Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009
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.
- The Setup: Review: Retrofitting Suburbia
- Part One: Strategy
- Part Two: New Urbanism and Parcelization
- Part Three: The Mother of All Impact Fees
- Extra: End Property Tax Collection in Arrears
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:
- Local Goods and Services. That is to say, things produced for purely local consumption. Grocery stores, salons, that sort of thing
- Branch or Departmental. Captive exports used to fulfill a specific directed demand from elsewhere. The auto plant is the paradigmatic example.
- 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.