Tag Archives: suburbs

Suburbs may be getting cooler, but they will never, ever be as cool as the city

1 Dec

The suburbs may be getting cooler, but they will never, ever be as cool as the city.

You might assume they are based on real estate trends and survey results. Unfortunately, housing choices and urban vs. suburban development just aren’t that simple. If they were, urban planning would be a lot easier…and a lot less important.

[Previous Agenda story: Living in the city is cool, but are the suburbs cooler? I’m torn.]

Just because people are moving to the suburbs, it doesn’t mean they’re cool.

Guys, I’m here to tell you: I live in the suburbs and I think they’re boring as hell. I choose to live where I live because our Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools district has three A+ schools and if those districts change, we’ll still probably have all highly ranked schools.

I know there is an argument out there for neighborhood schools, charter schools, homeschools, etc. That is another article for another day – but when all is said and done there is no doubt that quality of schools (or perceived quality of schools) is driving the real estate market.

I also want to have a nice little tribe of kiddos – and they and my sanity need a little space. I am not alone. I have made the decision to sacrifice what I want for what I think is the most important for my children…because I can’t have it all.

If I could afford to live in the city and pay for my children to go to a school of my choosing I would stick my house on the market so fast your head would spin.

The uptick in sales in the suburbs post-2016 is a result of the economic recovery. All those millennials kept getting older, getting married, and having kids during the recession. Now that things are looking up, they have the ability to purchase property – and for the reason I just mentioned, a lot are headed further out of the city.

Rail Trail Southend

The Rail Trail in the Southend (Photo Credit: Alan Goodwin)


But not everyone has a choice in where they live.

Many people depend on the social support of their families and neighbors. They may live in the same neighborhood their whole lives and they need to stay there because their grandmother lives down the street and watches their children while they work the third shift or take night classes.

Moving is very expensive. Some people may never be able to afford to pack up their house and start over somewhere new. Finding another house they can afford while their house has been declining in value for decades might be impossible.

These are all very real scenarios that many Charlotteans face daily – and there are many more. We have to stop only thinking about the people who have choices and think about everyone in this city as it relates to housing.

Even if we could decipher the infinite reasons why people choose or have to live where they do (not necessarily where they want to), it is important to know that not all is fair in the war between city and suburbs.

An article in Chuck Marohn’s Strong Towns takes a deep dive into federal financing’s effect on the housing market, but in summary here are a few facts to know (stay with me – these are important):

  • Since 1934, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) have insured mortgages for 34 million homes, only 7.4 million were in multi-family buildings.
  • Federal program guidelines make loans for mixed-use buildings very difficult so most banks won’t make them. They also cap the amount of non-residential space within buildings because outdated research shows single-family developments are less risky than mixed-use development. This encourages developers to shy away from “riskier” urban projects.

Developers like to make money, which is no surprise to anyone. And in order to build a product to sell, you have to be able to easily get financing. If developers can only get financing to build single-family neighborhoods, that’s exactly what they’ll build. When a young family comes along who has scraped their pennies together for a down payment, they really don’t have a lot of choice in their housing type. With a much larger supply of single-family surburban homes, they are often more affordable. When you only have a choice between suburbia and suburbia…you choose suburbia.

Because there are less urban, mixed-use, and walkable places being built (and when they are they are limited and also become unaffordable), the financing systems in place are reinforced because people continue to buy in suburban neighborhoods, creating a false demand in the market.

Not all suburbs are as cool as Davidson and Matthews.

And as we consider whether suburbs are cool, it’s worth keeping in mind that Davidson and Matthews are not really suburbs.

They don’t suffer from a lack of connected streets, architectural character, a mix of uses close to one another, or wide tree-lined sidewalks like typical suburbs around Charlotte do.  They have historic downtowns built in a 1800s, WAY before suburban growth hit America hard in the 1960s-2000s.

And we just don’t build them like we used to. All the towns mentioned in the article (Matthews, Davidson, Fort Mill, Belmont, Mooresville, Huntersville, Rock Hill, Weddington and Waxhaw) were in existence way before the automobile was invented or Charlotte was anywhere near. Charlotte kept growing and just ate them right up.

While they may be suburban by location, they are not suburban in character.


