Reenergizing first-tier suburbs



While there is generally more press about the decline of many of our post-industrial cities, there are a number of first-tier suburbs that struggle economically as well. In fact, as many older inner cities have seen a millennial generation revival, a number of older suburbs have not been quite as fortunate. Instead of harboring an industrial legacy from which to revive into trendy lofts, hip artisan studios, or active live/work space, these suburbs may be beset with neighborhoods full of nameless tract housing and other “less than chic” land use legacies.

But, all is not lost. The more fortunate first-tier suburbs may still have some areas of industrial legacy from which to establish a new foothold, or perhaps even  have historic districts which could be used to stabilize parts of the city.  Beyond those two fronts, here are some other suggested ideas:

  • An active commuting advantage – first-tier suburbs are generally close enough to the central business district where they offer a clear advantage to those who prefer/enjoy active transportation (cycling, walking, transit) over traditional commuting methods.
  • Traditional commuting advantage – instead of commuting 30 minutes or more each way, many first-tier suburbs off locations with 10 to 15 minutes of the central business district.
  • Existing transit options – instead of waiting for transit to someday arrive, most first-tier suburbs already have transit options already available.
  • Location, location, location – the great in-between – being midway between the central business district and outer ring suburban employers can provide a competitive advantage to first-tier suburbs as they are often equidistant to both. This is provided that transit/transportation options operate in equitable bi-directional manner.
  • Convert closed/abandoned institutions into mixed uses – one of the coolest brewpubs I have ever visited is in a converted chapel for a former mortuary in Grand Rapids. I have also been to office and brewpubs that were once churches.  In Greater Lansing, former schools now serve as corporate offices, a community center, and a care facility.
  • Smaller lot – smaller carbon footprint  – first-tier suburbs often have residential areas with smaller lot sizes. These may be very appealing to an aging population as they require less time and effort to maintain. The same may be true for first time homeowners or those who prefer to reduce their overall carbon footprint.
  • Established infrastructure and amenities – this includes roads, utilities, railway lines, parks, even airports. Infrastructure improvements can ignite redevelopment of inner suburbs by bringing improved access and services. For example, the suburb could become much more desirable upon the opening of a new commuter rail, light rail, or BRT station serving it. There are plenty of examples of this, including areas around Washington, D.C. after the metro opened.
  • An actual identity  – unlike nameless suburbs fanning outward across the landscape, first-tier suburbs often have some actual identity from which to create a brand. There is actually a there, there. Granted, sometimes the identity is less than positive (i.e. Camden, NJ), but in many other cases the brand name is very marketable (i.e. Evanston or Oak Park, IL or Royal Oak and Ferndale, MI).
  • Historical roots – while they may not necessarily have established historic districts, first-tier suburbs often do have an established history from which to build community identity and spirit around.
  • Trendsetting conduit of change – consider being a trendsetting community that tries new and innovative ideas first.  This could be anything from using alternative energy, to EV charging stations, to new education paradigms, to you name it.  All many not work, but those that do could set your first-tier suburb apart from the rest and make it a magnet for new investment.
  • Accentuate the positive too – always address the negative in an honest and forthright manner. At the same time don’t indulge in a pity party. Never (never) forget to also accentuate the positive, for positive attributes can be found in every community.

Any additional suggestions for helping to revive first-tier suburbs would be most welcome.


This entry was posted in Active transportation, adaptive reuse, Advocacy, architecture, art, bicycling, Biking, branding, brewpubs, Bus transportation, Cars, cities, civics, civility, coffee shops/cafes, commerce, culture, density, economic development, economic gardening, Economy, entertainment, environment, geography, historic preservation, history, Housing, infrastructure, land use, landscape architecture, logistics, Maps, new urbanism, Passenger rail, placemaking, planning, politics, recreation, revitalization, schools, spatial design, sprawl, sustainability, third places, tourism, trails, transit, transportation, Travel, urban planning, walking, zoning and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Reenergizing first-tier suburbs

  1. Larry Hogue says:

    North Park in San Diego seems an excellent example of a revived first tier suburb. When we lived there in the ’90s it had a lot of fixer-upper Craftsman homes and a sleepy “downtown” block or two. Now it has a trendy restaurant, beer, and bike scene.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.