ince the end of the second world war planners and academicians have warned
Americans that suburban sprawl is an evil to be fought with every ounce of our
national energy. They have condemned cars as the cause of city-killing growth.
They have idealized mass transit. Yet, other than business and political
interests in city downtowns, few have paid attention to their cries. We
Americans have allowed sprawl to happen. In fact, we have reveled in our
low-density suburban housing, our automobiles, and our decentralized living.
Now it appears that the much-reviled postwar suburban sprawl, with its sea of
split-level houses surrounding retail businesses and apartment complexes strung
randomly along its highways, was merely a transitional phase between the
traditional compact pre-war city and today's metropolitan area. Our cities are
becoming groups of interdependent "urban villages," which are business, retail,
housing, and entertainment focal points amid a low-density cityscape. Each
urban village has its core--a kind of new downtown--where the buildings are
tallest, the daytime population largest, and the traffic congestion most
severe. And each urban village has its outlying districts, which may stretch as
far as ten miles from the core.
Urban villages represent a dramatic restructuring of America's cities and
suburbs--one that is already affecting how millions of Americans live and work.
Almost every city is swept up in the urban-village phenomenon--not only
fast-growing Sunbelt cities like Atlanta and Phoenix but also slow-growing
older ones like St. Louis and Kansas City, and archetypal cities like New York
THE URBAN VILLAGES OF LOS ANGELES
Los Angeles is perhaps the most evolved example of the urban-village
phenomenon. Although downtown Los Angeles has recently experienced an
unprecedented boom in office-building, the metropolitan area has simultaneously
given rise to sixteen smaller urban-village cores, among them Century City,
Costa Mesa/Irvine/Newport Beach, Encino, Glendale, the Airport, Warner Center,
Ontario, Pasadena, Universal City/Burbank, and Westwood.
One of the easiest ways to gauge the growth of Los Angeles's urban villages is
to look at the downtown's market share of the metropolitan region's office
space over the past decades. (Office space is used as a standard measure of
changing patterns of urban development in this article, because the office is
the "factory of the future." In parts of some metropolitan areas 40 to 60
percent of the people hired for newly created jobs go to work in office
buildings--not only white-collar workers but also support staff like janitors
and food-service workers and security guards.) Since 1960 downtown Los
Angeles's share of the metropolitan office market has declined from 60 to 34
percent, as expansion has shifted to the faster-growing urban-village cores in
The Costa Mesa/Irvine/Newport Beach complex, in Orange County provides a good
example of how the urban-village phenomenon is reshaping greater Los Angeles.
Until the early 1960s a series of small towns in a county whose total
population was 868,000, the complex today is California's third largest
downtown, as measured by office and business-park space. The first phase in the
creation of the urban village's core was the construction of a regional
shopping mall, as it has been in many other locations. In this case there were
two--South Coast Plaza, in Costa Mesa, and Fashion Island, in Newport Beach,
both of which opened in the early 1970s. Next developers completed modest
two-story office buildings nearby for local professional firms, and light
industrial facilities for aerospace and high-tech outfits.
In 1980 the population of Orange County reached 1,932,708, and jobs there
numbered 1,670,100. The boom transformed the emerging Costa Mesa/Irvine/Newport
Beach subcenter. Office space there now totals 21.1 million square feet--well
behind downtown Los Angeles's 36.6 million square feet, but gaining fast on
downtown San Francisco's 26.8 million. Both the architecture and the tenants of
the new high-rises are often the equal of those of office buildings in Los
Angeles and San Francisco. The urban village's new hotels include a Westin, a
Meridien, and a Four Seasons. South Coast Plaza has more sales than any other
shopping center in the country. It is projected that once an addition is
completed later this year, the plaza's annual retail sales will surpass those
for both downtown San Francisco and the "Golden Triangle" of Beverly Hills.
South Coast Plaza has most of the exclusive shops found in those locations.
Many of Los Angeles's established urban villages are gaining their own
identities. Los Angeles's aerospace industry is increasingly concentrated at
the Airport and in Torrance. The entertainment industry, which has
traditionally been located in Hollywood, is now moving over the Hollywood Hills
to Universal City/Burbank. Los Angeles's insurance companies, traditionally
found in the mid-Wilshire Boulevard district two miles west of downtown, have
recently selected Pasadena as an insurance subcenter, because it is closer than
the mid-Wilshire location to neighborhoods from which they can expect to
attract clerical workers and is also close to an executive-housing
The insurance and financial industries are transforming Pasadena, a city of
128,500 residents eight miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles, into an
urban-village core. Perhaps the best-known city of its size in America because
of the annual Tournament of Roses Parade and Rose Bowl, Pasadena's history and
image have long been conservative and "old money." However, by 1970 downtown
Pasadena was marred by empty storefronts, fading turn-of-the-century resort
hotels, and half-empty parking lots. Low-income, primarily black and Latino
northwest Pasadena was troubled by crime, gangs, drugs, and welfare
In the early 1970s the I-210 freeway was completed, connecting the city to the
rest of the San Gabriel Valley and eventually resulting in a spurt of
office-building. Pasadena became a back-office employment center for insurance
and banking offices that wanted to hire middle-class Angelenos living in the
rapidly growing San Gabriel Valley suburbs. Since 1980 twenty-eight mid- and
high-rise office buildings have gone up.
