The tension between urban centres and suburbia sprawl has been a constant topic in the planning discussions for decades. In the last decades, cities have been making massive efforts to stop urban sprawl by increasing housing units and improving transportation services in the urban core to provide better opportunities to live, work and play within walking distance.
Every day is more evident that suburban neighbourhoods have many potentials to help reduce the inevitable footprint of urban life. We need to understand suburbia as the part of the city that can bring the best results to sustainable development and living.
This approach to curbing urban sprawl in cities, although relatively recent, proves that walkability remains an essential ingredient to restore the suburbs and reduce carbon and urban footprints.
In this article, I will be discussing several methods that could help raise this density without necessarily harming the natural environment.
Before we understand how to lessen this phenomenon, let’s go into what it means. Urban sprawl is the expansion of a city’s geographical boundaries. This expansion can mostly occur due to low housing opportunities and single-use zoning.
As a response to the residents' needs for bigger houses and greenery, people started moving to the suburbs. They wanted to be closer to nature but not too far from the city and its offerings. While it may seem like the perfect balance, this is how urban sprawl became detrimental. The increase in the spatial footprint of a metropolitan city grew by leaps and bounds as people kept moving.
Having a densely populated area does not always sound good. It can be highly detrimental, especially if the living conditions are poor. However, it is possible to have high density and compact living without compromising the standard of living.
The idea is to have a densely populated area and still make it sustainable. Land-use policies can support re-designing and rebuilding suburbia back into the urban fabric.
One of the most environmentally friendly ways of increasing density would be to make things at a walkable distance. Convenience draws people to places, and having a restored mall or marketplace just a short walk or a bike ride away will catch people’s eye.
It is not just malls and markets, but also greener spaces like parks and gardens. People who have moved to the suburbs want to be closer to nature, so a shared zone within walking distance can do wonders.
Creating walking paths and biking zones to travel safely and eco-friendly can also further solidify these developments. At the same time, it does not mean using automobiles is a strict no-no. Having policies to reward car-pooling and separate lanes for the same can help reduce the carbon footprint drastically.
Another way to increase density would be to have essential amenities near the house. These mainly refer to services that can offer some support to the housing units. So, having libraries, launderettes, and schools around the residential area is more likely to attract residents to stay within that area.
Urban retrofitting is becoming more popular in many American cities. Restoring greyfields—abandoned malls or parking lots—into the urban fabric can help increase the density of a specific area, sustainably bringing services and amenities. It's also an excellent opportunity to create mixed-use developments that support the new and already established residents.
As I mentioned before, mixed-use developments can be a great way to increase density. However, it's also a great display of an array of housing options in suburban life, making it more inclusive and creating new patterns for residents.
Elements like secondary houses allow larger parcels to include an extra unit. Another family member can use it, or the family can rent it out for an additional income. In many cultures, the multi-generational residential units are standard, but in North American cities can become a great solution to strengthen families and increase suburban density.
Another housing trend, popular for millennials or small families, is co-housing. Co-housing is where different family groups share amenities like communal kitchen, laundry or recreational spaces to reduce the pricing units while creating a stronger community.
If we are all serious about reducing urban sprawl and increasing sustainability, measures to ensure dense and compact living are necessary. However, they must be managed appropriately and balanced well with the natural elements.
These are just many ways the suburbs can be made more sustainable and create the quality spaces that we need. Architect-Urbanist Ellen Dunham-Jones, in her TED Talk, presents a fantastic collection of retrofitting examples in suburbia. You should check it out.
At Nadi Group, we continue helping developers and municipalities to transform isolated neighbourhoods into efficient and vibrant town centres that will improve the quality of living environments. Contact us!