Center Cities AND “Suburbs” Will Have 21st Century Renaissance

Christopher Leinberger, Visiting Fellow with the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program and director real estate graduate studies for the University of Michigan, published a seminal article under “The Avenue” in The New Republic on July 9, 2010 titled, Walking – Not Just for Cities Anymore.  If you are concerned about re-urbanization, death of suburbs and other adventures in these trying times, or do not think an imposition of planning that would profoundly alter the character of your community could possibly occure, I strongly encourage reading his article at 

Leinberger has determined that 20th Century concepts of “City Center” and “Suburbia” confuse conversation on issues of growth, livability and sustainable city planning for the future.  He is using the terms “drivable sub-urban” and “walkable urban” as better descriptors, unencumbered by decades of demographics tied to the terms that no longer describe many of the places assigned to them by statisticians, analysts and planners.  He also believes that “…70 to 80 percent of new development should be in walkable urban places, and my research leads me to think the majority of that development will be in the suburbs”, or rather those areas referred to as suburbs by most people including governmental representatives above the community level, today.

Princeton is termed a “suburban” place, a distinction most would apply to, for example, Orange and Davis in California as well as thousands of similar places located relatively near to or enmeshed within major metropolitan areas.  Those places were not created as “suburbs”, but grew up and in most instances prospered as resilient, sustainable, relatively independent small towns or cities for most of their histories, until swallowed up by the “suburban” development resulting from the decay of traditional central cities and by the nation’s chosen (or laissez faire – take your choice) system for most easily providing housing and jobs to meet the needs of a rapidly expanding post-World War II population – and bypassing the difficult challenge of revitalizing the old “central cities”.

Leinberger states that he agrees with Joel Kotkin on “…the main issue, the redevelopment of the central city and the transformation of the suburbs into more human scaled environments, the reason we may disagree on the magnitude of what I think is a structural shift in how we build is the continued use of obsolete terms and data sets(emphasis added).

As I briefly discussed in my July 8, 2010 post, Landscape of Change ( read it at ), under the sub-heading “Cultural History or Manufactured Culture in Cities?”,

“Man has had a similar influence in the design, construction and ‘revitalization’ of cities as he has had on ‘nature’ – whether in dense urban nodes or across broad suburban/megalopolitan development.  Within urban areas of long duration, a true culture has developed, with antecedents, roots, history and contemporary presence.  Degradation of the urban environment may have also degraded its culture.  Within newer ‘planned communities’ and many suburbs, a similar culture does exist in many cases, albeit necessarily younger, often embedded from a historical ‘town’ once removed from a nearby ‘city’ but now enmeshed in the sphere of influence or totally buried in a megalopolis.  That suburban growth may have also degraded those pre-existing cultures, burying them or making them seem inconsequential as they are overwhelmed by the larger influence of ‘The City’.

Orange and Davis, California are two excellent examples of this reality, with two entirely place-based approaches to Reformation and Renaissance — “back into the future” — as sustainable, resilient, walkable/bike-able urban places on a smaller scale (fewer than 200,000 inhabitants).

Saddled with decades of “Big City” led and mandated regional planning initiatives (I am not saying that regional planning is wrong – it is very necessary, but also needs reformation including of its urbanocentric dogma), such small cities wallowed under the burden of Center-City focus laws and funded projects ranging from “freeways” to regional school, library, medical, cultural, you-name-it systems that sucked much of the independence and individuality out of them and deposited it in the “Big City” like booty from a foreign conquest. 

The “urban viceroys” conquored politically and imposed a pace that primarily benefitted their own commerce, institutions and spectacles at the expense of the “territories” renamed “suburbs”. 

And people complained about Wal-Mart allegedly sucking the life out of towns!

Today, Davis, California is at the forefront of sustainable, walkable, “green” communities.  Orange, California is not far behind, although much more enmeshed in suburban sprawl, and far and away leads in historic core preservation and revitalization.  Both cities have large areas of “drivable sub-urban” neighborhoods as residue from the suburban flood and related planning methods, but both are reclaiming their future as outstanding small-scale urban areas meeting 21st Century needs.  Hundreds of other examples exist – all doing their “own thing” while learning from other localities how to do it better.

Now that the primarily “Big City” based and influenced “urban planning think tanks”, gurus and star consultants are promulgating their new vision and planning “tool sets” for re-engineering both “center city” and “suburbia”, do not let them fall into the temptation to create a new utopian (read “intentionally myopic”) planning vision that would once again re-process YOUR unique town into one more bland, plain-wrap non-Place!

Kudos to Christopher Leinberger for sharing this  fiat lux realization.                            

                                               Now, help your community to see the light, as well.





About randysrules

From a professional background in architecture, community and regional planning, urban design, leadership, and fine arts, this blog provides insights on ethics, leadership, architecture/planning/urban design, Venice, and whatever intrigues me at the time. Enjoy!
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