Planning For The Urban/Suburban Paradox

City planners, officials and developers have an impossible task at hand.  The desire to get back to dense, transit oriented cities that put people first and the automobile second has gained enormous momentum, and rightfully so.  City residents, old and new, are clamoring for an urban core that embraces mixed-use space and a walkable, bikeable landscape fueled by the understanding that our cities fell from grace when the car was prioritized above all else.

And it’s working. While more of a toddler-like stumble than an efficient stride, our cities are taking steps toward a better future, and city residents are excited about the prospect of new life in their downtowns and neighborhoods. Conversations about good transit, road diets, bike and pedestrian infrastructure and increasing density are slowly becoming more of a reality, and our urban landscapes are changing as a result.

But city dwellers aren’t the only ones taking notice. Suburban populations are eyeing the fruits of our bustling downtown rebirths and want in on the action as well, and cities are more than willing to welcome this influx of regional visitors.

Great right? Well yes, with one exception… often the urban dwellers and the suburban visitors have very different ideas with regard to accessing these new city resources. While cities are taking steps to minimize automobile impact, suburban populations demand the convenience of auto-accommodation if they are to patronize downtown businesses, establishments and institutions. Free parking, abundant car access and storage, as well as traffic that flows freely and easily are all expectations of the suburban visitor who may not realize that these amenities are toxic to our cities as opposed to our outlying counterparts.

Furthermore, city businesses and organizations such as artist groups are shouting for better car access, knowing that a significant percentage of their revenue comes from suburbanites who prefer a parking space a few feet from their front door rather than the urban model of transit, bike and pedestrian design.

City governments are increasingly pressed by a population that demands a dense urban core that encourages alternative transportation, while simultaneously attempting to accommodate regional visitors who rely on car access and city businesses who rely on this population as a key portion of their patronage. The paradox of creating a stronger city through density while accommodating automobile convenience is alive, well, and exhausting for those who are burdened with the decisions of taking our cities into the future.

If we build for a strictly young, urban population that desires a diverse set of transit options over the automobile-dominant cities that ruined our urban fabric for more than 50 years, we risk losing the trust and investment by suburban visitors and even urban business owners and employers. If we build our cities to comply the the “drive through” mentality of regional audiences, we risk sending our cities down the same path they’ve walked for generations. The common ground is so razor thin, that even the slightest balance check can be disastrous.

At the end of the day, our cities will thrive if we work to minimize the automobile’s impact on our dense urban fabric. But we must ensure that we are creating a city so desirable and uniquely enticing that visitors will set aside their need for convenience. An almost impossible tightrope to walk, but it’s one we must traverse with skill and precision.