Seven Ways to Make the Suburbs Suck Less

Engineered Mingling and Connectivity in the 'Burbs

If you’re reading this, you’re probably already enamored with the idea of cities - bustling hubs of commerce and creativity, full of diverse people who both shape and are shaped by the city itself, as they walk, roll, or bike in and among its dynamic neighborhoods.

And if you’re reading this, you’re probably also entirely nonplussed by the idea of North American suburbs - vast collections of bedroom enclaves, homogenous and stagnant, cleaved into sterile fragments, nearly unnavigable without the permanent prosthetic of a personal vehicle. 

For many and often overlapping reasons, interest in urban life is having a bit of a renaissance. Yet, two populations can have a tough time making the beloved city work for them: single adults, and families with young children. 

Though a progressive household may yearn to send their children to diverse public schools and leave the car for weekend trips, the average family still finds itself retreating to the ‘burbs for any living space with more than two bedrooms. While the city life seems ideal for working singles, the high cost of private apartments often means these folks are left with the choice of long commutes or sharing a larger living space with strangers. As our city development policies catch up to the needs of both single-person households and families looking to live where they work, what if we could find some ways to retrofit our suburban spaces so that they’re more connected, welcoming, and safer for everyone?

Just like it doesn’t take much to take a building from bland to beautiful, a few strategic breaks in the physical barriers that hedge us into the suburban mindset can nudge our segmented subdivisions into a better version of themselves.

Tim Burton exquisitely captures my personal idea of hell on earth.

Shared Mailboxes
I’m sure most of us have seen the opening of Edward Scissorhands, where each house has its own lawn, driveway, and mailbox. 

Conversely, multifamily buildings often have all their mailboxes on one ground floor. Even if you don’t spend quality time with everyone in the building, as a resident you’ll usually at least meet your neighbors when you get your mail. Instead of each house having its own on-site mailbox, shared mailboxes make it an easier lift to take a short walk in the neighborhood and interact with our neighbors and environment. Take a look at mine on the left, which is used by my own household and the planned 4-unit development next door, where I’ve met and chatted with several of my neighbors in ways I wouldn’t have otherwise.

They both save the postperson some time. Only one is primarily reached on foot.

On the right is an example I don’t think is optimized. My friend lives in a large-lot subdivision which also has these shared mailboxes, but many of them are too far from the homes they serve. This encourages people to drive to them or stop on their drive home. They even provide a parking space for it! To encourage foot traffic, things like this should really only serve as many homes as there are within a block or two.

Big Parks and Tiny Lots
Big backyards - one of the main advantages to suburban life - is really a double-edged sword. Large lots may offer privacy and freedom for houses with pets or small kids, but usually come at a steep cost: higher water bills, leisure time lost to maintaining the yard, and an entire shed full of expensive tools. Unless you’re reverting your lot to a native grassland, the fantasy of land ownership goes up in the smoke of a lawnmower every spring. What we could do instead is trade large individual lots for smaller ones (say, 5,000 square feet or less) and have abundantly large parks in close proximity. I really like this enormous 56-acre park I saw in suburban Vancouver earlier this year. It’s an especially good use of land that would be otherwise undesirable for housing because it’s under the power lines. See how close together the houses are, on the left side of the picture? This park also contains a community garden and large enclosed dog run, among other amenities.

Pacific Community Park in Clark County, WA

Mullet Houses
Welcome in the front, party in the back! Front yards are the biggest waste of residential space. Except for twice a year when they might be filled with Halloween or Christmas decorations, this valuable land largely goes unused. If I have to have a yard of some sort, let me have as much of it for my kids and pets as possible, instead of setting a third of it aside for postwar curb appeal. The small front garden space on these homes in Alexandria, VA offers a little privacy and distance from the street, but doesn’t doom the occupant to entire Saturdays of lawn mowing.

Who among us really needs front yard space for
anything more than flying a flag?

Make sure you can see the front door …
I used to live in a subdivision where more than half the houses looked like this from the street: 

Where is the front door? Do I knock on the garage?

Though we had adequate sidewalks and it was a quiet place to have a morning run, there was hardly any compulsion to walk about the neighborhood; there were too many physical barriers to interfacing with the folks we shared it with. Though the lots were small (under 3,000sf), the front doors were set so far back from the sidewalk that you’d have to shout at your neighbor or feel like you were trespassing in order to greet them. Many of them were even tucked behind stucco walls or 6ft fences. Being able to see the front door from the street and sidewalk makes a place more welcoming. 

… But not the car.
Alleyways are the unsung heroes of good walkability. In a world where we will likely continue to experience car dominance for a long time, the best thing we can do is concentrate our car storage in a way that supports walkability and conversion of surface parking to other uses in the future. Take a look at this alley in one of my old neighborhoods on the east coast.

Alleyway in a row home suburb

This not only served as a place for everyone to get their cars onto their own lots without cluttering up the front of their homes, but also allowed a convenient place for trashcan pickup and an extra connection point on an otherwise large suburban block. 

Rear parking, accessed from the alleyway

Unfortunately, this development had much larger front yards than backyards, but we also didn’t have to watch for cars coming out from each home. All private parking was through the alley, behind the homes, instead of in front.

Paths for people, not cars… One of the driving forces of suburbia is how very far apart everything is. Even when destinations are close as the crow flies, there are often physical barriers that can only be surmounted by driving around it. This is common in gated communities or walled-off subdivisions, where in order to get to the shopping center or park right next to you, you have to traverse a winding and lengthy pathway that borders a loud, high-speed corridor. An easy way to amend this is to formalize the holes that kids have been cutting through fences since time immemorial. Three humble bollards indicate that this ingress is for pedestrians only.

…Unless its an emergency - What if the person who needs to cut travel time is behind the wheel of a firetruck or an ambulance? There are places we can define as suburban that could still benefit from traffic calming. Take this street in my hometown, in a busy tourist district close to the beach. This curb is easy to go over on foot or on bike, and there are curb cuts on both sides for those in wheelchairs, but it’s just a bit too tall for the average sedan to go over without scraping. From a driver’s perspective, it’s clear that personal vehicles aren’t supposed to go over this pathway, but an emergency vehicle with higher clearance could use it in a pinch. This makes for a quieter, safer street without reducing connectivity.

Traffic calming in a highly pedestrianized suburb

Even though healthy cities can provide something for everyone, and I have hope that we’re on the cusp of an urban reawakening, suburbs will be part of our North American landscape for the foreseeable future. That doesn’t mean, however, that we have to keep repeating the design mistakes that keep suburban life isolating and mundane. Over time, reassessing the way we physically design our neighborhoods, inside and outside the city, will help us eat the stampeding elephants of habitat loss, car dependency, and loneliness - one bite at a time.

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Not A Planner

Krista Jeffries is a Partner Writer for Resident Urbanist. Originally from Virginia Beach, she is a married mother of three currently living on California’s Central Coast. Her many adventures have taken her to healthcare, public art, housing advocacy, and four countries on three continents. She currently serves on the board of the local Housing Authority and is one of the founding members of SLO County YIMBY. She has previously written for the San Luis Obispo Tribune and New Times San Luis Obispo. You can follow her on the website formerly known as Twitter.


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