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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.