Much has been written recently about the urban renaissance taking place in America’s cities. It’s a great story but I think it misses the point. As our population grows and the US becomes more crowded, all communities are urbanizing…not just traditional downtowns. None are urbanizing more quickly than those on the edge of America’s major metropolitan areas.
This makes fundamental sense to me. Old cities like Chicago and Houston were built around assets like waterways and railroads that were once vital to American commerce. Before Internet connectivity was the norm, there was a real advantage for businesses to leverage by choosing to locate in close proximity to each other.
Today, these things don’t matter nearly as much as they once did. Now, cities and towns want access to human capital, not rivers or railroads. Places that recognize this and then build out in a way to attract that capital have a bright future. A lot of these places are located far from yesterday’s downtown.
When Joel Garreau wrote his seminal “Edge City: Life on the New Frontier” way back in 1992, the edge city was found in places like Houston’s Galleria and Southfield Michigan. Now these communities are, for all intents and purposes, urban cores. The edge city has moved further out.
As it does, the new edge is aggressively incorporating active transportation into the infrastructure mix. Why? Mostly because the human capital they so desperately want and need is demanding it. This is equally true of new business centers such as The Woodlands on the edge of Houston, Texas and retirement communities like Bella Vista, Arkansas.
At the same time, existing suburbs like Brownsburg, Indiana see the writing on the wall and are choosing to urbanize by increasing housing and business density. In the process, they are making themselves more walkable and bikeable. That, in turn, makes them more attractive to the human capital they need to thrive in a future that will look remarkably different than the recent past.
We’re not talking about marginal or incremental change, either. Some of this is quite dramatic. The speed with which it is happening suggests that this is important, a matter of survival. In some cases, I suppose it is.
So what does it all mean? Well, it appears inevitable that our suburbs are going to become more urban with the passage of time. Some will become cities in their own right This is already true of places like The Woodlands. Maybe someday soon it will be true of Brownsburg and other places like it.
As these places urbanize, they’re also going to become more pedestrian and bicycle friendly. While it’s true that most of these proposals still devote a significant portion of the real estate to parking, it’s not insignificant that the parking is hidden from the street. This represents a subtle shift in focus away from the car, and it is market driven.
Suburbia is beginning to de-emphasize the automobile and replace streets and roads with trails and other active transportation infrastructure. This will make the edge city even more attractive than it already is to a large cross section of Americans. More importantly, it will make the bicycle a viable transportation alternative to an increasing number of us, regardless of where we choose to live.