Reinventing Suburbia

COVID may have made the suburbs more appealing – but these aren’t your parents’ ‘burbs.

Are you capitalizing on Place-Branding and Place-Based Economic Development strategies to attract the growing market for walkable urbanism?

Much has been stated about the flight of people moving from the city to the suburbs due to Covid. While the full extent of urban migration – or an exodus – is unknown, it is important to consider some underlying facts that can help you capitalize on these trends in both the near- and long-term future. 

Cities and regions that recognize the nuances of these trends will be far better positioned to market themselves from a place-branding and economic development perspective while simultaneously exploring changes in land use, zoning, transportation/mobility, and infrastructure.

To understand the true context of the recent upswing in suburban living, it is important to note three key dynamics at play.

These shifts were already underway, but are now accelerated: 

As I’ve written in other articles that pertain to the commercial real estate sector, existing trends (prior to this year) already demonstrated a shift in lifestyle preference that suggests growing desire for suburban living as opposed to the urban core/big city. Driven by millennials, this makes a lot of sense as suburban regions general offer more space per dollar – both indoor and outdoor – in addition to better schooling options. As our largest generational cohort continues to move toward family living, so too will their housing choices evolve. However, those choices will not be made according to what their parents and grandparents desired. It’s a whole new suburban world out there.

The market wants more walkable, amenity rich suburbs:

Yes, a shift toward more suburban style living, does seem to be in effect. However, the today’s suburban ideal is far different than in the past. Today’s resident desires not simply a home, a white picket fence, and a series of strip centers and shopping malls. This is all the truer when such an environment requires an automobile to get any and everywhere. 

The areas in the greatest demand, as shown through price premiums, are those suburbs that also provide an urban lifestyle through vibrant walkable districts (think suburban downtowns that are pedestrian friendly, with smaller streets banked by retail and restaurants, or newer mixed-use developments that are centers of commercial, residential, and cultural activity). There have been a number of studies that demonstrate this ongoing trend including the WalkUp WakeUp Call series conducted by renowned author and urbanist Chris Leinberger of the George Washington University (full disclosure: I was intricately involved in most recent efforts in the NY/NJ Metro and DFW respectively, but the results speak for themselves) and a recent study conducted by Cushman & Wakefield.

The issue is not city vs. suburb. It’s walkable urban vs. drivable suburban. 

We often think of “urban” as “the city” – big, dense, the core of a region. The suburb on the other hand is low density, single family homes, residential in nature with big boxes and malls. The reality is quite different. Cities have entire neighborhoods that are “suburban” in nature and entirely auto dependent. Increasingly, suburbs are investing in building more active, mixed-use nodes that include walkability, transit, and mobility options other than the auto. The real distinction is less urban vs. suburban, and more WALKABLE urban vs. DRIVEABLE suburban. Those environments can and do exist in a range of locales, city and suburb alike. The aforementioned WalkUp WakeUp Call is a great resource by which to understand the evolution from city vs. suburb to walkable vs. auto oriented.

My takeaway, and one that suburban regions around the nation should take not of, is that there exists a best of both worlds approach. The ideal situation for many is to live in a single detached home within a bedroom community that is within walking distance to a downtown or mixed-use center. However, this often comes at a significant price premium, and often at the expense of additional square footage and yard.

For those who either cannot afford suburban living on the edge of an urban district or desires more space, a growing segment of the market seeks to be no more than a short drive away from such an environment. Those regions that host a larger number of these desirable, walkable neighborhoods hold a clear competitive advantage for a segment of the market that is not only growing, but one that is a key driver for corporate relocation decisions as companies follow talent, rather than the other way around (yes, even when more will be working from home – after all, if you are working from home, is it not MORE important to have access to a variety of environments and experiences, especially those that were once available at and around the workplace). 

So, what does this mean for City Managers, Economic Development Agencies, and communities in general? Two recommendations:

(1)   In the short term, highlight your walkable neighborhood assets

Use Place-Branding as a tool that differentiates your region from the competition. Tell a story that conveys the best of suburban home life with access to cool, walkable, and culturally rich enclaves. Market the heck out of your downtowns, your new mixed-use projects. Highlight transit connections, mobility options, and transit-oriented development.

Some people (and businesses!) may want to move to those downtowns and mixed-use projects. Many more want to live within a walk, or short drive. If you have such neighborhoods today, leverage that competitive advantage in your messaging, your marketing, your promotions – and your economic development and corporate retention/attraction strategies. 

(2)   In the long term, plan for the type of growth the market demands. Time has long passed when traditional Euclidian zoning and single use, auto-dependent sprawl met the markets’ needs. This is even more true for the younger workforce – millennials with or without families, and the employers who move to regions specifically to tap into this segment of the workforce. 

Utilize Place-based economic development strategies that focus on talent retention and attraction as a key driver for corporate relocation decisions. Encourage (and at the least, make legal) the development of mixed-use projects that offer the necessary densities to make a district hop. Explore the suburban retrofit of strip centers and malls into walkable districts that contain a significant and needed residential component (added benefits: the addition of more residential uses results in greater regional housing affordability and the expansion of local spending power to uplift the local economy. Both issues are all the more pressing with covid-related reductions in municipal tax revenues and local spending).

In addition, take a new look at the nature of your transportation and infrastructure – invest in walkability, bikeability, mobility, and connectivity. Those investments will have far greater ROI than another overly wide, auto-only road with low tax generating (and often struggling) retail and parking lots on either side. 

Yes, our world is changing. Many of these changes were already underway – but today’s crisis has resulted in fast-tracking. 

The question is are you prepared?

Is your City capitalizing on the assets that exist today in light of these new and amplified trends? Are you utilizing Place-branding to tell the story of suburban living with access to an urban lifestyle? As to economic development strategies you looking at the value of place and adjusting your comprehensive plans and transportation/infrastructure strategies in a manner that can better capture the growing desire for walkable, mixed-use environments within suburban regions?

One is a short-term strategy that you can employ now. The other is a longer-term look to the future. Both should be undertaken, working in concert with one another. The result will be an economic development advantage for your city, with improved quality of life for residents, and increased economic activity and tax revenue generation to help local business now, and for generations to come. 

If you would like to learn more about how to properly position your city or region to capitalize on these trends from a place-branding and/or place-based economic development perspective, shoot me a line and let’s chat. This may be my line of work, but it is a true labor of love.