Thomas J. Story

Life in Western suburbia is changing. See how.

Lawrence W. Cheek,  – January 3, 2006

Western suburbs are becoming more like big cities, and because of it, suburban living is growing richer and more sophisticated.

Sunset has chronicled the Western suburban lifestyle for more than three-quarters of a century now, watching trends come and go. We’re not oblivious to the criticisms of suburbs – that they’ve promoted urban sprawl and increased traffic, that they’re architecturally uninspired and culturally homogenized – but we’ve always maintained that suburban life is essentially the good life. And most people agree: They’ve voted with their wheels. Since 1950, more than 90 percent of all growth in U.S. metropolitan areas has happened in the burbs.

For this story, Sunset looked closely at that growth, focusing on the suburbs of the West and how they’re changing. What we see are suburbs becoming more diverse, more interesting, more neighborly, and more like complete communities instead of just bedrooms – in short, taking on the best qualities of larger cities. The principles of New Urbanism – the now 20-year-old philosophy that promotes the collection of homes, offices, shops, and recreation into compact, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods served by transit – are taking root.

The Western adoption of the New Urbanist philosophy has created walkable new suburbs, with inviting front porches instead of blank garage doors greeting streets. Some, such as Oregon’s Orenco Station, are actually planned around mass transit. Older suburbs, meanwhile, are redeveloping their anemic, even abandoned downtowns and creating new cultural amenities. In Washington, for example, Bellevue sponsors a biennial sculpture competition in its downtown park. And in Orange County, California, the town of Brea swings with an annual jazz festival.

Here are some of the forces that are reshaping suburban life:

Urban density, thanks to skyrocketing land costs, has reached the once wide-open West. Ten of the 15 most densely populated urbanized areas in America are here, led by the Los Angeles metro area (7,068 people per square mile; New York City’s metro area has 5,309). New subdivisions are shoehorning 7 to 9 single-family houses or even 10 to 12 townhouses onto 1 acre. Traditional front and backyards are being sacrificed; they’re getting ever smaller. Instead, new developments are providing lavish common spaces. Outdoor living is gravitating from private retreat to shared property, so we’re getting to know our neighbors again.

Satellite communities are no longer culturally out in space. The digital revolution and the increasing number of stay-at-home or working-from-home parents mean that more suburbanites are sticking around during the day, so we’re demanding and creating more cultural and recreational pursuits – everything from community theater to bike trails. Where developers once hardly bothered with sidewalks, there’s now genuine street life blossoming in the burbs – people walk, jog, skate, and meet for lunch.

And forget homogeneous. The burbs are becoming ethnic stews, attracting immigrants in greater numbers than big cities are. As Joel Kotkin, Los Angeles-based author of The City: A Global History, observes, “The best ethnic food in L.A. is in the suburban strip malls.” This diversity enriches our cultural life, and at a deeper level it might even point toward an American future less fractured by race.

Some problems, of course, continue to plague suburbs as well as cities – and many of them are the same problems. Unaffordability tops the list. In October, the median price of a single-family home in King County, Washington (where Seattle is situated), was $390K, and a real estate analyst dryly noted that buying this home now requires nearly 150 percent of the local median family income. (Shocking news to Northwesterners, but the source of rueful humor to many Californians who can’t buy a garage for that amount.)

Increasingly, we’re trying to outrun the price spiral by fleeing to exurbs 50 to 100 miles away, trying to stay connected to the world through a computer instead of an office. But when enough of us do this, it drives up the cost of land and housing in the once-quiet exurb, where local salaries can’t keep pace.

And some New Urbanist developments, where architecture, land use, and often even landscaping are tightly controlled, discourage the very idiosyncrasies and quirks that make urban life interesting. Many traditional suburbanites like it this way, but the increasing diversity of the suburbs may bring change. In his research for “The New Suburbanism,” a paper on emerging suburban trends, Kotkin has heard “downshifting boomers” say they want to stay in the burbs, but they’re craving neighborhoods that are “funky but safe.” This won’t happen from the top down. “If you have to have a campaign to make yourself hip and cool,” Kotkin says, “you’re not.”

Can the suburbs ever be hip? Maybe they already are. On the following pages, our choices for best places to live represent the progressive New Urbanist values we’ve mentioned, and most have already proven to be great family environments centered around good schools, well-kept parks, and lively commercial districts. Consequently, we’re starting to spot fashionistas of all ethnic persuasions pushing $1,000 baby strollers through these downtowns. But it’s bigger than that: People from all over the globe are buying into this green, leafy swath of the American dream whenever and wherever they can.

Western suburbs have what a lot of people want. Sounds pretty cool to us. 

Building a better burb
Just west of Phoenix, the Verrado housing development could have been the usual homogeneous cluster of single-family homes serviced by strip malls and megastores a car’s drive away. But it’s not. Developer DMB Associates had a different goal in mind: to create the look and feel of an authentic small town.

While the development, located within the city of Buckeye, doesn’t address the larger regional issue of traffic – residents who work in Phoenix face a 26-mile commute downtown – it does incorporate some of the best attributes of the most successful small towns in America. Here’s a look at what makes it work.

1. A working city center
Live/work lofts and apartments give the core an appealing urban look.

2. A downtown that buzzes
The four-block-long town center is filled with shops, cafes, and restaurants, covering the basics on a convenient scale.

3. Local greens
A golf course and clubhouse may not be a small-town mainstay – but this is, after all, Arizona.

4. Big lots not forgotten
While providing affordable property was the main objective, the developer did incorporate larger lots for big homes.

5. Safe, easy access
Narrow streets leading into Verrado encourage drivers to slow down as they approach residential neighborhoods.

6. Convenient education
Elementary and middle schools are located in the heart of the community.

7. Classic street grid
Main Street is, in fact, the main artery and leads to a village green.

8. A small-town feel
The mix of housing styles creates diversity – and almost 70 percent of the homes have front porches.

9. “Invisible” garages
Many houses have garages on rear alleys, leaving room for front porches.

10. Walkable neighborhoods
Verrado’s tree-lined sidewalks promote casual strolling.

11. Open space nearby
Scattered pocket parks are an easy walk from homes.