Because of all this office construction, the character of downtown Pasadena has
changed radically. A shopping mall several blocks from City Hall, which opened
in 1980, is among the most successful in southern California. Entire blocks of
handsome 1920s and 1930s two-story commercial buildings have been restored, and
restaurants, espresso bars, and shops are now moving into ground-floor retail
space that had gone begging for many years.
On the edge of downtown, within walking distance of the new offices and shops,
badly run-down single-family housing has been replaced by new condominiums and
townhouses. Thousands of houses in nearby residential neighborhoods have been
renovated as young families have discovered the city's turn-of-the-century
architecture and tree-shaded streets.
Change has not come easily to Pasadena. Not all of the city is being renovated;
residents of the still decaying northwest section fear that new construction
will squeeze them out of the neighborhood. And the many new jobs have created
traffic problems. Today about 60,000 people commute to work in Pasadena,
whereas approximately 25,000 leave the city for jobs elsewhere.
Pasadena residents worry about the long-range impact of the downtown
construction on the overall community. Why has Pasadena attracted back-office
operations instead of professional and corporate tenants, which would be more
in keeping with the city's lingering blue-blood image? Does Pasadena want more
high-rise office towers of any kind? How will the growing traffic affect
downtown Pasadena and the nearby reviving neighborhoods?
WHY SUBURBS ARE BECOMING URBAN VILLAGES
This debate over growth is being repeated in neighborhood associations and city
councils across the nation, in such widely dispersed locations as Walnut Creek,
California; Princeton, New Jersey; Schaumburg, Illinois; and Bethesda,
Maryland. In fact, attempts to control growth and traffic congestion are among
the hottest issues in local politics today. And the reason is that the
urban-village phenomenon is reshaping our cities. However, most people do not
see the larger picture; they simply see the consequences. The phenomenon has
occurred simultaneously in all kinds of cities across the nation, mostly for
five reasons. Four of these have helped to create or further the postwar
pattern of sprawl. When the fifth reason comes into play, it is easier to see
why our metropolitan regions are coalescing into these sub-centers.
One reason for the growth of urban villages is that the nation's economy is
shifting from a manufacturing to a service and knowledge base. The number of
industrial jobs has declined from one third of all jobs in 1920 to one sixth
today. The figure may drop to less than one tenth by the year 2000, with
service and knowledge employment making up the difference, much as agricultural
employment fell and industrial employment rose during the transition to an
industrial economy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. From
1973 to 1985, while five million blue-collar industrial jobs were lost, the
service and knowledge fields-- which are as diverse as computer programming,
the professions, retail sales, and fast food--accounted for all of the nation's
employment growth (from 82 million to 110 million jobs). The Bureau of Labor
Statistics reports that the number of service and knowledge jobs can be
expected to grow by nine million in the next ten years. The shift to a service
and knowledge economy has greatly accelerated the restructuring of our
metropolitan areas by creating a need for much more office space. In eight
years, from the beginning of 1978 through 1985, 1.1 billion square feet of
office space was constructed in the United States--the equivalent of 220 World
Trade Center towers.
People are willing to live near the office now, whereas they were reluctant to
live near factories that were dirty, noisy, and visually unattractive.
Traditionally the poor and the working class have lived near factory districts.
Across the nation office buildings and high-tech business parks have appeared
in middle-class and even exclusive suburbs, such as the horse country around
Valley Forge, outside Philadelphia; Bellevue, near Seattle; and the Buckhead
district, in the north Atlanta suburbs. In Newport Beach, California, south of
Los Angeles, a new subdivision of homes costing from $300,000 to $2 million
abuts a Ford aerospace facility doing research and small-component-part
assembly for military contracts.
A second reason for the emergence of urban villages has been changes in
transportation patterns. Business shipments have shifted from rail to truck and
Americans have decided that they prefer automobile commuting to mass transit.
With fixed-rail transportation, all shipments must go from central terminal to
central terminal before delivery. With trucks, shipments can travel from door
to door. Similarly, with automobiles, people can go from door to door whenever
they choose, without having to pass through central stations and terminals at
fixed times. By 1960, the first year that the U.S. Bureau of the Census kept
track, 69.5 percent of all commuting trips were made by car. By 1980 the figure
had increased to 86 percent.
A third reason has been recent telecommunications advances, notably the
dramatic drop in long-distance telephone costs. More and more day-to-day work
is being done over the telephone. Not only cheaper long-distance telephone
rates but also overnight mail, telecopiers, Zap-Mail, and computer modems allow
communication without physical proximity.
