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The Literal Landscape
by Simmons B. Buntin, Editor/Publisher, Terrain.org

The Good Suburb

Omnis civitas corpus est.  Every city is a living body.  A suburban city, or city as suburb, is no exception.  As such, it has needs like any organic creature—to feed, to grow, to dispose of waste, and ultimately to flourish.  In American metropolitan areas of the postwar era, it apparently also has the need to reproduce, spawning suburban forms like a den of overachieving rabbits; and then perhaps even to die (though this is seldom a feature hoped for).

As I was driving through the very new suburban development outside Reno recently—sadly not astonished by the similarity of houses that, absent the western Nevada jagged landscape, would have me guessing that I´m in Raleigh or Racine or Redondo Beach as much as Reno—I thought about St. Augustine's quote:  Omnis civitas corpus est.  I thought about the suburb as a dynamic organism, about the often cancerous, low-density suburban growth generally termed "sprawl," and about just what it is that can make a suburb "good."  Of course, it is foolish to think that there is just one "it"—one fix.  But I am certain that the problem with much of the nation's post-World War II suburban development is not the fact that there are suburbs, but rather in the form, or lack thereof, of their growth.  Acknowledging that suburbs are not, of course, inherently evil, I'd like to focus on just how a suburb can be good.

The good suburb strives to be the sustainable suburb.  That is, it works to ensure the equitable preservation of the built and natural environments, cultural heritages, and economic opportunities for all citizens.  As part of a larger region, it does not deplete the varied environmental, economic, and social resources from the surrounding region without a mechanism for replenishing them, just as species do not deplete the resources of their habitats without risk of death or the ability to move on (which is, in a way, what suburban sprawl may be).

Downtown Boulder, Colorado
From a land use perspective especially, the Denver suburb of Boulder is a "good" suburb.
Photo by S. Buntin.

Whether "good" or not, all suburbs share a dynamic relationship with the central city or cities and other suburbs to form the metropolitan region.  The physical, economic, and social "shape" of suburbs, then, affect and are affected by the shapes of the central city and other suburbs—as well as the people who live and work within them and the surrounding landscapes.

Historically, central cities played the primary role as dominant employment and cultural centers of regions.  As suburbs continue to grow, however, the monocentric makeup of many regions changes to a polycentric one, with suburbs themselves becoming central employment and cultural locations.  The relationships among cities within regions, then, become more integrated and complex: suburbs do not exist as singular entities, and in working toward a sustainable future cannot act as such.

Yet the good suburb retains its own organic nature—its own community identity—in a regional context by integrating a variety of environmental (built and natural), economic, and social factors, providing options for citizens at all socioeconomic levels.  The primary way in which the good suburb manifests itself is through land use, or urban form.  How a suburb is laid out, whether through a master plan or in a less "organized" manner, determines everything from protection of an integration with the natural landscape to commuting patterns, citizen diversity to economic stability.

Primarily, the good suburb is pedestrian-oriented.  It does not discriminate against the citizen who does not have access to an automobile.  That is not to say that the good suburb cannot accommodate the automobile—indeed, it must if it is to be successful in today's world—but it places a higher priority on the safe and enjoyable movement of people on foot (so to speak) or through mass transit.  The shapes of buildings, walkways, public spaces, landscaping, and all other features of the city and its structure (and infrastructure) are, then, oriented at eye-level.  Such details make the suburb a pleasurable place to be, and are recognized through building facades, street furniture, sidewalk and building materials, diverse and usable public spaces (plazas, courtyards, parks, etc.), and vistas of natural areas and well-designed buildings.

The good suburb has a downtown, or core—a central location symbolic, environmental, economic, and cultural.  If large enough, it has other, subordinate core areas (often called urban villages or neighborhood centers).  These core areas are generally more compact than the development on the periphery of the metropolitan edge, and oriented around public spaces, civic buildings, and a mix of uses including residential, commercial retail, commercial office, institutional, and perhaps even industrial.  They thrive at many hours of the day, on weekends as well as weekdays, offering physical and cultural amenities that keep a critical mass of people who in turn allow businesses to thrive.  The best of these are also integrated with the natural environment, so that the good suburb has indeed grown from and is a part of its natural heritage.

