by: A.J. Kirpatrick, AICP, CNU-A
Director of Urban Planning
The Oklahoma Chapter of the American Planning Association (APA-OK) will be hosting its annual conference in Midwest City on October 1st and 2nd. As part of the conference, Jason Beske, the co-author and co-editor of the recently released book, Suburban Remix, will deliver the keynote presentation. ADG was instrumental in finding Beske and recruiting him to speak. ADG has also agreed to sponsor his presentation at the conference.
In Suburban Remix, Beske and his co-author, David Dixon, build upon the argument that national preferences in where we want to work and live have fundamentally changed in favor of areas focused on walkable urbanism. Each chapter in the book features a case study of a suburban community either just starting or having already created their own walkable, pedestrian-friendly area. Key to all these lessons is that each community, initially built as a low-density suburb, had to find the political will and financial resources to create these areas from scratch. In our work throughout the state of Oklahoma, we have seen several communities struggling with how to get started on this process.
In preparation for his presentation, Beske agreed to answer some questions about why he and Dixon were attracted to the project and the role that planners can play in the Suburban Remix phenomena.
AJK: Your book does a good job of pulling together the thoughts of several note-worthy speakers, including several that have spoken in Oklahoma in the past, such as Christopher B. Weinberger and the team at Zimmerman/Volk, regarding how many of our long-held assumptions about development and market demographics are fundamentally changing. Can you talk a little about what made you and David Dixon want to write this book? Was there anything that surprised you along the way?
JB: David and I had both done a lot of planning work in the suburbs, David on the private side and me on the public side. We both respected and were aware of the lessons in Retrofitting Suburbia and The Sprawl Repair Manual, but we felt like something was missing in the conversation. At first, we decided to propose a Planners Advisory Service report to analyze what suburbs were doing to create walkable communities from a regulatory perspective. The Planners Advisory Service idea quickly turned into a book when we started piecing together several case studies and accompanying market conditions for office, retail, and residential. I figured that the topic would sort of die down as we wrote the book over a couple-year period, but the topic has only gotten bigger as we’ve gone along. I learned that the timing was right to share our message—there are more suburban communities ready to pursue a more-walkable, pedestrian-friendly agenda than I could have imagined.
AJK: A large part of the book’s main argument rests on how Millennials and the generations yet to reach homebuying age will use the suburbs over the course of their lives. Will they migrate to center cities pre-marriage and eventually head back to the suburbs once marriage and family takes center stage? Or will tomorrow’s suburbs just do a better job of providing walkable urbanism from the get go? Can you tell us a little more about what your conversations and research indicates?
JB: We are experiencing a demographic anomaly in North America – we are getting both younger and older at the same time. And, based on research, the US can expect to see a much more urban future moving forward. This is based on living and location preferences for Millennials, as well as downsizing Baby Boomers. While Millennials have preferred to live in walkable urban environments, particularly downtowns, many are beginning the move to the suburbs. The difference is, they are generally seeking more dense, walkable environments versus larger single-family homes. Developers and suburbs are also taking note of the preferences for urban living and gutting antiquated zoning regulations that don’t allow for the dense mix of uses that support so many other amenities (i.e. public space and transportation alternatives). Overall, North America lacks enough urban housing units to accommodate supply (either in cities or suburbs) and I expect the demand for walkable environments to only increase over the next several decades.
AJK: Your book introduces the reader to eight different communities that have or are experiencing this Suburban Remix. Even compared to neighboring Texas, most suburban communities in Oklahoma are just now starting to consider how to implement walkable urbanism. From your research, is there one community that you would hope planners in Oklahoma were familiar with as they discuss these concepts with their own community?
JB: In my experience as a local government planner, it is important to use precedents that communities and community leaders can relate to. I’ve presented at more than one meeting where I’ve tried to use precedents that the community cannot relate to, and you can imagine how that went. So, while the suburbs of Washington, DC contain a number of helpful lessons for planers in the Midwest, geography can detract from the message. I previously worked as a planner for the City of Overland Park, Kansas and I feel that there are a lot of valuable lessons to be learned for planners trying to promote walkable urbanism in suburbs. Lessons learned in Overland Park, particularly from the Vision Metcalf Study and subsequent regulatory endeavors, provide a really good framework for introducing a new suburban paradigm to a quintessentially suburban community built on the efficient flow of traffic.
AJK: You finish the book with a chapter on the value of placemaking within the overall Suburban Remix phenomena. Why is placemaking so key to these efforts?
JB: I feel like placemaking is our charge as planners. From a social perspective, placemaking contributes to the life and identity of a community while fostering personal well-being. From a design perspective placemaking is both a powerful concept and economic development strategy. When we researched and wrote about the suburbs in the book, David and I realized that placemaking, geared toward the specifics of a community, has the greatest impact on creating places of lasting value. Placemaking was key to these efforts. People need to own the future and involving them in the process of placemaking put the future in the hands of the community, not just developers. Planning for the most successful walkable suburbs brings everyone to the table to develop a shared vision. Placemaking is the common thread that ties all interests together.