Fourth, it is cheaper for businesses to operate in urban villages than in
cities. Suburban office, industrial, and retail rents are far lower than
downtown rents are. Although construction costs are approximately the same in
the two areas, land outside cities costs less--$10 to $50 per square foot in
suburban office locations versus $50 to $1,000 per square foot downtown. The
cost of building parking spaces is also lower in the suburbs, where most
parking is located in above-ground structures or surface lots, both of which
are much cheaper to construct than a downtown office tower's subterranean
garage. The difference in land and parking-garage costs shows up in office
rents--$15 to $24 per square foot per year for prestige high-rise suburban
space versus $18 to $42 for comparable downtown space in most American
These factors might only have encouraged more suburban sprawl if another factor
had not come into play: most Americans like cities and the concentration of
services that they provide. A critical mass of employment and housing is
necessary to support desirable everyday services such as a good selection of
shops, restaurants, and hotels. But this critical mass is achieved at well
below the size of the prewar downtowns. For instance, it takes about 250,000
people within a three-to-five-mile radius to support a modest regional mall and
about 20,000 middle-class people within an equal area to keep a good restaurant
in business. And it requires roughly 2.5 million square feet of offices (about
fifty typical three-story suburban office buildings) to support a 250-room
Since people do not want to drive very far for these services, particularly
office workers looking for lunch or business travelers needing a hotel, a
degree of concentration much greater than that of a low-density suburb is
necessary. Only so many potential locations have the necessary highway access
and visibility to permit this concentration, a fact that has led to the
focusing of postwar suburban sprawl into urban-village cores. When prime
urban-village cores become congested, developers and employers hopscotch to
outlying locations where land is cheaper and commuting is easier.
Thus our metropolitan areas have expanded tremendously. In the past twenty-five
years, for example, metropolitan New York's sphere of direct influence has
tripled in size. The metropolitan area extends as far north as New Haven,
Connecticut, and into once-rural Dutchess, Ulster, and Sullivan counties, in
New York State. On Long Island the metropolitan area now encompasses Yaphank
and Brookhaven, in the middle of Suffolk County, and fades away just miles from
the Hamptons. Metropolitan New York has swept southward past Princeton and into
Ocean County, New Jersey, and Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In several years New
York's suburban growth will collide with that of slower-growing metropolitan
Los Angeles has always had an enormous metropolitan area; it was knit together
before the Second World War by the world's largest trolley system. By 1960
metropolitan Los Angeles's sphere of influence stretched to Santa Monica in the
west, Pasadena in the east, Long Beach in the south, and the San Fernando
Valley in the north. Now metropolitan Los Angeles extends westward into Ventura
County, east to San Bernardino and Riverside, and south across most of Orange
County to span an area many times the metropolitan area's size twenty-five
years ago. Other cities--among them greater San Francisco, Phoenix, Dallas,
Houston, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C.--are also expanding
As outlying urban-village cores become more urban, with their high-rise office
buildings and hotels, increasingly sophisticated shopping, and high-density
housing, the center cities are becoming more suburban. This emerging trend
extends beyond the fast-food restaurants on downtown business streets and
festive retailing complexes like South Street Seaport. In Lower Manhattan, and
Harborplace, in Baltimore. Suburban-style shopping centers--where you buy
children's clothes and household appliances, not just clever T-shirts and
scented soaps--have recently opened in several American cities, and are doing
quite well. Large, privately financed apartment and condominium projects have
been built in cities without a downtown residential tradition, including San
Diego, Detroit, Atlanta, and Los Angeles.
HOW URBAN VILLAGES AFFECT CITIES
Few cities have been transformed by the urban-village phenomenon as rapidly as
Atlanta, whose metropolitan region has a population of 2.2 million, having
gained 90,000 residents last year and 78,000 the previous year. In 1980
downtown Atlanta was the metropolitan region's unchallenged center for all
kinds of office employment. Although urban-village cores were emerging around
shopping malls at the intersections of major highways, office space was
limited. And neither in the appearance of the buildings nor in the quality of
the tenants were the fledgling urban-village cores any match for the downtown
high-rises. Most of the buildings were two-story wood-frame structures, and
many of their tenants were banks and insurance companies renting inexpensive
space for back-office operations.
By 1985--just five years later--this pecking order had changed completely.
Downtown Atlanta had gained 4.3 million square feet of new office space, but
Perimeter Center, at the I-285/Georgia 400 intersection, due north of downtown,
had gained 7.6 million, and Cumberland/Galleria, at the I-285/I-75
intersection, northeast of downtown, 10.6 million. Many of the new buildings
were gleaming, architecturally distinguished high-rises of the kind that once
had been built only downtown. If present trends continue, the amounts of office
space in both the Perimeter Center and the Cumberland/ Galleria urban-village
cores will easily surpass the amount in downtown Atlanta by 1990.
Downtown Atlanta, like downtown Los Angeles, is losing its metropolitan
hegemony and becoming just another one of the region's urban-village cores. The
urban villages around it, like those around downtown Los Angeles, are gaining
distinct identities. Government, professional services, finance, wholesale
trade, and the convention business are still in downtown Atlanta. However, as
prestigious high-rises have been completed at Perimeter Center and
Cumberland/Galleria, those areas have lost many of their price-conscious
back-office banking and insurance tenants and have become instead favorite
Atlanta locations for corporate headquarters and business services. Nearly
every major accounting firm and many downtown law firms have offices in
Perimeter Center and Cumberland/Galleria, the better to serve their clients.
