Celebrate the Suburbanness: Ideas from Colab Summit 2013

October 1, 2013 at 8:30 am EDT

A radical idea emerged at the end of the Colab Summit in Atlanta, which was convened to bring the city’s leaders together to discuss how to keep the Atlanta region growing and competitive. There were lessons for cities of all sizes. I talked about the best practices for fixing our schools in an earlier post. Now, here’s the craziest-sounding idea of all.

One speaker, presenting suggestions from lab sessions that had been going on around the conference suggested that the city should actually celebrate its suburbaness. Many people still like yards and pools. They have fueled the region’s growth in the past decades, he says. Atlanta, which speaker Chris Leinberger famously called "the poster child for sprawl," should essentially advertise that fact. Atlanta does sprawl better than any place. They’ve got it down.

An image quilt of Atlanta's Sprawl Atlanta's sprawl compiled from Google images using imagequilts.com

This, of course, flies in the face of the narrative for the entire rest of the conference. Whenever cities or their Millennial 20-something inhabitants came up, there was near-universal agreement.

What we need, says everyone else, is better transit. We need more bike lanes. Car (and everything else) sharing. Mixed-use buildings. Walkable urbanism. Density. Culture. Places for people to gather, go to concerts, stroll along nonmall retail. Places that sound a lot more like small towns than places like Atlanta. We need a kind of development that would make both new urbanists and Richard Florida proud.

In short, we need to further evolve our cities and towns into Creative Class traps meant to ensnare highly skilled recent grads, keep them in the city, and attract more from other cities. In turn, that would attract more businesses that want to hire those folks. Also, the 20-sometimes are billed as an entrepreneurial generation. They’re more likely to start their own firms, which is where all the new job growth is coming from anyway, or so goes the theory.

Metro areas need robust and highly connective transit system to get all the non-Creative Class service workers, who often can’t affordcity living any more, back into the city to work. Transit is important because the high cost of car ownership means they likely can’t afford the high cost of driving in the suburbs either. That’s one of the factors leading to escalating suburban poverty levels.

Fact is, both downtowns and suburbs need evolution. Having strong suburbs is important to a healthy metro region. Some are sprawly clusters of cul-de-sacs. Some are more stand-alone towns like Marietta and Smyrna. They’re important partially because we haven’t fixed the schools in the city. They’re important partially because people don’t tend to like to move. Many people grow old not far from where they grew up. They want to be near their families, friends and communities. Twenty-somethings, to stereotype some more, have famously close relationships with their helicopter Baby Boomer parents. Options must exist for people at all life stages and all kinds of housing preferences. In some towns, that means adding more single-family homes. In some, it means more multifamily units and rentals.

We need more livable center cities, yes, but we need more livable suburbs, too.

As speakers during the Colab Summit’s innovation and talent tracks pointed out, the 20-something Millennials have different preferences, and the market needs to respond to those.

Speakers (from left) Chris Leinberger, Leigh Gallagher, Ellen Durham-Jones. Photo: Matt Carmichael Speakers (from left) Chris Leinberger, Leigh Gallagher, Ellen Dunham-Jones. Photos: Matt Carmichael

Chris Leinberger says that this has lead to pent-up demand. There just isn’t enough walkable urbanism – places where housing, businesses and services coexist in a way that you can access them without cars. It’s not in our cities, and it’s certainly not in our suburbs. Pent-up demand means higher prices, which can yield a stronger tax base. Cities that encourage the development (which often requires rezoning) the soonest will maintain the growth that used to come from building out insprawl. Bonus: it’s more sustainable. Everyone wins, well except maybe the people who get displaced in the process.

Leigh Gallagher, assistant managing editor at Fortune and author of the End of the Suburbs, talked about developments in suburbs like Leesburg, Va., and Skokie and Libertyville, Ill. – in the suburbs of Chicago – where developers are creating more town-like spaces touting the ability to meet your neighbors instead of the three-story foyers they were hawking in previous decades.

Ellen Dunham-Jones gave examples of areas that are celebrating their suburbs by redeveloping parts of them into more town-like communities. Her book, Retrofitting Suburbia contains countless examples of malls and other large parcels being transformed into more livable space. Locally, she pointed to the Beltline, a 20-mile stretch of former Atlanta railroad that’s being transformed intobike path, open space, and will someday contain light rail as well.

These talks and conferences are happening all over. I’ve been to similar meetings in Hispanic neighborhoods in Chicago, in the arts district in Miami Beach, and the high-end suburbs ofthat famously pedestrian-friendly city of Detroit. I’ve heard similar plans from the Nashville Chamber of Commerce, which invited Richard Florida to speak to its annual meeting. I’ve heard the Creative Class discussed by mayors from Durham to Salt Lake City. I’ve heard walkability championed by mayors in Rochester and Eugene and Reno.

Today, this move toward walkable urbanism and all of its related aspects of livability are a competitive advantage for cities. Eventually, they will be the norm. In an iterative world, cities of all sizes are finding that they need to get small projects underway and bigger projects on the drawing board. Atlanta’s voters recently rejected a tax that would fund more transit, but many cities, like Phoenix, have required multiple votes before funding projects like this that eventually the public comes to love and rely on.

It’s not just the built environment that is being addressed. It’s how people, especially younger people, consume it. One trend that’s clearly taking hold – at least among a large enough subset for major marketers to take notice – is the “sharing economy.” And that was one of the more thought-provoking aspects of the Innovation track at the conference. We’ll talk about that more in our final post.

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