About twenty miles East of Seattle, a suburban area called the Issaquah Highlands, is now referring to itself as a “village.” Hillside residents are excited by the transformation. It infuses new retail, parks, and homes with front porches rather than dominating driveways. Architecture and streetscape design is more focused on people, and cars don’t dictate the urban form. These policies are the manifestation of a desired lifestyle, but these “villages” have greater implications for urban planning.
The phenomenon of the suburb has been a defining part of recent American history, but attitudes are changing. Books with titles such as “The End of the Suburbs” describe the detriments of sprawl, and suggest that we are entering an age of urbanization.
However, we shouldn’t think that city centers are the only places that can adapt, and the prospects for the suburbs are better than these books suggest. Lower density areas at the edge of cities, or even miles away, have nascent urbanism, or at least the potential. In fact, some think “edge cities” could lead the next wave of development. Increasing density, design focused on people and mobility, and rezoning to introduce new retail, entertainment, and jobs, could make these areas more dynamic. Take these key policy items with a grain of salt though; there is no silver bullet, just the hope for better planning.
More and more examples are coming out of the Pacific Northwest. Snohomish County has designated ten unique urban villages, such as the 52-acre site in Mill Creek pictured below. In different ways these small areas function to accommodate growth projections, complement the region’s major transit oriented development, and facilitate community cohesion through innovative design standards and mixed-use zoning. Many municipalities have solidified urban villages (sometimes called urban centers) in recent period revisions of Comprehensive Plans, as they are consistent with policies stated under Washington’s Growth Management Act.
The word village is used loosely to describe big box shopping centers, or other tacky places (no offense to University Village, I still like to shop there). However, what places like Issaquah Highlands are doing is part of a formalized regional planning effort. Bringing urban amenities outside of Seattle, coupled with strong regional connections, is one of the smartest things the Seattle region can do to prepare for long-term growth.
So what makes a village? Community, activity, connections, and variety, to name a few. Most likely, many planned villages won’t excel in all categories. These places will vary widely in scope and purpose, which is okay because it’s important to keep things in local context. Transplanting urbanism somewhere that isn’t ready, will end up being superficial. However, the changes in Issaquah Highlands are going over well, indicating that maybe there are more areas that will stray from the traditional suburban formula. The great urban renaissance may happen in unexpected places.
What role do you think the suburbs play in the future?
Credits: Images by Colin Poff or linked to source. Data linked to sources.