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Rule, Suburbia

Howard's great vision remains a compelling one, and not only in America. Today, despite differing cultural patterns and political systems, virtually every major metropolitan area in the advanced world is suburbanizing, and usually rapidly. The urban centers of Tokyo, Sydney, London, Frankfurt and even that paragon of enforced centralization, Paris, are either losing population or barely holding steady as both jobs and people flee to the periphery.

Yet the suburbs have largely failed in creating Howard's "new civilization." They lack a basic definition of what they are and the boundaries between them often seem vague at best. This is sprawl's most lamented and least admirable quality: It produces vast "slurbs" of undistinguished, unappealing space.

_____Building Out_____
Graphic: Central city and suburban office space development in the United States

And yet, build them and people come. It's amazing, given that suburbs often suffer from a deadening lack of things to do. And then there's the traffic. This remains their worst defining feature. In Los Angeles, where I live, the hours wasted in traffic have doubled since the early 1980s. Fleeing to the farther fringe, such as San Bernardino-Riverside, is no escape -- the traffic there is growing worse at an even faster pace. Suburbanites around the country, from greater Washington to greater Atlanta to the San Francisco Bay area, all register similar complaints.

Ironically, this may prove the new imperative for suburbia's evolution. With transit to downtowns and other suburbs increasingly dicey, suburbs are being forced to supply an ever-wider array of basic needs, from cultural infrastructure to shopping and business services. They cannot lean as heavily on the central core, even if they wanted to. "In the San Fernando Valley, we have achieved our own kind of secession," attorney David Fleming, a leader of the suburban area's failed attempt to break away from Los Angeles, quipped to me recently. "It's called traffic."

The digital revolution has also made it easier for suburbanites to bypass the city. The home-based workforce has grown 23 percent over the past decade, according to the U.S. Census. A lawyer working in Thousand Oaks, an often excruciating commute from downtown Los Angeles that can take as long as two hours, can now do his job without braving the freeway except to appear in court.

The urbanization of suburbia -- the creation of a more sophisticated, self-sufficient community -- is already beginning. From the suburbs of Northern Virginia to the Los Angeles basin, cities are restoring the commercial cores of what had once been autonomous small towns. Often devastated by malls and big-box shopping centers, these downtowns once gave suburban towns a sense of distinctiveness -- something many now wish to recover. Other places are attempting to create whole new communities, with their own defined town centers complete with fine restaurants, smart shops and even nightclubs.

Over the past decade, for example, Naperville, Ill., has grown from simply another Chicago suburb into a definable place, with a well-appointed old town center, a lovely riverside park and even some striking public architecture. It is filled with pedestrians from the surrounding area. "Our downtown is what keeps us together," says Christine Jeffries, a civic leader in the community of 138,000. "It gives us an identity."

This new principle of village-building can also be seen in some newer developments, such as Valencia in Southern California. With a well-defined town center, paths for pedestrians and cyclists, a lake and a range of housing types, Valencia is closer to a traditional village environment than the prototypical sprawl suburb so common in the region. This model is being repeated in numerous other places, particularly fast-growing regions such as southwest Florida, suburban Atlanta and the outer reaches of Houston.

With this new development has come a relatively new phenomenon, the construction of large-scale cultural and religious institutions in the periphery. The suburbs are now host to some of the nation's largest new cultural centers -- the Music Center at Strathmore that just opened in north Bethesda, the Cobb Galleria Centre outside Atlanta and the sparkling Orange County Performing Arts Center in Southern California -- as well as a plethora of smaller, community-based arts facilities. And, at a time when churches in the hearts of many major cities are closing, new churches, as well as synagogues, mosques and Hindu temples reflecting suburbia's growing ethnic diversity, are rising in the outer periphery.

In the coming years, the opportunities to develop suburban identity will grow as baby boomers look to trade in their tract houses for something more walkable and compact. Some urban advocates see them headed for the major downtowns, but high prices, cramped conditions and distance from family and friends militate against a return to the city.

Instead, many developers see suburban villages as ideal places for the swelling ranks of empty nesters. "They don't want to move to Florida and they want to stay close to the kids," says Jeff Lee, CEO of a prominent D.C. real estate, architecture and planning firm. "What they are looking for is a funky suburban development -- funky but safe."

Village environments might also provide an affordable housing alternative for people who want to be in the suburbs, but can't yet swing the much-desired single-family house. It could also offer a congenial environment for singles and younger couples without children. According to the last census, the number of childless couples and singles grew more than twice as much in the suburbs as it did in the central cities over the last decade.

This redefinition of suburbia into someplace more diverse, interesting and multifaceted represents one of the most revolutionary developments of our times. It provides us with an opportunity to stop complaining about sprawl and start learning how to make better the places that most of us have chosen as home.

Author's e-mail: jkotkin@pacbell.net

Joel Kotkin, an Irvine Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, teaches urban and suburban history at the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles and is the author of "The City: A Global History," to be published by Modern Library in April.

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