clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Dense urbanism is great for downtowns. But what about suburbs?

Urbanist Brent Toderian reflects on which suburbs can be saved and made more walkable.

Little boxes on the hillside.

Post-war America has largely been built around cars. Many existing cities (including my home of Seattle) permanently scarred themselves with new urban freeways. Newer cities were oriented around freeways, extending out into low-density suburban development — the kinds of places where virtually any activity outside the home requires a car.

Though the status quo of big, bland, car-centric subdivisions retains enormous inertia, there is now a real counter-movement of urbanists trying to reclaim the virtues of pre-car towns and cities: scale, character, and walkability. As low-density developments become a drain on regional budgets — the infrastructure and service costs exceed the tax revenue — city officials are listening.

Vancouver, BC, is the only major North American city that completely rejected urban freeways. (The Greater Vancouver region didn’t, but the city did.) It is, not coincidentally, consistently ranked among the most livable cities in the world.

In 2017, I asked urbanist Brent Toderian, who was chief planner in Vancouver from 2006 to 2012, how he approaches the fraught subject of suburbs — and what kinds of suburbs might be saved. (More of our conversation here.)

vancouver suburb
A suburb in Vancouver.

David Roberts

How do you grapple with the subject of suburban sprawl? It seems like it’s increasingly become part of the culture war.

Brent Toderian

The way you change the conversation about car dependency and sprawl is by not making it an ideological argument. One of the problems urbanists have had is to be ideological about the suburbs. The commentary is, “don’t these people know they live in a soul-sucking place?”

That doesn’t help. I can hear the voices of suburbanites saying, “What are you talking about? I know everybody on my street, my kids play in the cul-de-sac, I open up the garage door and my neighbor comes over and has a beer. I have more of a social environment than you do in your apartment floor.”

So you’re not going to win an ideological argument about who is smarter or who has the better life. People will choose different conditions.

We have to make it a conversation about cost and consequences. Sprawl is extremely subsidized, and the chickens are coming home to roost on that. Cities and regions are starting to see pseudo-bankrupt conditions. The tax generation doesn’t match the cost. Not even close.

I’m not going to tell you your choice is fundamentally wrong. I’m going to point out that your choice is being subsidized by me, who’s paying more taxes and using less infrastructure.

David Roberts

Suburbanites don’t necessarily welcome that message either, do they?

Brent Toderian

No, they get very defensive. But that’s an honest question to have.

Also, car dependency is a leading contributor to the epidemic of preventable diseases that are linked to how we design our cities. We have created obesogenic environments that are literally killing us. It’s not a causal, direct connection — you can choose to be healthy in the suburbs, you can be unhealthy in the inner city — but it’s about the pattern making it easier or harder for you to be healthy. We’ve designed daily, ordinary activity out of our lives. The costs and consequences aren’t just to us as individuals, they’re to all of us as taxpayers.

Bankrupting municipal budgets, creating epidemics of preventable diseases, and helping to cause climate change — that’s how you start a conversation about why the suburbs need to change, and why more of our growth should go to infill and transit-oriented development. The argument is not ideological, it’s mathematical.

David Roberts

Many towns and suburbs contain isolated pockets of walkability, little districts, surrounded by a sea of cars. Lots of people identify urbanism with those pockets.

Brent Toderian

The fact that you get pockets of urbanism out in the suburbs can be a result of a few things. One, sometimes these pockets are original urban places — traditional towns or villages that stood on their own, initially — that got gobbled up by sprawl. And they’ve become special places within those suburbs. I know so many suburban communities where, if you ask where the best place is, they will name those places, because they’re the places with scale, character, and walkability.

If they’ve been created new, like New Urbanist communities, they can be a result of a niche project in a sea of business as usual. That’s not the fault of the niche project, but we have to be honest and say that such projects represent “drive-to urbanism.” You drive there to walk around. They rarely have the density and completeness to be self-contained.

Again, I don’t blame those projects, I blame the system that allows everything else to be business as usual. This is why urbanism has to be a regional conversation, not just a local or a neighborhood conservation.

David Roberts

My impression is that regional governance is weak in the US. There aren’t a lot of tools.

Brent Toderian

And if there is regional planning, it’s driven (no pun intended) by big infrastructure decisions that are usually made by the state or province, not the region. Can you be a walkable, transit-oriented region if your state or province keeps building freeways?

I’ve worked on New Urbanist projects that are walkable and mixed, and even have some density in their core, but you get to them by getting off the interchange of the highway. The urbanist project is plugged into the big-infrastructure, suburban genetic code.

It’s very difficult to retrofit the growth pattern of cities on a project-by-project basis. You get islands of right in a sea of wrong. It ultimately has to come down to a new system, a new genetic code at a regional scale — which is really hard to do, but important.

David Roberts

Lots of cities, especially newer cities, are already built around sprawl. Can they ever change those bones?

Brent Toderian

I’ve worked in all sorts of different cities, including Calgary for six years, which was often referred to as the most car-oriented city in Canada. Yet Calgary was doing remarkable things.

