The Pass/Fail Nature of Suburban Development


Happy New Year, and welcome back for another year of Strong Towns. This is my eleventh New Year writing in this space and I’m always excited to get back to things after a break. This is going to be a huge year for our movement. Thank you for joining us right at the start.

The American development pattern—typified by the suburbs, but quite prevalent in the configuration of our urban space as well—forces an all-or-nothing kind of approach to problems of infrastructure and services. It’s either all in or nothing; there are not a lot of half measures. Binary outcomes like this are a hallmark of fragile systems.

For example, after having a brown Christmas here in Central Minnesota, we were inundated with snow in two successive storms. The first one was around fourteen inches and the second perhaps six. After a disappointing first half of the month (we all like snow in my house) we were happy for the shift to true winter weather.

At the moment, I’m running a used car lot at my house—I purchased two cars in December and am selling our two old, old cars now—and so I was checking the city’s snow emergency routes to verify where I could park my fleet and when. In my neighborhood, the north/south gridded streets get plowed (and are thus off-limits for parking) on Day 1 after a big snowfall, and the east/west streets get plowed on Day 2. Pretty logical and easy to work around, unless you have a low-to-the-ground sedan.

Or unless you’re from Texas. I was part of a neighborhood team that pushed a car with Texas plates through one of the east/west streets when a visitor took a wrong turn. Like good Minnesotans, we all ran out there as soon as it was clear he was stuck, pushed him out with a smile and a wave, then all had a good chuckle among ourselves. Minnesota Nice does come with a side of passive condescension, at times, although you do generally get the nice first.

When it Snows in the Cul-de-Sac, You’re at the Mercy of the Plow

My city has a little bit of suburban-style development on the edge of town, although most of it is in the neighboring city. Even so, I noted that every road on the outskirts was Day 1. Little cul-de-sacs with four homes. Overbuilt roads without much development. Long, winding stretches with nothing on them. Every street outside the core neighborhoods was to be cleared of snow on the first day of the snow emergency, while the neighborhoods where almost all the population lives will have to wait until Day 2. Why?

There are two reasons and they both get to this binary outcome conundrum. First, because suburban roads are built to funnel all traffic onto the same few routes, not clearing the neck of the funnel has the same effect as a dam on a river. It messes up everything upstream, so even though there may be few homes on the collector road, there are many on those local feeder streets that depend on the collector.

Here’s the second reason: now that you’ve driven out there with the snowplow to take care of the collector, it’s easier to just take care of all those cul-de-sacs and local streets when you’re there than to come back later. Even though it’s time-consuming and tedious, better to just get it done on one trip than to make two.

I used to live on a cul-de-sac about a quarter mile from the nearest collector road in a different city where there was no grid. If we didn’t get plowed out on the first day, it was a big problem. I could take care of my own driveway just fine, but there was no way my little snowblower was going to clear a path all the way to the main road. Without the plow, we were completely stuck.

When it Snows in a Traditional Neighborhood, Redundancy is Your Friend

Now, living in town, when the Day 1 roads are cleared, I’m a couple hundred feet—at most—from a street I can drive on. And, better yet, I’m surrounded by neighbors who are out clearing the sidewalks and alleys and are seemingly always ready to put their back into it for anyone who needs it. They can plow our streets last and we’ll all be okay.

And, of course, even better than that is the fact that I can walk to whatever I need so, if the plow doesn’t come at all, I’m going to be just fine. The only problem I’ll have is getting my kids to their activities in the neighboring suburban city. We went downtown for dinner in the middle of the Thursday blizzard, and the restaurant was really busy.

My neighborhood has redundancy. Options. That’s important to me. The old neighborhood I used to live in was all-or-nothing; I was miles from food, miles from a hospital, and had no option other than to wait for the city to clear my road of snow. Very fragile.

We’re so used to building systems that are fragile and then using our wealth to overcome it that we don’t even think much about it. We build sewer systems with pumps all over the place—just another maintenance item—to overcome topography. If we were poorer and more concerned with redundancy, we would develop more in line with the topography nature gave us. The same with our stormwater management systems; we’re rich—or so we tell ourselves—so every obstacle is something to be merely engineered away.

When we wake up and realize that we’re not as rich as we think, binary outcomes become our Achilles heel. A Strong Town favors redundancy over efficiency when it buys optionality.