Suburbs are not destined to remain strip malls and excessive parking—many are reinventing themselves into walkable communities. As suburban areas evolve and adapt, what approaches can urban designers, planners, and city leaders take to build more memorable and successful places?
Shifting demographics, cultural changes, evolving shopping trends, and a growing preference toward walkability are motivating suburban towns and cities to redefine and remake themselves. While there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution, communities nationwide are returning to the basics of urbanism. Some are converting aging strip malls and areas of excessive parking into walkable nodes, while others are building new amenity-rich activity centers. Several communities are reinvesting in and building upon existing downtowns—and some are doing all three.
As suburban communities look for ways to foster a greater sense of place to maintain and attract residents, businesses, and quality development, there is a clear set of best practices that results in more successful, memorable suburban places. At the 2018 APA National Planning Conference, Kimley-Horn’s Eric Bosman, AICP presented with Judith DeJong, RA of the University of Illinois at Chicago and Kathi Cook of the City of Alpharetta on eight approaches to employ when adapting sprawling spaces into walkable mixed-use places.
1 | Understand Community Needs and Desires
When planning for the redesign of a suburban area, it’s important to consider what’s already in place. What are the location’s historic and current strengths, and what do you have to build on? Take time to contemplate what might be missing in the market. Account for what your community wants and what it will tolerate. Is the community looking to develop a mixed-use space? Will they not accept garden-style apartments? Asking effective questions in the early stages of the planning process provides the framework for success.
2 | Foster a Community-Designed Vision
Planning suburban centers should focus on the opportunity to create a stronger sense of place. Engage the public throughout the process and harness their ideas, but build from community ideals to envision what your community needs today and aspires to be in the future. Utilizing visual examples of other successful places, but adapting them to the unique features of your community, will help create an impactful and inspirational vision.
3 | Show Leadership and Perseverance
These projects take passion, vision, and time. Many of our successful models are “overnight success stories” that actually took more than a decade of planning, design, and perseverance. Commit to the process and identify city leaders and community champions who are committed to achieving the vision and what it will accomplish for your community.
4 | Understand the Impact of Land Ownership
Be mindful of land control and ownership impacts and limitations. Many suburban redevelopments require public participation to assemble a critical mass of property or to reduce the level of risk or time necessary to make these projects a reality. Permanent public space and integration of community amenities often require public ownership of land.
5 | Incorporate Public/Private Partnerships
Mitigation of cost and risk is an essential element of any visionary project. While demand for new mixed-use development models is increasing, funding and financing remains an obstacle to delivering mixed-use development in the suburbs. How can a partnership between public interests and private investors reduce risk, cost, and/or time to make your project more viable?
6 | Integrate Public Open Spaces
Realize that public open spaces can take on many different forms and functions. It’s important to remember that communal space is an essential element of success, needs to be centrally located, must serve a variety of functions (both day and night), and should be of high-quality/durable design.
7 | Create Architectural and Site Design Standards
Your design should be human-scale and prioritize people walking and biking rather than using automobiles. Attention to detail is paramount for long-term success and the design must accommodate daytime and evening users. Create walkable block sizes, hide parking areas behind or beside buildings, and adopt parking maximums.
8 | Craft the Right Ordinances and Streets
Local ordinances should reflect the environment you want to create, even if it is different from past development approaches and architectural styles. Make sure to allow for a vertical mix of uses at appropriate densities, and design streets for a variety of users. This part of the process also includes re-examining noise, alcohol, and utility regulations.
Involving the community and city leadership is a vital part of the planning process. Active, engaged, and invested city leadership is necessary to foster successful land control and ownership, to form public/private partnerships and funding mechanisms, and to create public open space, which is a key element to almost all successful walkable suburban activity centers. Additionally, the details of architectural design, site design, and local ordinances that allow a vertical mix of uses, encourage appropriate densities and building heights, and untangle cumbersome or unnecessary regulations are critical to the quality and success of suburban activity centers that create lasting value.