Still a Place for Suburbia?

During the past few years, the return to the cities has been at the center of attention as legions of new graduates and Sue_New_Headshotretirees, members of the massive Millennial and Baby Boomer generations, have gravitated to the jobs, entertainment and more accessible lifestyles increasingly offered in these walkable urban areas. Companies have long since shifted their headquarters from the suburbs to more centralized locations, and developers have been rushing to provide appealing new live-work-play environments in the inner-ring submarkets surrounding the CBDs.

Not so long ago, many of these areas were aged and forgotten, downtowns so empty they echoed, inner rings often marked by out-of-date industrial facilities and neglected lower-income housing. No one walked through the streets of downtown Los Angeles or Dallas or Atlanta. Midtown Atlanta sported an abandoned steel mill, and decommissioned railyards blighted many a city, often occupying valuable land and breaking the flow of pedestrian traffic. Today, many previously empty downtowns are vibrant, Atlantic Steel has given way to Atlantic Station, Boston’s Seaport District and Chicago’s River North continue to grow and thrive, and new development at Hudson Yards in Midtown Manhattan is underway.

With so much focus on urban growth and rebirth, though, a vast expanse of America is being left behind. While individuals bid up increasingly dense urban residential space and developers battle for new sites to locate mixed-use neighborhoods near the urban cores, the suburbs are being vacated in what seems to be a lost opportunity. Once the focal point of expansion, they now sit sprawled out, inaccessible, outdated.

Yet they have a fan base and could easily have even more. Many families with school-age children (my own included) still prefer suburban life, and while they now rank in the minority, sandwiched as they are between the two big demographic groups, there is also a growing interest among retiring seniors to age in place, near their children and grandchildren. To increase appeal to these and other demographic groups, smaller municipal governments are growing increasingly aware of the need for change. More and more are paving the way through zoning, transit and other changes, but they often lack the financial means to follow the path to its end. Therein lies the opportunity.

The time is right to reinvent suburbia, to provide the benefits that make center-city mixed-use neighborhoods so popular, and the private developer holds the key. A few are already pursuing new types of ventures and attracting residents, corporate tenants and retailers, as we detail in our cover story, “Remaking the Suburbs.” But given the degree of change needed to bring America’s suburbs up-to-date, not to mention the number of potentially good locations to target, there is plenty of room for more real estate players to participate.

Urban planning has made great strides. Suburbia doesn’t have to be left behind.

Suzann D. Silverman, Editorial Director