The regional corporate headquarters of Northern Telecom and HBO are in
Despite their importance as business locations, Perimeter Center and
Cumberland/Galleria do not boast that traditional downtown symbol, a soaring
skyline of office buildings. The high-rises in these two urban-village cores
are not clustered. Instead they are widely separated by parking lots and
heavily landscaped open space. In keeping with the non-urban mood, the
developers have even neglected to add sidewalks connecting the buildings, and
most people use their cars instead of walking. From the top floor of a
seventeen-story high-rise in Perimeter Center the view is mostly trees and
lawns, not other office buildings. Like many (though not all) urban-village
cores, these relatively low-density north Atlanta developments visually blend
into the suburban landscape. Yet the explosive rise in the number of office
workers and their cars at Perimeter Center and Cumberland/Galleria has affected
once-peaceful residential neighborhoods, including the Spring Mill area, near
One surprising result of Perimeter Center's boom has also been seen in suburban
Dallas, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., and may be a trend. Residents of
middle-class subdivisions near high-rise office clusters are banding together
in corporations, getting their neighborhoods re-zoned for offices, and selling
large "assembled" land parcels to real-estate developers, who either raze the
houses or move them to new sites and build high-rises on the land. The suburban
homeowners see the chance to leave an increasingly congested neighborhood where
house prices are not keeping pace with those in comparable but quieter
subdivisions nearby. Often they can sell their lots for twice what the homes on
them are worth.
One such group formed three years ago in Spring Mill, a subdivision abutted on
three sides by the high-rise office complexes of Perimeter Center. Randy
Campbell, a former Spring Mill resident, recalls seeing a notice in a
neighborhood newsletter in July of 1983 asking residents if they wanted to sell
their property to office developers. "If you were interested," Campbell says,
"you tore off a strip of paper on the bottom of one page, filled in your name,
and sent it to the head of the neighborhood association. All but three or four
of the 117 homeowners mailed in that piece of paper, so we got together in the
community room of the Perimeter Mall. The average Spring Mill house sold for
$70,000 to $75,000 then, but we learned that the half-acre lots were worth
three times that figure to office-building developers. We didn't know how to go
about the re-zoning or sale. So all the neighbors appointed a committee of five
men and four women--small-business owners, several attorneys, a clergyman, an
accountant, and a stockbroker. That was me."
For the next few months the committee met almost every night, learning about
real-estate development and discussing strategy. By the end of the summer
Alston & Bird, Georgia's largest law firm, had agreed to represent the
homeowners on a contingency basis, and the firm drafted an option agreement to
create Kingsborough-Spring Mill, Inc., a nonprofit corporation. By signing this
option agreement a homeowner gave Kingsborough-Spring Mill's three-person board
of directors power of attorney to accept a minimum of $225,000 in cash for his
home, net after any expenses. It was understood that no deal would be final
until the county commissioners changed Spring Mill's zoning from single-family
homes to high-rise offices and multi-family units.
The night that Alston & Bird presented the agreement, in October of 1980,
eighty homeowners signed it, and by January of 1984 the figure had risen to 114
of the 117. "Once the neighborhood was 'tied up'," Campbell says, "we looked
for a buyer. They weren't knocking the doors down, because we wanted top dollar
and all cash. As we explored various deals, all the neighbors wanted to know
what was happening. So we prepared a newsletter almost daily, ran it off on our
office copying machines, and stuffed it into everyone's mailboxes during our
In October of 1984 the board of directors located a buyer. "Albritton
Development wanted to redevelop the twenty-seven-parcel Lake Hearn Place
subdivision adjacent to Spring Mill," Campbell says. "But the Dekalb County
commissioners rejected the re-zoning, reportedly because the project was too
small, too piecemeal. So we made a deal with Albritton, which combined Lake
Hearn's twenty-seven lots, the hundred and fourteen lots that we represented,
and the three other Spring Mill owners that didn't join the neighborhood
corporation. That made eighty-two acres--hardly piecemeal."
In June of 1985, however, the Dekalb County commissioners denied the re-zoning
request for the site. Six months later Kingsborough-Spring Mill, Inc., the Lake
Hearn Place homeowners, and Albritton Development sued the county
commissioners. By last June the case had ended up in the Georgia Supreme Court,
which ruled six to one in favor of the homeowners.
Baltimore is another kind of city being reshaped by the urban-village trend.
Despite all the good news about Harborplace and the renovation of
nineteenth-century row houses, the Baltimore metropolitan area is essentially
stagnant. The population of the metropolitan area, as defined by the City of
Baltimore and Baltimore County, declined from 1.53 million in 1970 to 1.44
million in 1980, and it is projected to drop to 1.40 million in 1990.
Employment is growing only modestly--from 771,300 jobs in 1980 to 782,400 in
1985 and to 813,400 estimated for 1990. The Baltimore metropolitan area hardly
seems like the place for a surge in construction. Yet there has been a boom in
the outlying districts of Towson, Owings Mills, White Marsh, and perhaps most
notably Hunt Valley.
