across the highway is a collection of larger complexes. They’re constructed with funds from REITs (real estate investment trusts) that are similar to stocks and bonds. Lots of individual investors pool their money and receive a return on investment. Sometimes the same people who rent or buy these units also inadvertently own a tiny share of the parent organization via a 401K or other pension scheme. This is a capitalist creation that just happened to arrive at the same Soviet destination—although with nicer appliances and granite counter tops.

Courtesy of Johnny Sanphillippo

Courtesy of Johnny Sanphillippo

And here’s what holds it all together. Ever widening highways are critical to the continued functionality of our dispersed development pattern. The more density we add to the suburban chassis the more cars and trips are required. But the more we spread out horizontally the more cars and trips are also required. Transit won’t solve this problem because the culture and existing land use pattern won’t support it. Uber and Lyft could reduce congestion, but only if each vehicle carries many more passengers at the same time. And the real long term limitation is the cost of maintaining the road network. Existing gas taxes and road tolls have been falling short for years.

In the end neither the New Urbanists nor the fans of traditional post World War II suburbia are going to get exactly what they want. The density is coming based on pure market demand and institutional imperatives. And so is more far flung hopscotch development out in the sticks. Some of these places are going to thrive. And some are going to devolve into slums. If I have a concern it’s less about architecture and land-use patterns and more about the overlapping hyper-complex institutions (both public and private) that are required to keep it all working. If any one of the underlying interlocking prerequisites fails the inhabitants of this landscape have very few options to fall back on.

John Sanphillippo is an amateur architecture buff with a passionate interest in where and how we all live and occupy the landscape. He blogs at Granola Shotgun, where this post originally appeared.

This post was updated to reflect an editing error, which has restored a missing second paragraph.

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12 Responses to This Suburb Won’t Become a Pedestrian Paradise

  1. FL Transplant says:

    My daughter lives in Manhattan, where SOHO, Little Italy, and the East Village all converge. I’d imagine that the staff of The New Urbs would consider where she lives to be highly desirable (I certainly do).

    But at the same time, where she lives didn’t spring up like it is today from unplowed meadows. It took centuries of change and evolution to create the neighborhood that exists today–infrastructure, services, retail, transportation, utilities, and all that’s involved. I see the same thing happening in the cited arterial road and associated structures in the article–yes, change will be incremental and uneven. But in a century the neighborhood will have evolved and changed to fit what the times both demand and desire.

  2. Enzo says:

    For ever more I cannot see living spaces being built, I now see cars,cars,cars.

  3. Major Rage says:

    John – excellent article and so timely! Sellers have declined my home purchase offers twice this week. So, I am getting on a plane tonight for Clearwater, FL to hunt for a place down there where, frankly, I expect similar results. The conditions are much the same in medium size metro areas all over the country.

    My fall-back position is a main street, Mayberry style Virginia town 90 minutes from both D.C. and Richmond. There, I might be able to afford to over pay for a home and live in relative peace and security – until the time when the house will be worth more than I paid for it. Then, it will be time to hit the eject lever and go somewhere else.

    America, love it or leave it!

  4. Brad F says:

    I’m glad you touched on road funding. One basic problem (and possibly the problem) is that we subsidize driving heavily. Anyone who mentions this is usually dismissed as “a communist” – as if getting governments to use income taxes and property taxes to build roads, and then letting people use them for free, isn’t a form of communism itself. The real challenge is that so many people have their life’s savings invested in these little plots of land out in the suburbs. Asking them to pay the full cost of transportation is always going to be greatly feared and hugely resisted.

    This problem can be solved, but it will be very difficult.

  5. Gerald Arcuri says:

    I live in Thousamd Oaks, California, a quintessential west coast suburbia. The City government has for the last twenty five or so years been enthralled to a plannimg concept that is attempting to create the Mayberry, walkable downtown Utopia that exists only in their imaginations. They have spent millions paying consulting firms to come up with plans to modify Thousand Oaks Boulevard into this pipe dream. Parts of these plans have been implemented, and the results are both a joke and an embarrassment. I have lived here for fifty years.

