Suburbia is not Sustainable; Appropriate Densities are Better

Residents of Columbia, Maryland are objecting to the increased urbanization that is developing in the Downtown. Alas, it means cutting down a lot of trees that long-time Columbians have gotten used to. But suburbia is not sustainable, and perhaps Jim Rouse, the founder of Columbia, knew this. He always intended that Columbia have a real downtown and he set aside the land surrounding Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods, known as the Crescent (pictured above), for this purpose.

Increased densities in appropriate locations throughout suburbia, such as the Crescent and the Village Centers in Columbia, are the right thing to do. Here’s why:

Some Background

More than half of Americans live in suburbs, and about 75 percent of postwar construction has happened in the suburbs. That is a lot of people, and a lot of built environment, for urbanists to just wish away. One hundred and fifty million or so suburbanites have to live somewhere, and preferably not too far from their places of work, which are mostly in the ’burbs, too: More than three-quarters of jobs in U.S. metropolitan areas are located outside the urban core, and 43 percent are at least 10 miles away.

The New American Suburb: Diverse, Dense, and Booming

by Patrick Sisson, October 12, 2016

American suburbs are far from a static set of cookie-cutter housing developments, the rows of infamous “ticky-tacky little boxes” popularized as soon as the postwar housing boom started. But a forthcoming new report, Demographic Strategies for Real Estate, suggests that this archetypical part of the American landscape, which has constantly been evolving, is in for some massive changes over the next decade that will reshape planning, land-use, and the real estate market.

Powered by social and demographic shifts involving young workers, immigrants, working women, and retirees, suburbs will get denser, more diverse, and more urban. . . “The world has shifted much from owning a big house towards valuing time,” says John Burns, CEO of the firm that authored the report. “People want to be close to work and exciting things to do. The notion of long commutes, never popular, is falling out of favor”.


While urban areas are becoming more and more expensive, the urban lifestyle is becoming more and more popular, so suburban towns and developers are increasingly catering to those looking for a more walkable, dense community.

Smart Growth Mean Great Communities

by US Environmental Protection Agency, 2006

When communities choose smart growth strategies, they can create new neighborhoods and maintain existing ones that are attractive, convenient, safe, and healthy. They can foster design that encourages social, civic, and physical activity. They can protect the environment while stimulating economic growth. Most of all, we can create more choices for residents, workers, visitors, children, families, single people, and older adults—choices in where to live, how to get around, and how to interact with the people around them. When communities do this kind of planning, they preserve the best of their past while creating a bright future for generations to come.


Creating Great Neighborhoods: Density in Your Community

by US Environmental Protection Agency, 2003

More and more people understand that to achieve their community goals and create a vibrant place to live, the community needs different types of development – different types of density. It cannot thrive over the long-term with only one development choice. To achieve this balance, many communities are concentrating development in key locations, offering residents the opportunity to live in different types of neighborhoods, walk, drive or ride transit as they choose and enjoy great places to live. By balancing density in the community, these goals can be met.

from Coalition for a Liveable Sudbury (Ontario)
from Coalition for a Liveable Sudbury (Ontario)

Density helps create walkable neighborhoods — Higher density development contributes to the viability of a wider range of businesses, ultimately resulting in more destinations for residents to walk to.

Density supports housing choice and affordability —  Higher density projects can provide townhouses, apartments, accessory units and even live-work spaces to accommodate a broader range of lifestyles.

Density helps expand transportation choices — Density creates choice by providing the ridership needed to make bus and rail transit a viable and competitive transportation option.

Density supports community fiscal health  —  Dense development can improve fiscal health by reducing infrastructure duplication and making efficient use of present capacity, before investing in costly infrastructure expansion.

Density helps improve security —  Density has the potential to increase area social interaction and consequently deter crime.

 Density helps protect the environment —  Density reduces land consumption and allows communities to protect valuable open space, habitat, farmland and ecologically sensitive areas.

Urban Design Addresses the Problems of Suburban Sprawl and Improves Economic Resiliency

Dense development and mixed land uses are the cornerstones of “smart growth,” a planning approach meant to address the problems of suburban sprawl, from obesity to traffic congestion to climate change. But building densely and mixing land uses such as housing, jobs and retail do not in themselves deliver the many benefits of urbanism. The different uses must be integrated into “complete neighborhoods,” places that are designed for people and serve their daily needs comfortably and efficiently within close walking distance.

“Walkability” is excellent shorthand for good urban design. . . . Walkability emerges from the mix and density of land uses, the placement and orientation of buildings, the safety and quality of streets, the accessibility of transit, and the design and interconnection of open spaces.

Aerial View
Proposed Development, Hickory Ridge Village Center, Columbia MD (Kimco)

Research shows a significant and growing “walkability premium,” with higher walkability ratings associated with higher residential values and commercial rents, as well as more favorable lending conditions. Walkable areas are also more economically resilient. The Brookings Institution found that after the 2008 real estate collapse, homes in walkable urban neighborhoods experienced less than half the average decline in price from the housing peak in the mid- 2000s. Meanwhile, recovery lagged in peripheral suburbs relative to urban areas.

Environmental Benefits of Smart Growth Strategies?

by US Environmental Protection Agency

Development guided by smart growth principles can minimize air and water pollution, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, encourage cleanup and reuse of contaminated properties, and preserve natural lands. Where and how we develop directly affects natural areas and wildlife habitat and replaces natural cover with impervious surfaces such as concrete or asphalt. Development patterns and practices also indirectly affect environmental quality since they influence how easily people can get around.

Smart growth practices can lessen the environmental impacts of development with techniques that include encouraging compact development, reducing impervious surfaces, safeguarding environmentally sensitive areas, mixing land uses (e.g., homes, offices, and shops), promoting public transit, and improving pedestrian and bicycle amenities.

The New Recipe for Economic Development

If tax breaks were the old recipe for economic development, creating vibrant neighborhoods that can attract people from near and far is the new one.

Smart Growth Americas 2015 report Core Values: Why American Companies are Moving Downtown showed that hundreds of companies across the United States are moving to and investing in walkable downtown locations, in large part because these places help to attract and retain talented workers. These companies are looking for walkable, live/work/play neighborhoods and regional centers with nearby affordable housing for their employees, with a vibrant mix of restaurants, cafes, shops, entertainment venues, and cultural attractions all within easy walking distance of offices.

Artist's representation, Area 3, Crescent Neighborhood (Howard Hughes Corporation)
Artist’s representation, Area 3, Crescent Neighborhood, Downtown Columbia (Howard Hughes Corporation)

Many of the neighborhoods these companies choose also include a wide range of home types, making them convenient places to live as well as affordable for households of all income levels. Companies have always wanted convenient transportation but now place a premium on providing employees with multiple transportation options, including the ability to walk, bike, or take transit to work and meetings. In cities with robust public transportation, companies consider the service a crucial part of their daily operations. In cities with lower levels of transit service, many companies express a desire to see it improve.

Featured Image at Beginning of Post

Construction of the Crescent Neighborhood, Downtown Columbia, by Bryce Blair: 



Published by

Harry Schwarz

Nicknamed “The Professor” by his colleagues, Harry is a native Marylander who moved to Columbia in 2001. Harry’s wife, Cathy, is a Columbia acupuncturist and the family includes two college-age children, a dog and a cat. Harry is a partner with BearsolutionsLLC, assisting charter school authorizers to provide effective financial oversight. He is underemployed at this time and welcomes conversation about how he might help you.

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