Hunt Valley, twenty miles north of downtown Baltimore, was farmland until
recently. Now it has a prestigious high-rise office and hotel core, which is
surrounded by surface parking and low-rise industrial and office space. The
low-rise industrial and office complexes came first, when well-to-do Baltimore
businessmen decided to move their plants and offices closer to their homes in
the north and northwest sections of the metropolitan area. After Hunt Valley
was established as an employment center that offered low rents, the major
landowner--McCormick Properties, owned by the family that owns the McCormick
spice company--upgraded Hunt Valley by building high-quality mid- and high-rise
office space and a Marriott Hotel. The PHH Group, Westinghouse, Burroughs, and
Allstate Insurance promptly moved in. Now Hunt Valley is Baltimore County's top
Even New York City has fallen under the sway of decentralizing urban-village
development--which is surprising, considering that New York is the classic
example of the traditional pre-Second World War city and that Manhattan has
never been more prosperous nor its skyline more crowded with construction
cranes. But although Manhattan gained 23.5 million square feet of office space
from 1982 to 1985, during this short time its share of the metropolitan area's
more than half a billion square feet of office space fell from 67 percent to 60
percent. This year, too, 7.6 million square feet is scheduled to be completed
in Manhattan, bringing its total to 317.6 million--and 16.1 million square feet
of office space is scheduled to be added to suburbs within a sixty-mile radius
of Times Square, bringing the suburban total to 216.1 million.
In the past the typical new office building in New York's suburbs was part of
the campus-like headquarters of a major corporation in Westchester County or
southwestern Connecticut. Today, though, the exodus of corporate headquarters
from Manhattan--to the suburbs or other parts of the country--has slowed. Now
the typical new building is built on speculation, in an urban-village core such
as Stamford or Danbury in Connecticut, the Route 110 corridor on Long Island,
or Morristown or Princeton in New Jersey. One kind of tenant is a corporation's
back-office operations or an entire division that can be separated from the
Manhattan headquarters at considerable savings in rent, taxes, and business
services but linked to the main office by computers and telecommunications.
As more and more jobs move to the suburbs (most of the metropolitan region's
employment growth in the next decade is expected to take place not in New York
City but in northern New Jersey), housing construction is booming in outlying
towns. At Brookhaven, in Long Island's Suffolk County, 4,000 homes were built
last year and another 8,000 are planned. At Dover, New York, a Dutchess County
town of 7,200 residents northeast of Poughkeepsie, developers have filed
proposals with the planning board for 1,200 new condominium units. The
transformation is likely to be even more rapid at Chester, New York, fifty-five
miles northwest of New York City. The population is 7,000, and the town board
has received proposals for 3,000 new condominiums and homes.
In attractive communities near urban-village cores the prices of existing homes
are rising fast, owing to the sudden demand from employees of relocated
companies. That is one reason that metropolitan New York city experienced a
24.6 percent increase in the price of housing between the first quarter of 1984
and the same period in 1985. In Stamford, for example, a typical three-bedroom
house now sells for at least $250,000.
The Princeton, New Jersey, area illustrates the impact of the urban-village
trend on metropolitan New York. Seemingly overnight a metropolis-sized
urban-village core has emerged several miles east of this tree-shaded college
town on U.S. Route 1. It is estimated that by the mid-1990s the Princeton
corridor will have 12 to 15 million square feet of office space--surpassing the
amount currently in downtown Milwaukee, downtown Newark or southwest
Connecticut's I-95 corridor between Greenwich and Stamford. Two luxury hotels
have opened in greater Princeton: a Marriott and a Radisson are planned. The
number of housing units is expected to double, with over 25,000 scheduled for
completion by 1990. If current growth projections prove to be accurate, greater
Princeton will become New Jersey's largest city in ten years.
HOUSING FOR ALL URBAN-VILLAGE WORKERS
None of the far-reaching social, economic, and political issues raised by urban
villages has a broader and deeper impact than housing. Urban-village cores
generally arise at the outskirts of cities and grow in a limited number of
directions. Nearly all of Atlanta's urban villages, for example, are in the
northern suburbs, leaving the southern part of the city largely unaffected.
Dallas is growing mostly toward the north and northwest. St. Louis, not exactly
a booming metropolitan area, is heading west and northwest. The vast majority
of America's urban villages, in fact, have one thing in common: they are
growing in white, upper-middle-class areas. Executives and business owners
usually make the decisions about office locations and industrial sites. Most of
them are white and upper-middle-class, and they usually decide to bring their
offices or industrial plants nearer their homes.
This arrangement is time- and energy-efficient for executives and business
owners but not necessarily for clerical, light-assembly, and service employees,
nor for the employees of the stores, restaurants, and gas stations near offices
and plants. These workers cannot afford the executive-priced single-family
houses, townhouses, and condominiums near most urban-village cores. They face a
long--and often expensive--car or bus commute to the suburban or city home they
can afford to live in.
