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What if the suburbs were just a first draft?

Remote work, the arrival of home-owning millennials, and other forces can be an opportunity to remake them for the better.

Lia Lao for Vox

Part of the July 2022 issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

The Covid era has produced a number of mixed narratives about housing, land use, and migration patterns. People are leaving the city, but also returning. Remote work is a historic shift in how Americans work, but 50 percent of workers actually can’t work from home. Construction is accelerating at the exurban edge of many metro areas — but many of the homes going up are dense multifamily structures and mixed-use developments, mimicking what you might find in an urban downtown.

Some interesting trends are taking shape in American suburbia. One thing we know, for example, is that the “flight,” or return, to the suburbs is real (though the death of the city is greatly overstated). We also know that more people are spending more time in the suburbs, and that many who moved there under remote work arrangements are likely to stay. In major American metro areas in East and West Coast cities, suburban prices grew rapidly during the pandemic compared with prices in the urban core, according to one Brookings Institution paper. “Further,” it states, “the gap between the two areas — urban and suburban — widened as the pandemic prolonged.” This trend was most pronounced in the Boston and Washington, DC, metro areas; the DC metro area is a premier example of many of these trends, and where they may be going today.

“It’s a very strong phenomenon right now, staying within the metro area but moving to a suburban neighborhood rather than central, dense neighborhoods,” says economist Stephan Whitaker. It could look like another round of flight from the city. Or what we may be witnessing is a “second draft” of the American suburbs.

The suburbs first began to appear in the period after the Civil War, and they grew rapidly with the spread of the electric streetcar in the early 1900s. Many of these very early suburbs retained urban features. When we say “the suburbs” today, however, we often imagine an alternative to, or even a negation of, the city.

The suburbs exploded when post-World War II America needed lots of housing cheap and fast — modern suburbia was essentially a housing program. Suburbs received another influx in the era of “white flight” and racial tensions in American cities in the 1960s and 1970s. That era also saw a wave of downzonings across the country, ensuring that most new development would be single-family or, at most, low-rise multifamily.

The suburbs are still growing, both getting denser and sprawling outward. Some of this follows the rise of remote work, but much of it is also driven not by would-be residents’ desire to leave the city but by sky-high urban housing prices.

The demand for something like urban living is real. Even at the outer edges of growing metro areas, mixed-use walkable developments pop up alongside familiar subdivisions and McMansions. “Mixed-use centers—often in suburban locations—continue to be built from the ground up in many communities across the US,” wrote the Congress for the New Urbanism in 2019.

As more immigrants and millennials become suburbanites, and as Covid and remote work give the suburbs another growth spurt, they are evolving into something different. Between 2019 and 2020, the share of millennials who live in suburbs increased by 4 percentage points; and in 2014, more than 60 percent of immigrants lived in suburbs, up from just over half in 2000.

Many communities that were once white, exclusionary, and car-dependent are today diverse and evolving places, still distinct from the big city but just as distinct from their own “first draft” more than a half-century ago.

Consider the Levitt houses of Long Island — a sort of ur-suburbia — very few of which still look like they did when they were built. Most have been modified, renovated, and expanded over the years; what was once a standard product has diverged in thousands of ways. (Some are even under-the-table duplexes, and it seems to work just fine.)

Levittown was the first draft, not the final or perpetual state. The distributed, incremental evolution we can observe with these decades-old tract houses is coming to fruition in the suburbs, writ large.

The ongoing diversification of the suburbs is coinciding with the appearance of New Urbanist, mixed-use development there, and the renewed interest in suburban living following the pandemic. The makings of a suburban transformation are here.

It’s likely that the average person isn’t necessarily thinking in terms of urban design, or density, or mixed-use development. They simply have, as Maryland-based urban planner Dan Reed told me, “the desire to be near things.” Even before the pandemic, Business Insider listed the 25 fastest-appreciating suburbs in the United States — a list that included places as different as exurban, car-dependent DeSoto, Texas, and New Jersey’s more urban Union City. It includes several suburbs in Florida and Washington, but also a couple in seemingly less likely Michigan.

This desire to be near things is as likely to lure millennials leaving the city to seek less expensive housing as it is immigrants coming from countries with more traditional urbanism, and remote workers looking for amenities they used to find near their urban offices. What makes suburbs desirable for many people today is not what Americans traditionally associate with “the suburbs.” It’s vibrant dining scenes — according to the New York Times, some of the best in the country — nightclubs, taller buildings, and walkable developments.

Even before the pandemic, these trends were intersecting. The DC metro area, where I live, is one of the finest examples. But it is not the only one.

