Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

Building Suburbs That Last #4 – Supporting Home Based Businesses

This is another installment in my periodic series “Buildings Suburbs That Last”. Rather than restate the intro yet again, I’ll just encourage you to read the setup to this series, as well any any earlier installments you care to.

A lot of the discussion of sustainability in the suburbs revolves around New Urbanism. I think this can have a role to play, but New Urbanism is to a great extent concerned with making suburbs look urban areas moreso than act like them. In fact, a principal tool of new urbanism is the so-called “form based code”. Its very name says what it is about. But while I’m all in favor of good urban form (in the right context), what’s truly important is urban function. Modernists decreed that form should follow function while in sustainability debates it is basically assumed that function follows form. I’m not sure that’s always the case. (I should note that New Urbanism itself is far from restricted to suburban settings, but is often discussed there).

I believe there is more that needs to be done, particularly in the area of breathing true economic life into the suburb. You may recall from my earlier post The True City, I classify economic activity into three types:

  1. Local Goods and Services. That is to say, things produced for purely local consumption. Grocery stores, salons, that sort of thing
  2. Branch or Departmental. Captive exports used to fulfill a specific directed demand from elsewhere. The auto plant is the paradigmatic example.
  3. Indigenous Export Industries. Internally directed and generated production to fulfill non-captive demand from elsewhere. This work, often innovative, is what constitutes the independent economic life force of a city

All places have businesses of the first and second type. But without the third type, the indigenous economic life, a place is what I call a “shadow city”. That is, it is a place conjured into existence by outside forces for their own needs. And when those needs are no more, the shadow collapses on itself. You can think of places like Flint, Michigan or Anderson, Indiana as more or less shadows cast by Detroit. And once Detroit no longer needed them…

Most suburbs are shadow cities. That is, the bulk of the commerce that takes place in them are of the level one and two variety. I think of Level Two type industry in the suburbs as something like big box retail. The problem is, the minute problems start to hit, all these uses, and their tax dollars, and flee to the next ring out. To stop that from happening, we need to build suburbs where there is much more indigenous production outside of the local goods and services variety.

One way to do this is to encourage more home based businesses. Most places allow home based businesses, but often only with onerous restrictions that make growing them beyond one or two people problematic. We need to correct that. We should be encouraging home based businesses not just in the city, but also in the suburbs. The vast bulk of these will never get big, but some of them could grow and eventually graduate to local office space. Some may leave the suburb altogether, but you’ve got a much better chance of retaining a business if it started in your town that if it were never there to begin with.

Over at New Geography, Rick Harrison had a great piece on this called Residential Zoning and the Cyber Village. I recommend reading it since he actually operated a home based business and knows it well, plus has some interesting recommendations.

One of those is a new zoning classification he calls “Residential/Business”:

The Residential/Business (RB zoning) would be an entirely new land use, sort of a morphing of an office center and a neighborhood of luxury single family homes. Office complexes typically have a higher degree of landscaping and architectural detail than single family developments. In the RB neighborhood, homes would be large and impressive with heavily landscaped commons that serve as pedestrian access to the businesses that are located within the home structure.

Another type is the “Cyber Office”:

Unlike the Residential/Business solution, homes in the Cyber Village need not be as business intensive or change the character of a neighborhood. A main component of the Cyber Village is the Cyber Office, serving as the community foundation for business activity. This facility, complete with offices, reception services, mail services, meeting rooms, board rooms, reference libraries and office equipment, would serve subscribers (businesses within the neighborhood) for their out-of-office and administrative needs. This Cyber Office location could serve as the hub for deliveries, recycling, storm shelter, resource center, rideshare, and other community resource needs. Subscribers would choose the level of access to the facility based on their own individual business needs. The features of the cyber office would lend credibility and added professionalism to a residence-based business without breaking the bank.

The Cyber Village concept is one I find particular intriguing. When I reviewed Retrofitting Suburbia I noted that most of the examples focused on commercial property, where, for example, acquiring and scraping an abandoned strip mall is easier than trying to figure out what to do with a struggling subdivision.

