Flexibility Is Key in Retrofitting Suburbs

Designing adaptability will help suburban areas meet residents' needs over the long term.

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Reuters

The suburbs are spreading rapidly in Australia. By one count, more than 170,000 single-family homes were built on the outskirts of Australian cities between 2006 and 2011. That's one about every 15 minutes. Suburban growth is happening and will continue to happen. But how it happens is becoming a concern. A new report argues that these places – and suburbs everywhere – risk becoming unlivable and undesirable places in the near future.

What suburbs need is more flexibility, argues the report from the Grattan Institute, an independent think tank located in the suburbs of Melbourne. The suburbs being built in Australia today, the report says, are too focused on meeting the short-term needs of current residents, and therefore ignore the long-term. These new suburbs have too much separation of land uses, too uniformly sized housing units and lots, and too little connection to other parts of the cities they abut.

"Flexibility and adaptability are important because residents of the future need choices about where they live, work and play. Social service delivery, transport choices and housing options need to change as communities change," the report notes. "Suburbs that do not adapt will become less desirable places to live. They will fail to attract new residents and new businesses and won't undergo the process of renewal that is essential to a vibrant city."

The authors of this report concede that suburban style development has improved in recent years, with more builders paying attention to open space, walkability, resource conservation, community building and other urban design concepts. But more improvement is needed. The report notes that greenfield suburban development is likely to continue in Australia as it has in many places, the U.S. included. The idea is not to stop it, but to help it evolve into a development type that is able to change and adapt to the shifting needs of its residents over time.

One major problem, the report notes, is the limited variety of housing types. Moving into a smaller home in the neighborhood as needs change or as people age isn't really possible when there's only one type of housing. When retail areas are centrally controlled by large corporations or management groups, there are few options for local business to emerge and succeed. And as places become less desirable overall, populations fall and business suffers, bringing the whole economy down.

The reality of suburban development doesn't look to be going away. But it doesn't have to maintain this pattern. By integrating more flexibility into the way these areas are designed, zoned and maintained, the suburbs of the near future may be able to provide the quality of life people want over the long term.

Top image: The wooden frame of a new house rises in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. Credit: Mick Tsikas / Reuters

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.