Why I hate the suburbs

The suburbs appear to be furtively resuming their six-decade binge of eating up productive farmland and scenic woodlands and prairies on the now vast fringe of the Twin Cities metro.  That’s a real bummer, because the predatory weasels who build this crap with very few exceptions don’t give a fig about walking, biking or transit.

They should, because for the most part they end up building places that are dense enough to be walkable & bikeable (if not transitable usually).  Following the pattern of the most recent wave of suburban development set at the close of WWII, these developers throw down houses with little regard (sometimes disdain) for how they fit into the context of the surroundings, leaving municipalities to deal with the expensive, patchy mess they leave.  Most municipalities are unable or unwilling to rise to that challenge, so the suburbs of today are vast, leafy green, packed with jobs and tempting shops, and impossible to access without a car.  Many of us carless hoped that the recent recession was a cleansing fire, but I don’t think we have proof of that yet and apparently people who work at Harvard agree with me.

So the blast from the past Toll Brothers is about to shoot into Eden Prairie is unwelcome, familiarly stunning in its brazen capitalism and lack of interest in how its marks are going to actually live in the $600k paper fantasy being sold to them.  The plan is for 52 single family homes on 30-40 acres wedged into what is being sold as a conservation area.  Enormous, nearly artless houses will surround streets that follow the typical winding, stunted, disjointed suburban pattern.  There will probably be sidewalks, but people are as likely to walk on them as they are likely to drive on a freeway that doubles back on itself.  Luckily, the Toll Brothers development, called Eden Prairie Woods, isn’t such a twisted wretch that you can’t connect much of it into effective city blocks with multi-use paths, as I did using red lines in Paint:

The developers are kind enough to promise “hiking/biking trails” but as they are not depicted in the site plan, I’m assuming those are being planned only for the “conservation area.”  If trails do end up in the neighborhood itself, my guess is they’ll look something like this:

In other words, completely useless for transportation.  But is it even possible to bike and walk anywhere around here?  The site plan makes it look like these houses will be in the middle of a vast unpopulated jungle, far from the cares and worries of having neighbors or sometimes seeing homeless people.  Actually, Eden Prairie Woods is about a quarter-mile from this:

Though it’s a small island in a sea of sprawl, it’s probably big enough to warrant some neighborhood retail to which Eden Prairie Woods residents could (theoretically) also walk to.  Also potentially walkable for potential Eden Prairie Woodsians?  The Lions Tap, legendary burger joint of the Minnesota River suburbs (about a half mile away).  Woodsians could also potentially walk to an enormous church and an enormous park, which both affix to the southeast corner of the intersection of Pioneer Trail and Eden Prairie Road about a mile away.  At the upper range of walking distance are the jobs clustered around Flying Cloud Airport (1.5 mi), but if the future Woodsians are willing to climb on a bike, they could easily ride there or a bit further to classes at Hennepin Tech (2.5 mi) or a gazillion jobs and shops around Eden Prairie Center (~4 mi).

The point is not that if only they’d lay down a few strips of asphalt, the residents of Eden Prairie Woods would all sell their cars, or even their second cars.  The point is that no one is even going to try to occasionally walk or bike for transportation if there is no reasonable way to do it.  If their only options are a few curly-cue paths in the woods that don’t connect to anything, the whole family’s going to pile into their own individual cars for a trip to the Lions Tap.  But if there is a reasonably direct route, and maybe nothing good on TV that night, maybe they’ll try to walk for their burgers on occasion instead.

There is the further tragedy that at a density of around 2 units per acre, this development is weighting the area away from ever having regular route bus service.  But what really gets my goat is that even developments like these that advertise opportunities for recreational walking and biking by design dissuade residents from doing the same for transportation.  Whether out of apathy, greed, or malice, the suburbs demand that you drive, and that’s really why I hate them.

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8 comments on “Why I hate the suburbs

  1. Reuben says:

    I hate how this development makes no effort whatsoever to connect with any surrounding neighborhoods (or any surrounding future neighborhoods). This development is intentionally a island and has no desire to be party of any kind of larger context. Par for the course for suburban development, I guess.

    The day Cities started letting private land owners and developers subdivide their own properties is the day Cities started their decline.

    • Alex says:

      Yes, but it does suggest a somewhat simple solution: tighten subdivision regulations. I was thinking about some of that while writing this post and probably should have polished those thoughts instead of just scribbling in Paint. Maybe they’ll get polished one of these days or maybe I’ll just publish them unvarnished

    • David Greene says:

      Hell, landowners and developers have been subdividing their land since the start of Minneapolis, at least. Research how the neighborhoods were platted and developed. I live in the middle of a big farm that was divided up into lots.]

  2. Cobo says:

    I think that this article is a little too harsh. Granted it isn’t a sustainable development and will further clog the roads, and will likely be considered a mistake in 50 years but…….. it is what people want now.

    Look at the development trends for the last 20 years, job growth in the south west metro has out paced the core cities by huge margin. So building homes in Eden prairie makes sense. It has 3 fortune 500 companies and close to 3000 registered bushiness.

    When people from rural MN/WI/IA/ND/SD hear “City” four things come to mind. 1. traffic 2. crime 3. loud noises & people 4.unfriendly people. These are the people who contribute the most to the growth of the twin cities population. Almost all of them move to the suburbs. So the image of the city and cities in general need to improve to attract these people

    I live in Eden prairie, work in chanhassen. frequently bike to work. But use no mass transit. I may move to minneapolis someday but that is only if I can find a good paying job their and still childless.

    • Alex says:

      I’m sure it didn’t come through, but my point wasn’t that the suburbs suck because they’re not a perfect sustainable urbanism fantasy, but instead because they could support occasional walking and biking but choose to put up impediments. These come in the form of a rigid adherence to curvilinear, non-connective street networks. At how many points on your commute are you required to travel in the opposite direction of your destination because of how the streets are laid out?

      But you’re probably right, I was probably too harsh. It seems like the suburbs are better than they were when I was living there with my parents who moved to the Twin Cities from rural MN and were terrified of the city.

  3. I think it’s worth noting the tight connection between this one-way-in, one-way-out development and traffic engineering. I suspect even if they wanted to, the developer wouldn’t be permitted to build city blocks (extending “Parkview Terrace” and “Woodland Cir” to Eden Prairie Rd), because it would create more access points on an existing through street. It’s a harsh reality that we’re simply not allowed to build development around major streets like we once did around Lyndale, Nicollet, Lake St, etc.

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