The scenes in the parking lots of north Atlanta's Perimeter Center at 5:00 show
the results of this geographical mismatch. Executives and professionals get
into their Cadillacs and BMWs for the relatively easy drive home or a visit to
one of the nearby "formula" restaurants for a drink. At the same time, many
black employees are walking through the parking lots--Perimeter Center has few
sidewalks--on their way to the bus stops, which are little more than a pole
with a bus sign on top, planted on a flat, grassy spot that usually turns into
mud when it rains. Atlanta's working-class black sections are south of
downtown, fifteen to twenty miles from Perimeter Center, but the roads and bus
lines to them don't follow a straight line. With one or maybe two transfers,
many bus passengers endure a one-to-two-hour ride twice a day.
Suburban fast-food restaurants, hotels, department stores, car washes, and
cleaning services are already experiencing a shortage of low-paid service
employees. In some fast-growing suburbs businesses are offering bounties for
new employees, raising the starting pay from the $3.35 minimum wage to $4.00 or
more, and offering raises after several weeks rather than a year. One solution
to the shortage is to bring affordable housing closer to the employment in the
suburban urban-village cores.
This idea is one of the most polarizing issues in local politics today. Most
suburbs have raised the drawbridge against housing for the poor and the working
class, as epitomized by new guarded and gated "secure" communities. Affluent
families do not want low-income housing in their one-acre-lot neighborhoods.
Nor do they need to allow it. Our urban villages now encompass areas the size
of many pre-Second World War cities. They have more than enough land for all
kinds of housing--and socioeconomic groups--if zoning boards permit affordable
The key to truly affordable, non-subsidized suburban housing is allowing higher
density, primarily in the form of rental apartments, so that fixed land costs
are spread over more units. Building suburban apartments in smaller than
average sizes, to reduce rents, should be permitted. Empire West, a Tucson
developer, has built smaller than average apartments in the Southwest. Situated
in 250-to-500-unit projects, the apartments range from 320-square-foot studios
(equivalent to a l4-by-23-foot space), to 615-square-foot two-bedrooms (a
20-by-30-foot space). All apartments have complete kitchens, bathrooms, and
closets, and are outfitted with scaled-down furniture.
These complexes usually offer the lowest rents in their local
markets--typically from $225 to $400, at least $25 to $50 a month below rents
for the cheapest conventional apartments. These rents fit the budgets of
clerical employees, security guards, and maintenance workers who make less than
$15,000 a year. Yet the complexes still offer "luxury" features like swimming
pools, tennis courts, volleyball courts, and social events.
Of course, upper-middle-class suburbanites fight almost any kind of
high-density housing. But attached housing complexes don't have to be built in
affluent neighborhoods. They have been successful near commercial districts,
where they create a buffer between a single-family-home neighborhood and an
office-and-retail district. Another logical place for apartments is next to an
urban village's commercial core. It seems likely that the vast surface parking
lots of regional shopping malls will eventually be redeveloped as high-density
housing and commercial buildings, with the cars going into above-ground or even
underground structures. When these apartment and condominium developments are
built near the shopping centers that form the focal point of so many urban
villages, the members of more age groups and economic classes will be able to
live near where they work and shop.
NEW TRANSPORTATION PROBLEMS
In most metropolitan areas the suburban rush hour now rivals downtown traffic,
and in some surpasses it. The 1980 census reported that 27 million Americans
commuted from one suburb to another, whereas only half that number traveled
from suburbs to downtown cities. The imbalance has increased sharply since
1980, owing to the boom in suburban employment. Today's suburban highways are
so overcrowded that once-easy five- and six-mile commutes take forty-five
minutes of stop-and-go driving in locations as widely dispersed as north
Dallas; Contra Costa County, east of San Francisco; and northern Virginia, near
Washington, D.C. And the emergence of urban villages at the edges of the
metropolitan areas--like Chesterfield, twenty-two miles west of downtown St.
Louis--have brought bumper-to-bumper traffic to two-lane country roads that
still run past farms and cow pastures.
Living up to its image, Los Angeles has the most heavily traveled freeways in
the nation. The three busiest points on them are now near urban villages--miles
from downtown Los Angeles and its four-level interchange, which once held the
city's traffic record but has now fallen to fifth place. To reach their
record-setting traffic levels, these Los Angeles freeways--like the slow-moving
highways outside other cities--do not have a morning rush hour in one direction
and an evening rush hour in the other. Commuter traffic now comes to a
standstill at morning and early evening in both directions, and slowdowns occur
frequently throughout the day.
Unfortunately, some city planners examining metropolitan-area congestion do not
acknowledge the traffic near urban villages and repeat time-worn cliches about
automobiles destroying cities. Others recommend the expansion of highways and
mass-transit systems, but continue to think only of access to downtown, just as
transportation needs soar in the suburbs. Still others recognize the rise of
urban-village cores in the suburbs but propose transportation plans that are
years behind the demand.