    Anyone with two eyes connected to a functioning brain could have grasped the ideas explained in this article, applied them to our suburban situation, and said, as I did, “It ain’t never gonna’ happen”. And, it hasn’t. To quote the Yogi, “You can see a lot, just by looking.”

    If you need to explain this even to people who live in car-choked Southern California – which was designed and built around the automobile – then you realize what an uphill battle it is to convince starry-eyed local politicians, who want a legacy and federal matching funds with which to build it.

  6. Charles says:

    Nobody addresses the issue that we are overpopulated. Mental health research findings say that population density is hazardous to mental health. No personal space or nature which is necessary for healthy personal development. Countryside is being devoured like a cancer by developers. NYC trash is shipped to rural Texas against the will of the residents. As a licensed therapist, I have witnessed the effects. Now, someone call me a racist. Feel better?

  7. mrscracker says:

    Charles says:

    “Nobody addresses the issue that we are overpopulated.”
    *************

    I think you’re right about a number of urban areas but demographically speaking things are headed in the opposite direction overall as far as population.
    But I do hear you on land usage. It can be wasteful & destructive. I’ve never understood viewing land as a commodity for profit rather than a resource.

  8. Gary Bebop says:

    Most of my loved ones live in packed urban enclaves and are slaves to nightmarish commutes. They cannot fathom any other environment worthy of their habitation. Access to hip shopping and dining out and entertainment and miscellaneous services trumps every other consideration, such as the serenity of wide, uncrowded streets and short commutes. There are still many beautiful, untrammeled, affordable places to live in the West. (I’m not talking about the overrun, popular destinations.) But to imagine yourself there, you must break out of jaded urban-corridor paradigm thinking.

  9. polistra says:

    The ‘security theater’ picture is wonderful. Tracks in the grass show that people are in fact habitually detouring around the gate! A few cement blocks would stop the detour, but clearly nobody cares.

  10. TG says:

    One is reminded that what it driving this is the government’s policy of forcing population growth upwards.

    According to the US census, if the pre-1970 population had been left to decide the issue on their own, the population would have stabilized at about 240 million. Instead, post-1970 cheap-labor immigration has increased the population by about 100 million over what it would have been. This policy is slated to double the population to a half billion by around 2040, and likely make it pass an even billion within the span of those now living.

    We are told that if the rich want to force population growth up against the will of the people that this is absolutely positively guaranteed to be wonderful that there are no possible negative consequences and anyone saying different is a racist and facist and Literally Hitler. Of course, we are lied to.

    The suburban developments and highway systems were designed for a population of about 150 million. They would have done OK with 240 million, more or less. But once a pattern is laid down, rejiggering it to a higher density is very hard. It’s like, once you build a house, trying to turn it into bigger condominium is very hard – easy to tear it down and rebuild from scratch.

    If the flood of cheap labor would abate, then, over the generations, we could slowly but steadily adapt and modify and rebuild. But if we keep jamming in ever more people, and making the nation poorer and more starved of physical investment capital, well, we will never catch up.

    Prediction: slow rot, we will adapt, life will go on, but it will be trending down. Traffic congestion will get worse, poverty will get worse, etc. If we are lucky, it will be like Mexico or Brazil. If we are unlucky, it will be like Pakistan or Bangladesh. But the rich will live in golden palaces a kilometer high so it’s all good.

  11. Patrick Constantine says:

    I appreciate these type articles from am con magazine. I see the cul de sacs of sprawl land but also the debt heavy fad chasing going on in Main Street districts (“complete streets!” “Place-making!”) and pieces like this provide some measured analysis and thought.

  12. Annie says:

    Granola Shotgun is a fantastic blog. I would love to see him get a gig writing for TAC.

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