10 Most Enlightened Suburbs

| March / April 2003

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.

2/6/2009 3:56:35 PM

I enjoyed reading "Ten Most Enlightened Suburbs" on Planetizen's e-news. No doubt Shaker's housing stock, public schools, access to rail lines, and diversity are great assets. In a spirit of friendly competition, though, I would suggest that Cleveland Heights, Shaker’s larger neighbor to the north, is just as worthy of recognition. Our community has a more varied housing stock than Shaker’s, enjoys vibrant commercial districts, and shares its neighboring city’s commitment to public education and the fostering of a diverse population. Cleveland Heights offers attractions like the Cedar Lee Theater, home base for Northeast Ohio's leading independent movie chain; Cain Park, the unique home to two warm-weather performance venues and a nationally recognized summer arts festival; Coventry, a regionally significant neighborhood, centered on an iconic street that features street fairs, locally owned stores and restaurants (including two independent bookstores), and a vibe all its own; numerous community-oriented organizations such as Heights Arts; and a citizen-published monthly newspaper, the Heights Observer. Anyone familiar with the dynamic cities of Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights and their setting adjacent to Cleveland’s University Circle would almost certainly say that Cleveland Heights deserves, at the very least, to share in the accolades your article bestows upon Shaker.

1/31/2009 8:51:15 PM

While nobody in the know could complain about your choice of Montgomery County, MD, one can certainly be concerned about your inclusion of Shaker Heights, OH and exclusion of Oak Park, IL. Sadly, Shaker Heights is showing some signs of resegregating -- namely becoming a predominantly Black community. Shaker Heights leaders have put maintaining stable integration on the back burner. On the other hand, Oak Park continues to be a stable, racially-integrated community in which the proportion of the population that is of African descent is roughly what it would be in a color-blind housing market without the distortions racial discrimination causes. Although Oak Park's elected officials lately have been negligent toward maintaining the village's racial integration, the populace has been much more vigilant and supportive. In fact, one might be concerned about most of your line up of "enlightened" places, most of which are highly racially segregated including Naperville, Illinois. Then again, social issues have never been of much concern to the new urbanists, now have they?

1/30/2009 1:42:29 PM

Please consider adding Ashland Oregon to your list of wonderful progressive towns.

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