Planners and governments are working under a serious handicap in alleviating
suburban traffic problems. Most urban-village cores are being created by
private developers in a series of unrelated, uncoordinated decisions. To make
matters worse, the process of formulating a transportation plan, gaining its
approval, finding the funds, and completing the project is so time-consuming
that traffic problems are bound to become painfully obvious before any action
How can government alleviate suburban traffic congestion near urban-village
cores? The answer is not the construction of subways or elevated trains.
Fixed-rail projects (unlike light-rail construction--for example, trolleys)
justify their enormous capital expenditure and high operating costs "only when
you have both trip originations and destinations highly clustered," according
to Peter Muller, a professor of geography at the University of Miami and one of
the earliest observers of the urban-village phenomenon. "We are building
1920s-style mass-transit systems for our 1990s metropolitan areas," he says.
One example of the gap between urban image and reality is Walnut Creek,
California, near San Francisco, which has experienced considerable office and
light-industrial development in the past decade. Although most of the new
buildings are near the BART mass-transit station connecting the town to San
Francisco, Walnut Creek now has such severe traffic congestion that last year
it enacted an office-construction moratorium. Muller suggests that mass transit
failed to help the town avoid traffic problems because the vast majority of the
local workers commute by car regardless of a mass-transit option. "A great many
of the people who ride the new fixed-rail mass-transit systems in cities like
San Francisco, Atlanta, or Miami, used to ride buses," he says.
Nonetheless, fixed-rail transit remains a gleam in many a downtown
businessman's or politician's eye. Some proponents may imagine that it takes a
subway for a city to be a city, and some may have in mind that the federal
government has paid up to 90 percent of the bill in the past (though it will
not in the future, if the policies of the present Administration remain in
place). Even Los Angeles--the capital of California's "car kingdom"--wants to
build an eighteen-to-twenty-mile "metrorail" subway system, at a cost of 53
billion. According to an official of the Southern California Rapid Transit
District, the metrorail system "may come close to breaking even on an operating
basis, but there is no way that it will pay for the construction of the
system." Of course, this statement is based on predictions of operating cost
and ridership. The reality of Atlanta's new MARTA fixed-rail system is that the
fare box brings in only 35 to 40 percent of the annual operating budget, which
would more than double if a reasonable amortization of the capital cost were
included. Moreover, the proposed Los Angeles subway route serves downtown and
only two of the sixteen other urban-village cores in the metropolitan region.
Even buses do not fully meet the needs of the emerging urban-village cores,
because serving all the possible permutations between where people live and
work would require too many routes to be economically feasible. In the new
urban-village cores office and industrial buildings are not closely packed
together, as they are in midtown Manhattan or Chicago's Loop; they are widely
separated by parking lots and landscaped areas.
This lack of density means that only a few people will find it convenient to
walk to any given bus or subway station, and that office workers must have a
car during the day if they want to visit a client or go out to lunch. And where
internal transit programs using buses and mini-vans have been tried, such as
Tysons corner, Virginia, and south of the Los Angeles International Airport,
they have quickly failed for lack of patronage. In fact, even an official of
the federal Urban Mass Transportation Administration asserts that conventional
fixed-route transit systems will never carry more than a small percentage of
non-downtown commuters. The official thinks that the only kind of mass transit
with any chance of significantly decreasing commuter traffic is ride-sharing,
and particularly car-pooling.
That leaves us with our automobiles. The new office complexes provide more room
for cars than for the workers who drive them. The typical building allots
approximately 200 square feet of space for each employee. The usual planning
assumption is that one out of five workers uses a car pool or public
transportation, and so a building will require four parking spaces for every
1,000 square feet of office space. Each parking space requires approximately
325 Square feet for the space itself. ramps (if a garage, rather than a lot, is
planned), and aisles. That means the developer must set aside 1,300 square feet
of parking for every 1,000 square feet of office space.
Two years ago some of the nation's leading urban planners gathered in
Scottsdale, Arizona, and searched for solutions to suburban traffic congestion.
The planners expressed considerable disagreement, presented a myriad of
solutions but little data to support the ideas, and were greatly concerned
about finding the money to pay for any transportation improvements. The
planners did for the most part agree on an approach to the problem: government
working together with developers. This is already happening. In north Atlanta's
fast-growing Buckhead urban-village core, for instance, developers paid $1
million toward a new $5.2 million bridge over a highway interchange. And in
Montgomery County, Maryland, developers will pay half of the $109 million
needed for road improvements around Germantown, an emerging urban-village core.
Many developers favor this new spirit of public-private cooperation, because
they realize that the alternative could be government-ordered construction
slowdowns or moratoriums.
PLANNING FOR URBAN VILLAGES
Local governments can resist developers, but they can't resist them
indefinitely or protect their communities from the bad effects of rapid growth.
They are decentralized nineteenth-century entities trying to deal with
far-reaching twenty-first-century issues. Greater Los Angeles, for instance,
consists of well over a hundred cities and five counties. Metropolitan Atlanta
has forty-six cities and seven counties. How can so many governmental
jurisdictions possibly coordinate their actions to handle the amorphous growth
of urban-village cores, which, like multinational corporations, know no loyalty
to any single governmental body?
