Houston’s suburbs must share innovations, successes and lessons learned from mistakes to ensure long-term prosperity, according to a new study commissioned by Urban Land Institute – Houston (ULI Houston) and conducted by Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research.
“Building Stronger Suburbs: Adaptability and Resilience Best Practices from Suburban Houston” examines best practices for adaptability and resilience in suburban living. The study is based on five case studies from across the Houston region and three focus groups with Houston-area developers, elected officials and government employees.
The collaborative project brings together for the first time two highly regarded and recognized authorities on urban issues and development of a shared, formal program of work.
“Houston is rich in its expertise in both the urban and suburban core,” said Bill Odle, ULI board chair and strategic planning director for the architecture firm TBG. “We have the best minds executing some of our region’s most innovative projects, and we knew we could tap into that talent to reveal the most challenging and interesting work taking place, particularly in the suburbs. With the expertise from the Kinder Institute for Urban Research, this study examines those best practices and, we hope, also inspires land use that furthers the path of our flourishing, global city.”
The report’s author, Kyle Shelton, said that suburbs are often criticized for not offering suggestions for urban development, but he pointed out that there are many things taking place – collaboration between public and private sectors, enhancement of community services (including public safety and maintenance) and expansion of green space – that can be shared and potentially impact not just suburbs but major municipalities. Shelton is manager of the Kinder Institute’s Urban Development, Transportation and Placemaking program.
He also noted that preferences about suburban living are changing, with portions of suburban areas becoming more urban and working hard to accommodate new consumer and lifestyle preferences, such as more walkable urbanism, increased public transportation and enhanced public services.
“When we think about innovative development practices and projects that garner a lot of attention for their impact on making a community more resilient, we often see examples drawn from central cities,” Shelton said. “Suburbs, though, are no less susceptible to the challenges of fluctuating economic cycles, changing consumer preferences or natural disasters. Likewise, suburban communities are actively building themselves into more resilient and flexible communities via approaches to governance, a push to add density or the implementing of new infrastructure elements. It’s important to highlight those successes and trends.”
The report’s takeaways include:
- Prosperity in the suburbs requires coordination across public and private sectors. Collaborations among local governments, nonprofits and developers can help create more adaptable developments that serve a wider population more effectively.
- A community’s economic value and desirability can be increased through effective governance structures, enhanced community services (public safety, maintenance and green spaces), functioning infrastructure, good schools and active public spaces.
- Best practices and innovative development ideas can be drawn from all types of suburbs. Older, often lower-resourced communities offer examples from which even the most successful master-planned communities can draw lessons.
- Communities with lower resources have to be particularly innovative in their efforts through leveraging funding streams, working with various jurisdictions to improve services and applying existing regulations in new ways to rebuild and retrofit themselves.
- Leadership must lay out long-term and short-term goals. Such vision from a municipality, public entity or developer is a necessity.
- Different suburbs require different tools and practices. Resilience and adaptability practices are not one-size-fits-all. This applies both at the community and individual structure levels. Hospitals and IT-heavy businesses have different needs than residences or schools.
- Resilience and adaptability measures can help foster healthier residents and places. Trails, improved pedestrian realms and public spaces encourage more active lifestyles.
- Implementing best practices often mean shifting current ordinances or land-use codes. Local governments have to engage and educate communities about needed updates, such as increased density.
“Suburban communities have been particularly successful in creating productive cross-jurisdictional partnerships,” Shelton said. “They have worked with management districts and county and state government to secure funding streams and make needed improvements. It is also really crucial to recognize that there is great diversity within suburbs. Master-planned communities and older, low-resource communities have very different challenges but can still learn from one another.”
Shelton said he hopes that the report will provide a blueprint for the pursuit of more successful suburbs nationwide.
“It is crucial that these best practices from suburban communities be shared because the areas are different spaces from downtown communities,” he said. “They face their own unique challenges. Suburban areas can learn from one another about how best to grow and develop. And, where they share common challenges with cities, suburbs need to be seen as sites of equal inspiration. Suburban practices can help improve cities and vice versa. We should be open to sharing improved processes and insights back and forth with the goal of creating prosperous regions.”
Funding for the study comes from the ULI Foundation through its global ULI Urban Innovation Grant program, with matching funds from the local district council, ULI Houston, and in-kind professional services contributed by grant partners.