The Cyber Village perhaps offers a “cul-de-sac retrofit” option. Perhaps existing subdivisions could take some of their common areas, and redevelop them as business centers instead of the traditional recreation center or whatever. Do what you can to import mixed use into the residential environment without changing its fundamental character, something even the biggest advocates of suburban retrofits don’t yet have an answer to.

If you can’t recreate the built form of the urban environment that supported traditional mixed use, then perhaps there are ways to take a suburban development pattern and find a way to make that more compatible with a new kind of mixed use. Even if it didn’t look like what we expected, we could get many of the same touted urban benefits, such as walkable (or no) commutes.

Whether or not new built forms are involved, I think any suburb that wants to be around for the long haul ought to do what it can to make itself friendly to home based and other locally owned small businesses. Again, especially those beyond basic local retail and services. Putting all your faith in major national chains in shopping centers as your tax base is recipe for ruin over the lifecycle of a suburb.

5 Comments
Topics: Economic Development, Public Policy, Sustainability

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5 Responses to “Building Suburbs That Last #4 – Supporting Home Based Businesses”

  1. Alon Levy says:

    Harrison is reinventing the wheel. Mixed residential/commercial zoning already exists: for example, in New York, most commercial zoning allows residential uses of the same floor area ratio, including mixed-use buildings.

    In addition, a Brookings study comparing land use in the US and Germany says that in Germany, residential zoning regulations already allow many home-based businesses, such as doctor’s offices.

    Neither German cities nor New York has any requirement that single-family homes in mixed-use subdivisions be very large and imposing. That would be counterproductive – large suburban homes tend to make pedestrian experience worse.

  2. cdc guy says:

    Alon, New York has plenty of “very large and imposing” residences. They just happen to be vertical and on very narrow (sometimes also small) lots. Streetcar suburban neighborhoods in Indianapolis are walkable because the lots are relatively narrow.

    It’s the lot size and configuration that makes suburbs unwalkable.

  3. Steve says:

    Perhaps I am too pessimistic, but I tend to think that the issue of retrofiting inner (and outer) ring suburbs pales in comparison to that of halting exurban greenfield development.

    Lest you think that that has nothing to do with this series, that we have to figure out what to do with aging suburbs also, my point is that exurban sprawl has to be stopped before any sort of retrofitting looks good enough to be feasible (economically and politically).

    Instead, we’ll probably just keep on building giant lot suburbs, then wondering how to handle them once they age. If that goes on, all of Aaron’s good advice contained here will not only fall on deaf ears, but it will be irrelevant, since no one wants to make the hard decisions till they have to do so. Create some sort of urban growth limits (not necessarily Portland-style), and market forces will make the retrofitting begin (though rezoning as Harrison suggests is key).

  4. JG says:

    I mostly agree Steve. Halting the wasteful trend of investing resources into the exurban greenfields will free-up that capital, labor, and resources for reinvestment in the aging suburbs, hopefully. With finite resources and an expanding “donut” around cities, the scales are tipped toward increasing amounts of cheap land for the foreseeable future. I do like Aaron’s previously posted ideas on this.

    I believe this desperately needs to occur on a national scale, however, with a lot of thought and care. I worry about one city nobley adopting such policies, and “losing out” to similar cities in their region who continue sprawl development. (I suspect soneone could cite examples where this has already occured.)

    Keeping residential density modestly high (much higher than what exist in many of the older American cities) within a mile or two of the central business district is key for their viability, IMO. The allure of “new” offered by many growing suburbs is artificial and fueled by the developer and land owners, understandably operating within the rules of American commerce. Though many cite the city as “no place to raise a family” far too many who are single (whether young, divorced, or elderly) still remain suburban bound. I don’t know what the next idea in creating that demand for the city is, tough I suspect shutting down the ruse of “new” means “better” and therefore you are “better, too” has to be done. (I like cities, so I am biased.)

  5. cdc guy says:

    Actually, the “teardown” phenomenon is happening in first-ring affluent suburbs already. This has even happened in Indianapolis, with a twist:

    Along Allisonville Road north of 65th, a fair number of houses were built on 1-2 acre lots. In several cases over the past 10-20 years, the original house has been acquired by developers who re-divided the land into 4-6 McMansion lots.

    While it is definitely not my cup o’ tea, it is one model for densification of the inner ring.

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