The Enduring Appeal of Suburbs
December 21, 2016
The post–World War II idea of a “suburb” conjured specific images—manicured lawns, private backyards, few sidewalks, and two-car garages—that represented a rejection of city life and the grit, crime, and overcrowding that came with it. The 21st century, however, ushered in an urban renaissance with people and investment returning to cities, a reduction in crime, and a rising consumer desire for walkable, mixed-use, transit-oriented neighborhoods. The boom in multifamily development within city centers helped fuel the perception that urban lifestyles are “in” while suburban lifestyles are “out.”
Yet it turns out that the dichotomy between city and suburb has always been a false one. According to a new ULI report, the suburbs never actually lost their appeal and, in some markets, are experiencing a resurgence. In some locations, in fact, suburbs are more inclusive and diverse than cities, offering first-time homebuyers—immigrants and young families, among them—a chance to purchase an affordable, market-rate home. Housing in the Evolving American Suburb, produced by the ULI Terwilliger Center for Housing and data analytics firm RCLCO, provides a richly nuanced analysis of the variety and diversity of suburban development taking place across the United States.
View an interactive map of suburban classifications in the top 50 metros in the United States.
The report makes clear that thriving suburbs and cities are not mutually exclusive. Neither exists at the expense of the other, and both can succeed as part of a larger ecosystem. “Healthy regions and fully functioning housing markets require a range of housing choices for households of different backgrounds, means, desires, and stages of life,” notes coauthor Stockton Williams, executive director of the Terwilliger Center. “In practical terms, this means a variety of city and suburban housing options.”
Rather than being “one-size-fits-all,” American suburbs—in their housing types, community amenities, and land use patterns—have evolved to meet consumer needs and preferences across the age and income spectrum, according to the report. Based on census data and a housing-focused classification system developed by RCLCO, Housing offers five distinct housing paradigms to foster a more granular, ground-level understanding of suburb development. The paradigms are as follows:
Established High-End Suburbs
These higher-end communities tend to be located just outside urban centers in choice, infill locations close to transportation options, high-quality retail, and other amenities. Teardowns of existing homes and replacement with higher-end, niche products are common development strategy.
“We go back and look for pockets of land that can be redeveloped within a community,” says Casey Land, developer of Inglenook, a pocket neighborhood outside metro Indianapolis and an example of a higher-end suburb identified in the report. A cluster of 12 to 15 American vernacular cottages that face each other around a common courtyard, Inglenook prioritizes personal interactions among neighbors and situates cars on the margins with rear-facing garages and street parking. “Inglenook is very much a non-auto-dependent development,” he says. “We create a social, community atmosphere rather than one based on privacy and separation.”
Inglenook and other examples of higher-end suburbs are not afraid of densification—some offer a mix of single-family homes, townhouses, and multifamily units—particularly if the house itself is fabricated with luxury materials and finishes. Downsizing baby boomers are an obvious target market for this product, which the data reflect: median household income in higher-end suburbs is $96,700 per year and only 15 percent of households are headed by people under age 35. “Because this is a higher-end product and we put a lot of details into it, we tend not to market to the young, first-time homebuyer,” Land says.
Stable Middle-Income Suburbs
Stable middle-income suburbs can be credited with expanding housing opportunity to immigrants, young families, and other first-time homebuyers, but many are at risk of splitting along two divergent paths: 1) those that are gentrifying and becoming less affordable as access to transit improves and city dwellers search for housing outside the urban core and 2) those whose housing stock and schools are deteriorating past the point of being a desirable choice for middle-income families.
The East Bay city of Dublin, California, is an example of a stable middle-income suburb contending with pressures to remain affordable due to its proximity to San Francisco and Silicon Valley—whose housing supply has failed to keep up with its explosive job growth. With its own Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station and a progressive mind-set, Dublin has strategically positioned itself as a bedroom community for Bay Area commuters and a growing job center in its own right.
“This doesn’t happen by accident; you don’t get this if you don’t plan for it,” says Eden Housing president and Terwilliger Center board member Linda Mandolini, whose development—the mixed-income, award-winning Emerald Vista—is featured in the report. The city has been identifying development sites near transit for future housing, has expedited the approval process for new housing, and encourages compact, dense forms of development suited to the suburban scale. “San Francisco is out of reach for pretty much everyone I know,” Mandolini says. “Housing opportunity provided by cities like Dublin and other inner-ring suburbs is critical for our region.”
Economically Challenged Suburbs
Economically challenged suburbs are those that are further out from city centers, whose population is declining and whose infrastructure is aging. The average median household income in these communities is less than $50,000 per year while more than 60 percent of residents in these communities are minorities. Some are emptying out with rising poverty levels and housing vacancies; others are coming back—but not without the assistance of government programs and partnerships with the private and philanthropic sectors. In specific cases, infill sites that are transit-accessible can help revive these suburbs. Midtown, a master-planned infill development north of downtown Denver that will eventually feature 1,300 housing units, is one example.
Greenfield Lifestyle Suburbs
Greenfield lifestyle suburbs are master-planned communities aimed at affluent homebuyers that offer specialized or niche amenities such as community agriculture or nature trails as well as opportunities for families to send their children to new schools. The typical housing type is single-family, although some greenfield suburbs include urban characteristics such as village or town centers and walkable neighborhoods. Because this type of development tends to be exclusive, it accounts for only 13 percent of the suburban population considered in the report. Development prospects are limited and risks are high since many municipalities place restrictions on greenfield development and available land is scarce and expensive. Examples include Willowsford in Ashburn, Virginia; Lake Nona outside of Orlando; and Pavilion Park in Irvine, California.
Greenfield Value Suburb
Greenfield value suburbs are another gateway to homeownership to first-time homebuyers. St. Charles in Waldorf, Maryland, is a 9,100-acre (3,700 ha) master-planned community 30 miles (48 km) outside Washington, D.C., that offers homes at an attainable price range, including so-called introductory townhomes and single-family homes. The development markets itself to military families returning from overseas who are searching for affordability, convenience, and proximity to the Pentagon and other military bases. St. Charles also offers a rent-to-own program for those renting in one of several multifamily buildings on site. The local school system is a major selling point for families, with a new, state-of-the-art high school built in 2013 on land donated by St. Charles Companies. “This community is a great opportunity for first-time homebuyers,” says company president Matthew Martin. “We present a great alternative for people willing to come down here and take a look.”
View RCLCO’s Suburb Atlas, a data visualization of the top 50 metros in the U.S. and suburban classifications in each.
Learn more about the ULI Terwilliger Center for Housing and the Housing in the Evolving American Suburb report.