Classifying Suburbia

The question came up over the weekend regarding retrofitting suburbia, due to the anticipated arrival of speaker, author and urbanist, Ellen Dunham Jones. My friend and colleague asked where in Colorado Springs would be the places that Ellen describes in her TED Talk. It was a question that really deserved more than a short response, so I offered this impromptu classification of ‘suburbia‘:

  1. Future Suburbia: Areas on the periphery of cities which market themselves as “outside the city“. These would include larger lots ‘away from the city‘, or even clusters of homes with a buffer of undeveloped land between them and the city. Residents here enjoy quiet evenings and low traffic. Most do not believe that their community will ever be a part of the city. Due to the high cost of maintenance infrastructure per tax dollar, a responsible city government would not choose to annex it into the city. Geographically and by association however, they are Future Suburbia.
  2. Marketed Suburbia: These are the shiny, new, clean areas of the community, which actually market themselves as suburban and away from the chaos of the city, but include the new amenities of a large city (big box retail, new restaurants, kid-oriented amenities, etc.). They often tout safety and great schools as a part of the marketing strategies. Market values are generally at their peak in the first five years of construction. If you can continue to ride the wave of living in marketed suburbia before the crash of the wave, you will enjoy the life modern adjacent amenities, albeit with an automobile dependent lifestyle. Franchises and retail businesses that plan for obsolescence (build with the plan of vacation in a specific range of years) do very well in these locations while the location remains in the marketed suburbia portion of the community. At some point, they will become the former suburbs, and even worst yet, the forgotten suburbs. Yes, I speak from experience, read Quantifying the Effects of Suburban Living for more.
  3. Former Suburbia: Former Suburbia flirts with the needs of a Suburban Retrofit, as Ellen references in Retrofitting Suburbia. They include homes, strip malls, and pad sites that are on their third or fourth owner/company/tenant. The strip malls are not completely vacant in the former suburbs, but close to it. They are basically doing well enough that the owner can offset the decrease in rent. Little to no profit is being made here. Tenants may include pawn shops, advanced paycheck shops, and as of a couple of years ago in Colorado, medical marijuana. The residents may be paying a low rent for a larger home, however the buildings and home materials are in need of repair in Former Suburbia.
  4. Forgotten Suburbia: The areas classified as Forgotten Suburbia are otherwise considered modern-day slums. They consist of strip malls, pad sites, and homes that people do not want to be in. Generally, they are in disrepair and are begging for a retrofit. Unfortunately, it is difficult for someone to develop these parcels because the adjacent properties are still a major negative. Ideally, these would be the first to be redeveloped, but on the other hand they become very difficult because there is large-scale decay in the areas.

So what could be concluded from this is that ideally, a suburban retrofit is most needed in Forgotten Suburbia. However, it may be more financially effective to conduct a retrofit in Former Suburbia. The decay of suburbia is quite powerful in cities. Suburbia moves swiftly with green horizons. It has a clean exterior skin with a slightly less clean layer inside of it. Inside of that is the decay. Even further in, at the core of the city, is the truly sustained downtown of a city.

The core, or in some instances, multiple cores, are the portions of the city, where decay is less likely. In Colorado Springs, we have one primary core, that is our Downtown. It must be nurtured and given the greatest level of priority. We also have other nuclei of places that greatness can radiate from: Old Colorado City; Manitou Springs; Fort Carson; Air Force Academy; Schriever Air Force Base; Peterson Air Force Base; Colorado College; University of Colorado at Colorado Springs; Pikes Peak Community College; US Olympic Training Center; and our loved parks and natural amenities.

Suburban retrofits can make changes to the pattern of this decay, creating interventionist pockets of positive energy. Occasionally, they can be incredibly strong and really improve the landscape of a larger region. These are the retrofits that Ellen and June Williamson speak of in Retrofitting Suburbia.

4 thoughts on “Classifying Suburbia

  1. Thank you for this very clear explanation, John. I was born and raised in Bronx, New York, lived in surrounding suburbs of Westchester and lived 7 years on the Upper East Side of New York City. I have seen theses forces at work firsthand as the city became a great place to live, and now even Harlem is revitalized. I never thought I would see that. Thanks for relating those concepts to our city and the surrounding satellites of urbanism that can continue to improve and provide safe affordable and right sized housing that we need.

  2. NYC is a great example. When all the land is gone and you are forced to move back in, pure beauty occurs.

    Do more with less is the mantra of the Army right? Same is true with Cities when they have less space to spread out. Thank you for your comment Anneliesa!

  3. I think the “morphology of sprawl” is an important subject which needs as much analysis as any other aspect of city planning and urban history. Your blog/Classifications of Suburbia helps us see distinctions where distinctions are hard to find 🙂
    As your posting intimates: It’s important to see each suburban community in terms of it’s history and it’s context, and it’s potential for regeneration and possible new uses through transformation.
    Suburbia is foremost a “mentality” reinforced by the physical built-form attributes, and levels of mobility.

    Unfortunately all the suburban types—even our “street-car-suburbs” have been overwhelmed with accommodation of the car; zoned and mental preference for the separation of uses; thus both economic and physical barriers define the pathology of the cumulatively aggregated states of suburban sprawl.

    The history of each suburban community, it’s geography and climate, and natural features—land and sea barriers—affect the form and concentration of suburban settlements just as cities begin as villages; so too: a suburb can “grow up” to be a city or at least an urbanizing node. What we now know is urban/suburban expansion is constrained by the actual economics of sprawl. The free-market “intensification” of suburbia of all types of suburbias will be the only way the range of suburbs will survive.

    A continuum of suburbia s—Linear connections are the most economical —connecting the dots (i.e. urban nodes)
    We will not be able to afford “widening” the slice of pie as in increasing the radius of the metropolitan area. This principle is apparent in pre-suburban urban forms—much like gravity—the urbanizing force vector is along a line (i.e. the royal highway; a main street; rail, a river, or a shoreline. Classifying the “line” in each typology of suburbia might be the next layer. The finer grain: streets, pathways, and general connectivity along the lines.

    Design Context:Future suburbias (especially in El Paso County/ Co Springs) might see optimize the “paths” differently; seeing that for them equestrian life styles—horses— are a form of suburban mobility. Finally the adaptations should classified in terms of the culture of the place.

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