POV: Point of View

New Suburbanism

Oct. 2016

We didn't name the concept. Joel Kotkin and his colleagues at The Planning Center did in their 2005 report titled "The New Suburbanism, A Realist's Guide to the American Future." However, Withee Malcolm’s approach to infill development in suburban towns and cities reflects the New Suburbanism philosophy: "planning, design, and development that aims to improve all of the complex elements that make up a successful community—governmental, physical, economic, social, and environmental—creating a flexible template for a wide range of existing and newly designed suburbs."

At Withee Malcolm Architects, we have been working on infill developments in older cities, newer towns and true suburbs for decades, including our hometown of Torrance, which was established in 1912 around a new planned community.  Over the years we have experienced the evolution of sprawling Southern California where a mix of factors from population growth to high land costs to traffic conditions are driving greater densities. As Kotkin notes, "The greater Los Angeles area now has a higher average density than metropolitan New York, even though it is made up primarily of suburban-like communities."  

As a result, there are fewer large-scale parcels for redevelopment and the architect's challenge is to create more livable, pedestrian friendly, mixed-use neighborhoods and downtowns in existing suburban cities. However, much of the public attention has focused on the renaissance of our high profile downtowns.  Certainly, that is in the case in Los Angeles where DTLA is now among the hottest addresses in the metro region.

In a recent article in Architect Magazine, critic Aaron Betsky made an eloquent plea for a change of focus: "Architects have twin obsessions: downtown and heroic architects. I have said it before and I will keep saying it: architects must abandon their obsession with making ever fancier forms for ever denser Command and Control Centers, and start worrying about how to make better—more sustainable, more socially connective, and more beautiful—places out there."

As much as we enjoy working on downtown infill projects, we completely agree with Betsky and that's what our version of New Suburbanism — our own "out there"—is about.

Our approach takes advantage of infill opportunities — from single parcels to redevelopment districts to small planned communities— leveraging density and innovative design to create buildings that enhance the existing context of the neighborhood or catalyze positive change. In either case the results are more vibrant, connected places that serve the interests of the greater community.  Not all projects have the same end goals but the planning and design are guided by an understanding of community needs such as quality housing, economic viability, mobility and identity. At the same time, we understand that our projects must meet the pro-forma demands of developers and the market demands of potential residents or businesses.

Though not proscriptive, we are guided by a set of key concepts:

  1. Maximized Infill Opportunities
  2. Mobility (pedestrian + transit-oriented)
  3. Connectivity
  4. Mix of Uses + Housing Models (both market rate + affordable)
  5. Quality Architecture + Urban Design
  6. Leveraged Densities
  7. Environmental + Social Sustainability
  8. Economic Viability (new residents + new businesses)
  9. Quality of Life
  10. Sense of Place

A review of our recent projects tells our New Suburbanism story in revitalized neighborhoods with affordable housing for families, seniors, veterans, special needs and formerly homeless residents and with innovative new market rate condos in surprising locations that are changing perceptions. Our developments include libraries, pre-schools, senior centers and even a YMCA. They may have higher densities than their surrounding single-family neighbors, yet they are respectfully scaled, welcome additions.

They are healthy places. Many of them are LEED certified and close to parks and public transit.  They are also distinctive places with architectural identities that help to create a sense of place. Our projects consistently win awards for design and for their civic contributions.

Whether it's a creative office building, a market rate condominium or apartment or a mixed-use development —we design with the community in mind. Quality of life is one the principle reasons that people choose smaller cities and suburban towns. Our goal is to preserve what is best about these places while addressing the real issues of sustainability, lifestyle, culture, and cost of living.

It's design that makes a difference.