Edison, New Jersey, for example, boasts a large Indian American population, and its unassuming Oak Tree Road corridor is one of America’s largest concentrations of Indian restaurants and businesses. In suburban Atlanta, Georgia, the Buford Highway commercial strip is a lively international neighborhood inhabiting what might otherwise have aged into a worn-out postwar suburban development.

In my own region, there’s a 1950s strip plaza noted for its concentration of Bangladeshi and other South Asian shops and restaurants, and an even larger shopping center boasting one of the country’s largest concentrations of Vietnamese restaurants and businesses.

All of these places serve as community fixtures for whichever immigrant communities live and shop there, and that’s how they first arose. Over time, they’ve also become local attractions, part of the appeal for other suburbanites, too. Lifestyle magazines, geared toward an upper-middle-class readership, frequently feature these diverse suburban community centers in restaurant reviews and “things to see” lists. New Jersey Monthly, for example, heralds Oak Tree Road as a dream for Indian food lovers; Food & Wine Magazine dubs Atlanta’s Buford Highway corridor “one of the South’s most fascinating places.” Ditto for Northern Virginia’s Eden Center.

Unlike urban immigrant neighborhoods of the 19th and 20th centuries, many of these communities inhabit what are now older suburban landscapes. Annandale, a Fairfax County, Virginia, community of largely postwar vintage, is the DC area’s Koreatown. In Maryland’s DC suburbs, many aging strip plazas are filled with African and Latino small businesses. Many of us have seen an urban food hall inhabiting an old factory, with exposed brick and Edison bulbs; Annandale has a food hall, too, founded and owned by Asian Americans, but it inhabits an old strip mall that was all but abandoned after the closure of a Kmart.

That’s the essence of the subtle but real suburban transformation. These days, they serve immigrants but also attract tourists and other visitors, and serve as places of cultural interest for residents in general.

Reed says he thinks people are looking for something that “feels enough like a place.” That can be something like an upscale mixed-use town center; it can be informal arrangements like food trucks, barbecue smokers, and coffee shops setting up in disused suburban parking lots. Some are disused because they were park-and-rides; others sit in neighborhoods that now tilt working-class, where fewer households own two cars. What these places aren’t, any longer, is that flight-from-the-city first draft.

If a “second draft” of the suburbs is now being written — at least in some of America’s growing and expensive metro areas — what might it actually look like? On that note, back to the DC suburbs.

Rockville, Maryland, a suburban community about half an hour from DC by car, didn’t always look like standard suburban sprawl. In the early 20th century, it had trolley service into the urban core. The trolleys completed “24 trips a day between 6:30 a.m. and 12:30 a.m.,” not unlike the region’s subway service today. The trolleys were scrapped in 1935, and it was not until 1984 that the Metro system was extended out to Rockville.

Looking back, scrapping the trolleys wasn’t Rockville’s only mistake. In 1962, the town embraced urban renewal and leveled nearly all of its original downtown, wiping not only the buildings but even the street grid off the map. In its place, they built a mall and office complex. That period, from 1935 to 1984, and especially from 1962 to 1984 — no rail, no downtown — typifies what we often mean by “suburban.”

Today, Rockville is very different, and in some ways it resembles its original state more than its “suburban interlude.” Rockville is widely considered to be the region’s main Chinatown, with a population that is about 20 percent Asian American, and an array of restaurants, Chinese newspapers, and other businesses that serve a predominantly Chinese customer base. In the 2000s, the mall that stood atop the old “downtown” was demolished, and a “town center” with gridded streets was built in its place. For curmudgeons or NIMBYs who think these trends are altering Rockville’s character, they just need to look further back for their baseline. The changes in Rockville aren’t turning it into something it isn’t; they’re turning it into something it used to be, and continuing a process artificially arrested by the suburban era.

It’s a matter of some debate whether suburbs were “supposed” to become encased in amber, built at once “to a finished state” and barely changing after that, their land use destined to end up at the mercy of NIMBYism. Zoning codes were not really meant to be perpetual; master plans were supposed to guide their evolution over the decades, planning for and accommodating growth. But in most places, that did not happen: Most growth was sprawling and horizontal, and many suburban landscapes still appear essentially unchanged from when they were built in the midcentury.

But allowing these places to change, and embracing the change already occurring, doesn’t mean wiping them off the map — hopefully, we learned that from our urban renewal mistakes. Their next chapter is waiting to be written; maybe this time, we’ll understand that the writing is never done.

Addison Del Mastro writes on urbanism and cultural history. He’s also the author The Deleted Scenes on Substack.

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