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American suburbs are about to look more like European cities

COVID-19 may accelerate a pattern that turns dull, transit-oriented developments into neighborhoods that resemble bustling cities. But there are risks.

American suburbs are about to look more like European cities
[Source Photo: Diego Garcia Jimenez/iStock]
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Over the past few decades, transit-oriented developments have risen in inner-ring suburbs across North America, adding homes and shops near the transit lines that shuttle workers in and out of core cities. It’s an old style of development, one more familiar in dense, transit-rich European countries, but one that caught a renewed interest in the 1990s. In places like Pasadena, California, and Aurora, Illinois, TOD projects leveraged transit access to create a more multifaceted sense of urbanity in places where it might not have emerged on its own.

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But now, with the pandemic upending commuting patterns and raising questions about the future of central business districts, the shape of TODs is changing. They may soon make the transition from transit hubs to around-the-clock neighborhoods. “I think you’re going to see a different type of regional commercial offering, things that are a little more supportive of everyday life rather than convenience,” says Robyn Brown, an associate director at IBI Group, an urban development professional services firm.

Del Mar Station, Pasadena, California. [Photo: Flickr user Brett VA]
As Brown tells it, the traditional pattern of people commuting from the suburbs into cities may be on the wane. “Previously you used to see bi-directional travel from the suburban TOD to the downtown, and that’s not going to be the dominant model anymore,” she says. “You may be seeing TODs increasing their office and retail services to make themselves into places rather than hubs that you live in and maybe play in but you still go downtown to your job.”

There hasn’t been a decreased interest in TODs in recent years or even during the pandemic, Brown says, but “a recognition that they might be different, and I think that is affecting thoughts around programming and land-use type.” And that may mean that the transit-oriented developments being planned and designed now will end up looking a lot different from what’s been built to date.

“There was a wave of TOD that took place in the late ’90s and the early 2000s that in a suburban context did tend to look like a more dense downtown that really focused on multifamily with retail uses on the ground floor,” says Drew Williams-Clark, managing director of urban resilience at the sustainable communities-focused Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago. One famous example is Orenco Station, a TOD neighborhood development just outside Portland, Oregon. Built from scratch and opened in 2003, the development features narrow streets, regionally inspired architecture, and a variety of building types with plentiful ground-floor retail.

Orenco Station, Hillsboro, Oregon, 2004. [Photo: Flickr user Brett VA]
Some but not all TODs have sought to create mini districts, with a healthy mix of commercial and residential uses and a heavy emphasis on commuters and people without cars. What got built, though, often fell short.

“That was always the dream of TOD, that we could get this real true mix of uses that have benefits to people all across the income spectrum and cultural and race spectrum, too. But that didn’t really happen in the first wave,” Williams-Clark says. “People that are transit reliant as opposed to auto reliant can’t necessarily afford luxury rents, and that is the first thing that tended to pop up when TOD zoning happened.”

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Even before the pandemic, though, TOD offerings began to change. Rather than being dominated by national chain restaurants, some suburban TODs around Chicago began to see more neighborhood-centric retail, like convenience stores or places to get a cracked phone screen replaced, he says.

Brown says this trend toward live-work places is beginning to guide the planning of new TODs in Ontario, Canada, where the regional GO transit system is being expanded. She points to a planned development in the town of Milton, about 30 miles southwest of Toronto, where city leaders recently moved ahead with plans to redevelop the downtown core as a walkable residential neighborhood, with the regional train station at its center.

“I think that’s the influence of the 15-minute city and making these places small communities that you can truly live in,” Brown says. “The transit gives you access to other areas but isn’t the daily focal point.”

She says other suburban TOD projects are likely to follow a similar model, with an emphasis on the needs of residents, and an urban form geared around pedestrians and cyclists instead of cars.

Urban planning and TOD consultant Mariia Zimmerman says these kinds of 24-hour mixed-use communities are likely to become more common in suburban TODs. “I don’t know that this is new as much as there may be more suburban market activity happening,” she tells Fast Company via email. “All of these dynamics are of course in flux at the moment, but I remain optimistic that in the long run suburban retrofits that support TOD and walkable, mixed-use urbanism will have staying power.”

COVID-19 may be accelerating that trend. “The pandemic is causing all of these crazy phenomena to pop up in the real estate market,” Williams-Clark says. “And the biggest thing is in urban areas we’ve seen this trend toward people with means moving to transit-rich areas.”

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That may lead to more diverse commercial and civic offerings, but it could also create challenges for TODs without affordable housing. As suburban developments start to look and feel more like wealthy urban neighborhoods, they risk turning into playgrounds for the rich and alienating those who want the action of an urban neighborhood without the high cost.

Brown says it’s too early to tell whether the impacts of the pandemic will lead to large-scale, lasting changes in commuting patterns, and whether a shifting population will directly lead to more engaging TOD neighborhood centers. But, she says, they aren’t likely to go away any time soon. “From a market perspective and for private development, it’s still a pretty strong bet, because you’re basically piggybacking on a huge piece of infrastructure,” she says. “That’s a long-term sustainable business model for a lot of developers.”