10 Most Enlightened Suburbs

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Suburbs are often stereotyped as selfish and soulless, but the communities highlighted here could teach towns everywhere a thing or two about civic spirit and livability. We?d like to hear your thoughts on other great suburbs throughout the world. Send us your suggestions (editor@utne.com or Enlightened Suburbs, c/o editor, Utne, 1624 Harmon Place, Minneapolis, MN 55403) and we?ll take another look at enlightened suburbs in a future issue.

  1. Montgomery County, Maryland (Washington, D.C.)
    A mostly affluent stretch of communities northwest of D.C., it?s home to probably the leftiest ?burb anywhere (Takoma Park) and one of the very first New Urbanist communities (Kentlands). Montgomery County stands out as a national leader in preventing sprawl by preserving thousands of acres of farmland. It has also achieved impressive results on affordable housing by requiring developers to include 15 percent lower-income units in all major projects or subdivisions.
  2. Tempe, Arizona (Phoenix)
    Standard-issue Sun belt sprawl has been transformed into a genuinely lively town through smart redevelopment and historical restoration. Local planners capitalized on the presence of Arizona State University to create a lively main street that attracts shoppers, cultural patrons, and lovers of urban atmosphere from around the area.
  3. Suisun City, California (Bay Area)
    Once a tough town notorious for pollution, drugs, and crime, Suisun City took bold steps in revitalizing its waterfront, investing in its tatty downtown, and building a handsome city hall and two public plazas. To the surprise of numerous skeptics, it worked, and this suburb on the way to Sacramento is now enjoying a renaissance.
  4. Shaker Heights, Ohio (Cleveland)
    A classic 1920s garden suburb built around a rapid-transit stop, Shaker Heights has worked hard since the 1960s to encourage racial diversity. Controversial pro-integration policies have prevented it from becoming either a segregated white fortress or a resegregated black enclave. (Oak Park, Illinois, has accomplished much the same thing.)
  5. Royal Oak, Michigan (Detroit)
    Sure, some suburbs can be progressive, public-minded, and even pedestrian-friendly, but hip? Well, take a look at Royal Oak?a suburbohemia filled with ethnic restaurants, sidewalk caf?s, art galleries, theaters, a farmer?s market, and some of the Motor City?s best live music.
  6. Hammond/Whiting/Gary, Indiana (Chicago)
    Folks in these hard-hit steel towns might be excused for feeling hopeless about the future. But they?ve refused to give up on their communities. As part of the Northwest Indiana Federation of Interfaith Organizations, a coalition of religious congregations, local activists won a five-year uphill battle to establish a regional transit system. This victory not only will make it easier for residents to get to jobs in outlying suburbs, but also demonstrates the power of people working together.
  7. Burlingame/San Mateo, California (Bay Area)
    Burlingame offers a grand example from the early 1900s of what a suburb can be: a bustling downtown clustered around a train station and surrounded by tree-shaded neighborhoods. Neighboring San Mateo is newer but is increasingly recognized for its vital and pedestrian-friendly downtown. This has made a big difference for the community?s many older people, who suffer isolation in most suburbs when they no longer drive.
  8. Delray Beach, Florida (Palm Beach)
    Suburban civic spirit is not an oxymoron here. This mixed-income beach town has won national awards for programs that help at-risk youth, minority senior citizens, and low-income elementary school students. Atlantic Avenue has been revitalized and low-income neighborhoods nearby are seeing signs of revival without wholesale gentrification.
  9. Markham, Ontario (Toronto)
    toronto has been described by some wags as ?Vienna surrounded by Houston.? But this booming technoburb defies the sprawling, ticky-tacky, no-there-there image of the region?s suburbs. Municipal officials in Markham have embraced New Urbanism more sincerely than almost anywhere else, working hard to instill a vibrant, bustling feeling to new developments.
  10. Naperville, Illinois (Chicago)
    An old town on the Fox River encircled by suburban development, Naperville has maintained the amiable spirit of Main Street USA. But these charms have made it a target for tear-downs?classic old homes being razed to make way for oversized new McMansions. Community First, a local citizens group, established successful guidelines for maintaining the character of Naperville?s neighborhoods without stifling homeowners? creativity.

Peter Katz was founding director of the Congress for the New Urbanism and now lectures widely on the benefits of urban places. Author of the influential book The New Urbanism: Toward an Architecture of Community, he lives in Alexandria, Virginia. Jay Walljasper, editor of Utne, writes frequently on urban topics.