Well into the 20th century, many of those who arrived on these shores in search of economic opportunities first settled in America’s cities. Cities provided entry jobs and inexpensive housing for waves of immigrants. Today, a drive through the Maryland and Virginia suburbs of our nation’s capital reveals a starkly different phenomenon: The suburbs have replaced cities as the destination of choice for many of the same reasons—inexpensive housing and economic opportunity.
While the new energy, creativity, and cuisines are welcome additions to the rich stew that is America, change has not been without its frictions, especially when it comes to housing. The standard detached Cape Cod tucked in a cul-de-sac without sidewalks seldom meets the cultural needs of the newest residents.
Almost everything about much of the suburban housing built after the World War II works against the kinds of connections that support a healthy, stable community: Schools are seldom walkable or even accessible by bike, markets and health services are distant, houses of worship scattered, and mass transit minimal.
Alienation is the common theme for both the new arrivals and those who have aged in place. Zoning often has exacerbated the problem by separating our activities. The 19th-century Ukrainian steelworker living in Pittsburgh could walk to work and come home for lunch. Today’s immigrant from Eritrea has to leave home before sunup to travel to a job at the very time fuel prices are approaching record levels.
The current lull in the housing market is an opportunity to take a broader view that sees suburban housing not in isolation, but as the anchor of emerging vibrant, diverse, and walkable communities—communities in which work, recreation, transportation, and schooling are mutually reinforcing threads of a larger healthy fabric. Jane Jacobs, whose The Death and Life of Great American Cities was published 51 years ago this year, would have understood that community is not about development, but about the expansion of opportunities. To transform the mistakes of postwar housing that reduced economic and social opportunities into tomorrow’s vibrant communities will require the collaboration of government, banks, and the home building industry. It’s a discussion about the future of America’s suburbs in which architects are increasingly leading the way.