Downtown Matthews, North Carolina (Photo Credit: Charlotte Agenda)

The suburbs might blend into a mega-city over time.

Time will tell, but I do think it’s very likely that Charlotte will continue to grow into a metropolitan area with a series of smaller cities with commuting and housing markets overlapped.

I believe it is human nature to get off our butt and walk outside, enjoy the breeze on a fall day, and be around other people and community. The traditional suburbs do not offer that, and that is why we have seen an increase in walkable activity centers like Ballantyne, Blakeney, Baxter Village, and Birkdale.

Because the centers of these activity centers exhibit the same characteristics of the city, they are also becoming more unaffordable and are experiencing their own scale of sprawl.

As we speak, our transit system is being redesigned to think about how to more directly connect these hubs of population and employment to each other directly without having to connect to Uptown. The network of smaller “towns” already exists, and as our Charlotte continues to see the growth of more than 50 people moving here daily, walkable activity centers will continue to be popular.


Stonecrest Activity Center (Photo Credit: Stonecrest at Piper Glen on Facebook)

The argument of suburbia vs. city never has been and never will be simple.

I think we can all agree that no matter where we live, we all want a choice — which we really don’t have right now. Whether our hand is being forced by the disproportionate quality of schools in our public school system, the type of house we can afford, or if we can afford to move at all, we can all agree the sharing of diverse cultural resources and experiences that the city offers will always be cool.

This article was originally published on the Charlotte Agenda.


Confessions from a Cul-de-Sac.

2 Jun
My very own cul-de-sac.

My very own cul-de-sac.

Three months ago my family and I moved into our first home. Something about buying a house makes you feel like a real bonafide adult. And with that comes real adult decisions. We moved to Charlotte from Tampa in January and when my husband and I were deciding where in the city we wanted to live, we like many young families, fell into the trap that is holding back so many of our cities: providing our child with a good education.

Like so many other cities in America, in Charlotte you can find the public schools with the highest test scores in the suburbs. Decades and decades of socio-economic trends, not to mention racism and segregation, are the major cause of this divide – in fact, that could be a blog post all on its own. Of course many will tell you test scores are not everything, and they would be right. But when you’re new to a city, don’t know the schools, and plan to live in your house for a long time those test scores and rankings can put your mind (and your real estate agent’s) at ease.

I consider myself a true urbanist – completely devoted to the center city and its surrounding neighborhoods. It’s what I stand for and it’s what I work for every day. I was faced with the decision of living close to downtown with the schools in the neighborhoods I could afford some of the worst in Charlotte, but benefit from mixed-uses, sidewalks, beautiful street trees, urban parks, and cultural institutions – or – I could put education first, and move to where the best schools are, and suffer from a completely car-dependent built environment, zero walkability, and the single use of the single-family house.

I wrestled with this decision more than I  wrestled with any other decision of my life – that includes who I married, when and whether to have kids, what graduate degree to pursue, etc. This commitment and investment became so much more than just a house – it became a reflection of my identity.

Plaza Midwood: one of the historic neighborhoods adjacent to the center city. (Image Source:

Plaza Midwood: one of the historic neighborhoods adjacent to the center city. (Image Source:

There are brave urbanists out there who fight this forced expulsion to the suburbs and step out of the box to avoid the education decision.

  • Private School – For those who make the big bucks! With some schools reaching $20,000 a year for kindergarten this option is out of reach for many.
  • Home School – Me a teacher? It takes a very special person to be a teacher, especially a good one, and especially of your own children.
  • Take Over the PTA – Strength in numbers! In some neighborhoods like trendy Plaza Midwood, parents are making a pact. They’re enrolling their kids in the local elementary school and then committing to each other to transform the school through volunteering and leadership positions.
  • House Poor – expensive house, unaffordable lifestyle. Some will overextend themselves to buy a house in the most expensive neighborhood in the city to ensure their children are surrounded by the best peer group.
  • The Magnet Lottery – Cross your fingers and hope for the best! The technology, language and arts magnet schools accept children from all over the city, but they don’t accept every one. If you are one of the lucky ones prepare for the long bus ride, or the long commute.

The first and last strategies are probably the most popular, but for many people the risk and work of these options are unrealistic, or impractical. For my family number 1 was out (did I mention I am an urban designer? 🙂 ). Number 2 and Number 3 take an enormous amount of time and preclude you from having a career. Number 3, 4, and 5 are all risky – and for a risk averse person, very scary, when making a large financial investment.

