By: Elaine Stiles
In 2000, the U.S. Census revealed that America had officially become a suburban nation. For the first time, the majority of Americans resided in suburban areas. Since that revelation 15 years ago, urbanists of all persuasions have been taking a second look at the urban edge. Their findings contradict many of our commonly held views on who lives in suburbs, why they live there, what they do there, and how the suburban built environment functions. The Brookings Institution has called the suburbs the locus of the new American reality, and as suburbs continue to age and remake themselves, they will become a growing part of a new preservation reality.1 A better understanding of the suburbs—both past and present—will be essential for the 21st-century preservationist. Here’s some of what you need to know, along with some thoughts on how preservation can play a meaningful role in the future of this diverse and changing historic landscape.
1. The suburbs are slated to undergo tremendous change over the next 30 years.
There are many reasons preservationists should pay more attention to the suburbs, not least of which is that all suburbs—from streetcar to postwar boom ‘burbs—are heading for what can only be termed a period of suburban renewal. Population growth and developable land shortages in denser areas will increasingly direct development to suburban zones. Change will also come about as suburbs approaching their 70th and even 100th birthdays seek to renew aging infrastructure. Suburban communities are similarly cognizant of the environmental deficits in their land use patterns, and are pursuing plans that will recentralize and even urbanize many suburban places. Much of this change will not occur in the exurbs or outermost layer of suburbs, but in older, inner-ring suburbs. The comparative density of inner-ring suburbs and their integration into existing infrastructure and transportation networks make them attractive to development interests. “America’s first-ring suburbs,” noted Urban Land Institute CEO Patrick Phillips, “could be the sweet spot for future growth.”2... Read More →