ULI New York Blog

The End of Suburban Sprawl? Observations from Ed McMahon’s Summer Trips

by Ed McMahon, Senior Resident Fellow

Carmel, Indiana Town Center

Carmel, Indiana Town Center

Is the end of suburban sprawl here? No, not yet, but on my recent trips to a variety of communities across the country speaking about the ULI report Shifting Suburbs: Reinventing Infrastructure for Compact Development, I saw ample evidence that the autocentric model that has long characterized American suburbs is changing.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in Carmel, Indiana: a large, fast growing suburb north of Indianapolis. In Carmel, many examples of the kind of compact, walkable development once confined to cities are on exhibit.

Today, on a visit to Carmel, Indiana—a suburb in the American Heartland—you see a dense, mixed-use town center, with housing over retail, bicycle commuters, national chain stores in urban format buildings and more.

What’s more, Carmel is not alone. A growing number of suburbs are developing and redeveloping in a much more compact, multi-modal, mixed-use way.

This summer, I have seen examples of the changing suburban paradigm in communities as diverse as Germantown, Tennessee; Gardiner City, Idaho; Arvada, Colorado; and Rockville, Maryland:

  • In Gardiner City, Idaho, a Boise suburb once primarily known for cluttered commercial strips, you can now also see a heavily used greenbelt and bicycle trail, handsome live work units and mixed-income housing clustered around pocket parks and roundabouts.
Boise River Greenbelt, Gardiner City, Idaho

Boise River Greenbelt, Gardiner City, Idaho

  •  In the Memphis suburb of Germantown, I saw a quaint town square surrounded by restaurants and stores.
  •  In Arvada, Colorado a first ring suburb of Denver I saw another town square, urban style apartments and construction at the sites of three light rail stations that will soon connect suburban Arvada to downtown Denver.  During my visit to Arvada, I also spoke at a ULI Colorado event on Shifting Suburbs. Read ULI Colorado’s write ups here and here.

And finally, there is Rockville, Maryland, a Washington, DC suburb long associated with Rockville Pike: the epitome of an ugly, congested, “Anywhere USA” kind of retail strip. This reputation developed in the early 1970’s, when the City of Rockville decided to demolish much of its historic downtown and to replace it with the Rockville Mall: a concrete colossus surrounded by acres of asphalt.

The mall struggled and was eventually surpassed by White Flint Mall, a larger, more upscale mall at the opposite end of Rockville Pike. Now, the City of Rockville has torn the Rockville Mall down and  put the downtown back.


Rockville, Maryland Town Center

What was once an enclosed shopping mall surrounded by parking is now a grid of streets with housing over retail, a lively central park, a new public library, sidewalk cafes, structured parking and a new sense of community pride.

Ironically, White Flint Mall, the upscale competitor at the other end of “the Pike” is now also slated for demolition. It will be replaced by an even larger mixed-use urban center containing up to 10,000 units of housing. While reconstruction of Rockville Pike has not yet begun, it will eventually be transformed from an auto-dominated strip into an urban boulevard. The new and improved Pike will be accessible by car, but also served by transit, bicycle and pedestrian facilities. Rockville Pike is a case study in the Shifting Suburbs report.

Travel teaches you many things. For me, this summer’s lesson was that the suburbs are changing. And while the transition from spread out, single use, auto-dependent development still has a long way to go, it is apparent that the market—driven by changing demographics—is slowly accomplishing the transformation of suburban places into more compact, mixed-use walkable communities.

Read more about the Shifting Suburbs summer 2013 speaker series here.

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