But most families choose the public schools in the ‘burbs because honestly – the ‘burbs ain’t that bad – yet. And even an urbanist, when up against the aforementioned challenges, I can get used to the large yard and the grocery store that has everything.

The truth is our cities are up against a challenge. To most people, even with a growing desire for walkable, urban places, the good suburbs (at least) are still pretty nice. For many young families the weekdays are completely consumed by school, work, soccer practice, getting dinner on the table and doing it all over again. They can head into the center city to get their fill for true urbanism, culture, and entertainment on the weekends and then return to the world of affordability and convenience. And that works for a lot of people.

Here are some more challenges that face our cities:

  • Many suburbs can still offer what the city offers including the best restaurants, coffee shops, and recreation facilities. While not walkable, these uses are still very convenient and plentiful, often a short drive away. In Charlotte some of the most trendy restaurants in urban neighborhoods (Amelie’s in NoDa and Midwood Smoke House in Plaza Midwood for example) are taking advantage of the untapped market of the ‘burbs.
  • The ever-popular lifestyle center is a development type that ultimately fools people into thinking they live in an urban environment. If you forget that you had to sit in traffic to drive there, walking down a wide, tree-lined sidewalk with outdoor café seating feels pretty nice. Entertainment and community events in a central open space can be reminiscent of small town America
  • Speaking of small towns – before there were suburbs there were true small towns. Even though they have been surrounded by the metropolitan sprawl, they have survived and are now benefiting from their adjacent population growth. Downtown Matthews and Davidson are Charlotte’s shining examples.
  • If you have to drive everywhere anyway, you might as well enjoy that big ‘ole yard. There is enough room for your pups to run around and that swing set. It can become a personal haven to relax after that stressful commute or provide the perfect setting for a cookout with your friends. Even though sacrificing a big lot is an easy one for people who understand the benefits of a walkable, urban environment – when you have it, it’s still pretty nice.
Community gathering space at Birkdale Village, a lifestyle center in Huntersville, NC (Image Source:

Community gathering space at Birkdale Village, a lifestyle center in Huntersville, NC (Image Source:

Historic Dowtown Davidson, NC (Image Source:

Historic Downtown Davidson, NC (Image Source:

And now for the kickers:

  • We live in a warped market. We’ve been building single-use, disconnected suburbs for a half a century in this country. Even with a documented increase in the desire for dense, walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods, lenders and developers still know that more affordable and less risky suburbs will sell. Since the new walkable neighborhoods that are built are so few and the demand is increasing, that leaves most of them unaffordable. This means that people still choose to purchase in the conventional suburb, fulfilling the fallacy for lenders and developers that people prefer suburbia.
  • Driving still isn’t expensive enough. There will come a day when the price of gas is just completely unaffordable and technology hasn’t made enough progress to provide us with alternative ways to fuel our car-driven culture. And when that happens, watch out! People will swarm back into the cities left and right. Until then, sticker shock at the pump isn’t shocking enough.

When it comes down to it, there is no doubt in my mind that everyone loves good places. And the best places are walkable, mixed-use, higher density with a unique identity that ties into their history and culture. But because of the factors above, these are harder to come by – planning exists in a political, financial, and social context that prohibits us from making changes in our cities fast enough.

If there is one thing we can do that will transform our cities faster than any other planning strategy, it’s fixing our urban schools. What a tall order! If we can navigate the socio-economic inequality and challenges that face us we will do more for our cities than any planning document or design will ever achieve. While planners and urban designers use the tools of redevelopment, economic development, and transit for catalysts of change, we are missing the one piece to the puzzle – improving education. And unfortunately we don’t have the ability to put that in our toolbox.

Putting urban schools on par with their counterparts in the ‘burbs will put cities and the suburbs on a much more level playing field. Neighborhoods long forgotten in the city will open up to new markets. Infill development taking advantage of existing infrastructure will make new development more affordable and obtainable by young, middle class families. And when that happens the choice for many, especially urbanists like me, will be easy.

Until then, you will often find me on I-485, repeating my mantra “I love my kid, I love my kid.” It makes the guilt stay at bay 🙂

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