Real-estate developers most often deal directly with local governments. In this
high-stakes game the developers hold many of the cards, because they can play
one jurisdiction off another. Many local governments, in their desire to expand
their tax bases, generate employment, and welcome "progress," try to entice
developers with liberal zoning, temporary tax abatements, and improvements to
such things as roads and sewers at little or no cost.
Contrary to what their residents often think, well-to-do communities cannot
totally control growth on their own, unless they are geographically isolated,
like Santa Barbara, California. When a town is part of a metropolitan area, its
fate is inextricably tied up with the region's, no matter how wealthy its
residents or how stringent its growth regulations.
Even Beverly Hills finds itself relatively powerless to resist the relentless
development pressures from Los Angeles, which almost completely surrounds the
5.7-square-mile city. Several years ago Four Seasons Hotels wanted to build a
high-rise hotel on Wilshire Boulevard near Rodeo Drive, in the heart of the
city's commercial Golden Triangle. The issues of building density and
hotel-generated traffic congestion became so controversial that the city
council refused to vote on the Four Seasons project and instead placed a
hotel-development ordinance on the ballot. Last year Beverly Hills voters
overwhelmingly defeated the ordinance, thereby eliminating the possibility that
another major hotel will open in the city. That didn't stop Four Seasons.
Earlier this year the company started construction on a 287-room, 15-story
hotel on Doheny Drive and Burton Way, literally across the street from the
Beverly Hills city line. Beverly Hills lost the new hotel's sales and occupancy
tax revenues but will still be affected by the traffic.
What can local government do about growth pressures? Probably the best solution
is the creation of strong, effective, multi-city and multi-county agencies, and
perhaps even entire government structures, that correspond to the actual
economic and psychological boundaries of a metropolitan area and its urban
villages. Such broad-based government has already been pioneered by
Indianapolis (Marion County) and Miami (Dade County.) This governmental
reorganization is not easy, because it can involve jealously competing towns,
townships, cities, and counties--not to mention states, as are involved in
greater New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., St. Louis, and Kansas City.
But much as the number of school districts nationwide has shrunk from 100,000
in 1940 to 15,000 now, the number of planning jurisdictions can be brought
One possible first step toward the creation of more-effective local governments
is metropolitan-wide zoning and planning boards that have real clout in
granting zoning changes and allocating improvements to the region's physical
facilities. Some metropolitan areas are already moving in this direction. In
1979 Phoenix--the nation's ninth largest city, according to the most recent
census--took the revolutionary course of adopting the urban-village concept in
its planning process. In 1985 the city finished its General Plan to guide the
municipality's growth, and this established nine urban villages. "Each [urban
village] would become relatively self-sufficient in providing living, working
and recreational opportunities for residents," the General Plan said. The city
also encouraged the "concentration of shopping, employment and services located
in the village core."
Phoenix is using zoning approvals and planned allocations of money for physical
improvements to try to match employment with housing. The city has clearly
specified goals. In 1980 only two of the now defined urban villages had more
than half as many jobs as people, indicating that they had moved beyond being
bedroom communities. Phoenix hopes that by the year 2000 five urban villages
will have more than half as many jobs as people, with the remaining four urban
villages having between one fourth and half as many, clearly showing that jobs
and people have moved closer together.
Elsewhere, developers, employers, and local governments have created
transportation-management associations (TMAs) to find solutions to
transportation problems. What are perceived locally as transportation crises
have brought TMAs into existence in Baltimore's airport area; Warner Center, in
Los Angeles's San Fernando Valley; north Dallas; and Tysons Corner, Virginia.
According to Kenneth Orski, the president of Urban Mobility Corporation, which
is a TMA proponent based in Washington, D.C., TMAs "fill a vacuum in suburban
Besides organizing ride-sharing and van pools, promoting staggered work hours,
and lobbying for government-funded capital improvements, some TMAs are
expanding their role into child care, private police, and other services for
their geographic areas. It is imaginable that TMAs, born of the
traffic-congestion crisis, could mature into an echelon of government well
suited to the realities of our emerging urban villages.
Considering what has happened so far, is the urban-village trend a good or a
bad thing for our cities and our citizens? To a certain extent the question is
irrelevant, because the trend is already so advanced that it is irreversible.
But it is hard to imagine the ideal urban village as being anything but very
good. The opportunity for all kinds of Americans to live, work, shop, and play
in the same geographic area--while retaining easy access to other urban-village
cores with specialized features that their own district lacks--seems almost too
good to be true.
As the nation's cities reshape themselves along the urban-villages model, we
must ask ourselves, What are the design features, housing policies,
transportation solutions, and governmental structures that will make our cities
and the lives of their residents more productive and satisfying. Unfortunately,
the questions and opinions vastly outnumber the solutions and directions. A
great deal of study, experimentation, and planning needs to be done--and done
quickly--to help cities that are being rebuilt almost from scratch.
Copyright 1986, Christopher B. Leinberger and Charles Lockwood.
"How Business Is Reshaping America"
The Atlantic Monthly, October, 1986, issue.
Vol. 258, No. 4 (p.43-52).