Think back to your hometown’s historic district. You might not have lived there, but you might have visited the post office or antique shop. What types of buildings did it have? Odds are they were the styles now romanticized in the concept of Main Street America: two or three stories tall, with tall windows and recessed entryways, perhaps a wide sidewalk or American flag out front. They had their similarities, sure, but they were all unique in their own way. This architecture once populated cities and towns across America.
Now consider where you actually grew up, outside those historic districts, and where you probably live now. Do those types of buildings exist today? Of course not. Instead of distinctive buildings that still lend special sense of place and funky feel to old towns today, today we have shopping centers and strip malls. One of the most obvious products of the suburban sprawl that has dominated American development since the 1950s has been the generic buildings that now populate the outer fringes of communities from Los Angeles to Dillwyn, Va.
Much of this growth has been driven by the explosion of the automobile. Instead of being built to a pedestrian scale, much of the suburbs are now built for the car. On a vibrant city sidewalk, you might be four or five people across walking; on a busy road, you often are four or five cars across. The pattern of wide roads and high speeds has maintained this scale but with consequences not only for pedestrians and architectural variety, but also for the economy.
Christopher Leinberger at the University of Michigan has written about how our current stock of building types influenced the rise of the recent recession. As a result of massive increases in home value and demand created by the housing boom, developers built speculation housing across the country and commercial developments to serve them. Many of these developments were built as cheaply as possible, with an eye toward best serving the public driving on nearby roads. The recession has decimated the value and attractiveness of these commercial developments. Leinberger attributes this trend to the growing appeal urban and/or mixed-use areas have, often at suburbia’s expense. We simply overbuilt our demand.
How can we remedy this situation? How can we get to a point where we’re not as reliant on the shopping center? One solution is by building taller. This has happened thanks to the invisible hand of the free market in places like Tyson’s Corner outside Washington or the Perimeter area outside Atlanta. A concerted effort by officials and developers across the country, however, especially in urban and suburban areas, can help bring denser environments that not only are more distinctive but also encourage more demand and use of transit services. These forms of transportation can help clean our air and lessen auto congestion. In small towns, we can encourage those businesses to move into historic areas and help breathe lives into the declining centers of towns.
Given the current economic climate, we have the opportunity to change the ways we focus our land use patterns. We can start changing the conversation and focus on development town centers and other nodes that actively serve pedestrians and bikers in addition to drivers, places that focus on streets and buildings and not parking lots. With the right steps, we can help make the suburban shopping center as obsolete as 1970s skyscrapers look today.
Guest Contributor: Will Feeney