A wide variety of housing for all family types and incomes is provided throughout the good suburb, though will vary from one to another.  It is densest around the urban core, but throughout the suburb always compact enough to make pedestrian access from housing to places of employment, shopping, recreation, and others a viable opportunity.  Architecture—not only of housing, but of all buildings—is based on the history of the city-suburb, not mimicking but rather growing logically from the earliest settlements, as applicable.  Regional architecture is then coupled with site design and infrastructure placement that is in agreement with the natural landscape.  It does not cut down hills, but uses them to create a unique setting.  It does not strain against the elements, but rather uses them to enhance resource efficiency and residential comfort.

Core centers, housing, and all parts of the good suburb are interconnected locally and regionally through safe, enjoyable, and usable transportation networks.  Mass transit options such as light rail, trolleys, and buses are fundamental, and have priority over automobile use.  They are comfortable, convenient, and cost-effective.  These are coupled with pedestrian and bicycle paths, which themselves are integrated into a variety of natural and landscaped trails and greenspaces throughout the suburb and metropolitan area.  Mobility is therefore not restricted by user type, ability, or income.

Westminsters, Colorado's, Sunstream Residential Subdivision

The non-regionalized, non-pedstrian-oriented nature of housing (above) and strip retail (below) in the Denver suburb of Westminster make it difficult, from a land use perspective, to classify the city as a "good" suburb.
Photo by S. Buntin.

An All-Too-Common Strip Retail Center in Westminster, Colorado

Preservation of open space is of utmost importance, and is accomplished by first protecting the unique natural areas—wetlands, rock outcroppings, streams, etc.—and then by integrating infrastructure and buildings with the land (and water) so as to protect and utilize natural drainage patterns, climatic variations, forested areas, and other aspects of the natural landscape.  The good suburb is ideally completely integrated into a regional open space system—natural and agricultural—to help prevent sprawl.

The good suburb and its structures, citizens, and systems emphasize resource efficiency.  This means that both renewable and non-renewable energy are used wisely and efficiently through land use and building design, that non-renewable resources such as water are used efficiently and preserved, and that waste is reduced, reused, and recycled in a variety of environmentally, economically, and socially equitable manners.

The good suburb learns from its past.  As such, it builds upon the good parts of its and the region's development through historic preservation and adaptive reuse, ensuring initially that buildings and manmade places have "aging-in-place" ability.  New growth does not compete with but rather complements existing buildings, and often new technologies that make citizen quality of life better and more efficient are integrated into historic sites.  Citizens learn about the history of their suburb and therefore come to respect it, knowing that that is where community identity and support truly begin.

Overall, the good suburb is diverse.  Its buildings and spaces—public and private—are diverse, just as the natural landscape from which it grows is diverse.  Its people are diverse in culture, race, income, and profession.  But the diversity of the place allows residents and visitors to interact and get along well, and also works toward mutual respect and safety.  And economic opportunities are diverse, so that people with different education levels and work skills can participate at varying levels, even while educational opportunities are encouraged and abound.

Every suburb is a living body.  Based on human scale, diversity, mutual respect, and a sense of place, the good suburb thrives as its own entity within the context of the metropolitan region.


Simmons B. Buntin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. With Ken Pirie, he is the author of the new book Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places (Planetizen Press, 2013). His books of poetry are Riverfall (2005) and Bloom (2010), both published by Ireland's Salmon Poetry. Recent work has appeared in North American Review, ISLE, Versal, Orion, Hawk & Handsaw, High Desert Journal, and Kyoto Journal. Catch up with him at www.SimmonsBuntin.com.
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This essay originally appeared in Simmons Buntin's graduate thesis, Community Redeveloped: Redeveloping Suburban Downtowns Using Principles of Sustainability, and later in Bulletin of Science, Technology, and Society.


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