Reinventing Suburban Jacksonville

March 18, 2009 16 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Suburban America as we know it may be coming to an end. Here is an eight step plan that may possibly bring Jacksonville into the 21st century.

The American suburb as we know it is dying. The implosion began with the housing bust, which started in and has hit hardest the once vibrant neighborhoods outside the urban core. Shopping malls and big-box retail stores, the commercial anchors of the suburbs, are going dark - an estimated 148,000 stores closed last year, the most since 2001. But the shift is deeper than the economic downturn. Thanks to changing demographics, including a steady decline in the percentage of households with kids and a growing preference for urban amenities among Americans young and old, the suburban dream of the big house with the big lawn is vanishing. The Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech predicts that by 2025 there will be a surplus of 22 million large-lot homes (on one-sixth of an acre [675 sq m] or more) in the U.S.,28804,1884779_1884782_1884756,00.html

Saving the Suburbs

by Paris Rutherford

1. Emphasize the centre of town instead of the "Town Centre"

From the regional mall emerged the town center: an attempt by developers to capture traditional downtown design by turning malls inside out. Today's "town center" is no longer achieved with big-box retailers opening onto surface parking or open-air walkways between stores. Today's town center is actually the center of town. It not only forges integral links to shoppers, but also to where they live, work and play.


2. Look at the Bigger Picture

Great places need great planning. In order to promote the long-term use of a site, urban design is essential to success. With a planner's perspective, developers and designers see the bigger picture of a development - not only the buildings, but also the spaces between the buildings; not only the spaces, but also the hierarchy of those spaces; not only the neighborhood, but how the neighborhood expresses a unique identity.


3. Understand scale

A critical component of any successful urban-style development is scale. Making integral connections to pedestrians means understanding how buildings and spaces interact with them. From the neighborhood to the town center, this relationship must be considered-and design must provide activity at every level.


4. Engage the public realm

To capture the vitality and identity needed to promote a vibrant suburban center, well-scaled public spaces must accompany any development, providing the connective tissue among uses. Sidewalks and streets that engage passersby, public places that encourage social interaction and provide a showcase for events, and architectural and landscaping features that celebrate community all help to create a welcoming environment.


5. Create a strong identity

Architecture doesn't have to be iconic, but in order to create a viable suburban center it must make a statement about its environment. For too long, suburbs have looked very similar, lacking any distinguishing characteristics from one another. Tomorrow's suburbs will be infused with the local character that makes the world's best places stand out in people's minds.


6. Link to transit

Effective community design acknowledges two important trends: Transportation drives design, and the automobile no longer reigns supreme. Today's planners and designers are finding the value of building garden suburbs around mass transit, reconfiguring traditional cul-de-sac subdivisions into grid-like networks of streets, and fostering connections both inside and outside of the community with well-integrated transit stations.


7. Mix uses

Mutually supporting synergistic uses generate higher total revenue than the sum of their parts. With carefully selected components, people on different schedules visit common uses at different times for different reasons, creating a dynamic environment around the clock.


8. Focus on ongoing regeneration

Farsighted communities undergoing revitalization create systems of proactive public initiatives designed to combat negative effects of disinterest down the road. Communities need to constantly re-invent themselves, responding to shifting demographics and changes in population bases.


The Eight Step plan was written by Paris Rutherford IV, AICP, the Vice President of Planning and Urban Design at RTKL Associates, an architecture firm based on New Urbanist principles.