There’s an old Chinese proverb that says: The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago; the second-best time is now. So wherever you are in the learning curve, stop doing the wrong thing! [laughter]

That’s often the hardest part. It’s easier to start doing the right thing, because you get credit for those things. What’s hard is to stop doing things that don’t match your new vision — building wider roads and more lanes, or building big-box retailing on your periphery. It’s not enough to start doing the right thing, you have to stop doing the wrong thing.

The one thing you can hope for in suburbs, in walkability terms, is a great tree canopy, something that builds up and grows over time and makes the community better as it gets older. One of the points I make about the suburbs is, for God’s sake, plant trees, it’s the only thing that’s going to get better! You’d be amazed at how many suburbs and subdivisions are being built, as we speak, with no street trees and no potential for street trees.

We have designed, and continue to design, suburbs that are very hard to retrofit, if it’s possible at all.

David Roberts

I live in what I suppose you would call an inner-ring suburb of Seattle. Were there lots of those in Vancouver when you worked there? And what’s the best way to densify them?

Brent Toderian

The City of Vancouver — which is the central city in a region of 2.3 million (at the time) — was around 600,000 people. We had a lot of leafy neighborhoods that are referred to here as “suburbs.” Of course, working previously in Calgary, I always chuckled at that. [laughter]

These were what you would call streetcar suburbs: well-served by public transit and a rectilinear grid pattern that made densification a physical possibility, if not a political probability. They weren’t curvilinear loops and lollipops. There was a lot about it that was urban, but the density was still relatively low and it was perceived as single-detached neighborhoods.

Now we don’t have single-family-detached neighborhoods any more. As of 2004, we’ve allowed secondary suites as a right within primary homes, and in 2009 we brought in laneway housing, off the back lanes. You can do both.

So our minimum density allows three units on a lot: the primary house, the secondary suite [known in America as an “accessory dwelling unit,” or ADU], and a detached laneway house in the back yard, where the parking pad or garage would normally be.

A 630 sq. ft. laneway house in Vancouver, by Smallworks.
A laneway house in Vancouver.

The most important decision we made in bringing laneway housing in was, we reduced the parking standard from one space per unit to one space per lot. One space per unit would’ve killed the idea; you physically can’t fit three parking spaces on these lots.

Now we have over 2,500 laneway houses in the city, and growing.

David Roberts

Was there political resistance to that densification? In Seattle, any move toward densification of single-family neighborhoods is met by furious opposition. [Next City has a great story about these battles in Seattle.]

Brent Toderian

Yes, we had a significant debate about the idea. There were all sorts of ideas to deal with the politics, like having each neighborhood hold a referendum to decide if they wanted laneway housing [laughter], having only pilot neighborhoods, or allowing only a few laneway houses on any given block so that a block couldn’t be “overwhelmed.”

These ideas may have sounded reasonable, but I convinced council they would’ve killed the idea, or a least significantly weakened it. What we needed was an industry around laneway housing, and an industry would not form if they thought this was a pilot, a temporary idea, or a limited opportunity.

For every pilot or trial bike lane, like in New York City, there are places where a pilot is actually a bad idea. Sometimes you just need to do it. If it doesn't work, you can always decide to stop doing it. But that's not the same thing as a pilot.

David Roberts

You mentioned that in connection to bike lanes — what you’re shooting for are network effects [effects that only manifest once a full network is built] and you don’t get those with isolated pilot projects. You need a certain critical mass.

Brent Toderian

Pilots have become the cool thing in urbanist circles. Have some political pushback? Do a pilot!

But if you’re going to do a bike-lane pilot, you have to do a minimum-network pilot. With a single-lane or single-street bike pilot, you can prove that car traffic won’t be significantly disrupted, but you can’t prove that people will bike, because they won’t. You need a minimum network.

A downtown Vancouver separated bike lane.
A separated bike lane in downtown Vancouver.
(Flickr, via Jeff Arsenault)

If I had listened to that pressure in laneway housing, the program would not be nearly as successful as it has been.

David Roberts

In terms of the big picture, does the sprawl paradigm really seem like it’s changing to you? Things still seem awfully sprawl-y here in the US.

Brent Toderian

I’m optimistic that we’re having conversations about better urbanism at every level. We’re talking about fine-grain urban design and walkability in one conversation, and we’re talking about tearing down freeways or stopping the next one in another conversation.

All these conversations are linked into a sort of unified theory of urbanism: simple things like multimodal design for walking, biking, and transit; mixed land use; and designing and building great places. Those ideas resonate with most people, and most politicians. There’s just a lot of momentum built into the status quo.

I know it’s real. I know it’s powerful. I’m seeing more and more converts every day.

The easiest example is the transformation that’s occurring in the engineering professions — occurring, not occurred, okay? But there’s a noticeable difference in the value systems, principles, and perspectives of transportation engineers. That doesn’t mean there aren’t still DOTs building big car projects, but there’s a generational shift happening.

The younger engineers are all about walking, biking, and transit. And unlike previous generations, they’re not letting that value system be crushed by the old guard as soon as they go out into the workforce. [laughter]

And the older generation is recognizing that all the cool kids are talking about a different kind of mobility. They want to be cool too! So I’m optimistic.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.