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Suburbs must adapt or wither

Boston’s suburbs are graying. They’re becoming older and less economically diverse at a time when the state’s economy is increasingly centered around young, city-bound workers. This doesn’t mean that the suburbs are doomed. But there is a shakeout coming, and the suburbs that are the slowest to adapt will struggle mightily over the next two decades, as changes in the way people live push traditional postwar suburbs to the margins. The communities that thrive will be the ones that see these changes looming, and adapt.

The coming suburban shakeout flows from a marked shift in regional demographics. Cities like Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville are thriving because they're growing younger. They're growing younger because they offer an attractive lifestyle proposition — walkable streets, vibrant downtowns, and an attractive mix of homes, offices, shops, and dining all in close proximity to each other. The suburbs have been largely unable to match this urban appeal, so their current residents are aging in place, and there's been no great influx of younger suburbanites behind them.

The old postwar suburban building pattern clustered offices around highway off-ramps, stuffed shops in endless strip malls, and scattered homes on large lots. Fewer and fewer people want to buy into this kind of disconnected, automobile-centric way of building and living. Suburbs that can't make changes and attract younger residents face a future where a shrinking base of wage-earners have to support an aging, service-dependent population.

Suburban graying presents an opportunity for change for the better. According to the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, Boston's suburbs need to add at least 115,000 new housing units by the year 2030, just to keep pace with the region's modest pace of growth. Subtle shifts in demand — if, say, the region retained slightly more of the college graduates it produces every year — would demand that Boston suburbs ramp up housing production by tens of thousands of additional units. The suburbs are going to have to build new housing anyway; the smart ones will be the ones that build in ways that retrofit the suburbs, eradicate sprawl, and create new destinations to attract the younger residents they've been missing.


Quincy is currently driving ahead with the region's most ambitious suburban retrofit. The city's ongoing downtown revitalization project aims to erect housing downtown and create local, urban-scale alternatives to shopping malls and commercial strips. The $1.6 billion project is ultimately about regaining Quincy's identity as a city. It's about creating an answer to Somerville's Davis Square, which has used transit access and hip retail shops to attract scores of younger residents.


The Quincy project is an extreme example. Communities can act on a far smaller scale and still drive meaningful changes in how they function. For example, Winchester is pushing hard to create a cluster of housing around its downtown commuter rail station. Melrose is promoting Main Street shopping and steering new housing construction to streets around the Orange Line. Marlborough is transforming an abandoned office park into a mixed-use village with offices, apartments, shops, and restaurants. Tiny Millis is talking about replacing a pair of run-down industrial properties in the town center with housing and small-scale shops. The Metropolitan Area Planning Council is working with Natick and Framingham to create dense, walkable neighborhoods along the sprawl of Route 9.

The common thread in all these efforts is the desire to graft urban building patterns on top of existing suburbs. This means using dense clusters of housing as a tool for municipal reinvention and creating amenity-rich destinations for locals. It means swapping the sterile suburban monoculture, which keeps homes and businesses at arm's length from one another, for more vibrant live-work-play districts. And it means softening streets now dominated by automobiles.

Natick, for instance, knows that Route 9 isn't going anywhere. But if the town lined the roadway with trees, put a real effort into the sidewalks, and replaced the dead space in shopping center parking lots with apartments and offices and parks, it could relegate the highway to the background. Towns don't have to blow up their shopping malls or bulldoze huge tracts of single-family homes to tame their sprawl. They do, however, have to find weak spots in their building grid, and have the vision to break drastically with their own development patterns.


Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.