Suburbia Project

Sidebar: The New American Dream

Creating smart suburban downtowns with a mix of uses can help form the logical connections that help new Americans get to jobs, spend their free time, and access public and educational services.

By Paris Rutherford
Published October 21, 2005

A century after Upton Sinclair wrote of the gritty experiences of inner-city immigrants, the face of these enclaves has changed dramatically. Urban hubs like San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York are no longer the magnets they once were, and instead, many of today?s fast-growing immigrant populations are settling in the suburbs of first- and second-tier cities like Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Las Vegas, Raleigh-Durham and Atlanta.

The 2000 Census captured this trend for the first time, revealing that more immigrants now live in suburbs than cities-and their numbers are growing faster than ever.

The American Dream is undoubtedly in transition. Single-family homes, large lawns, good schools, safe neighborhoods and the serenity of suburban life are no longer reserved for white middle and upper class citizens. Instead, immigrants want a piece of the dream and are often bypassing cities altogether in order to get it.

Places like Dallas and Atlanta are undergoing the majority of this growth because they never had true urban immigrant neighborhoods and have developed outwards quickly. This sprawl often translates to more housing, convenient developments near good schools and friends and family, and most importantly, more jobs resulting from new office parks and strip malls along major highways.

Although this sprawl has provided some economic opportunity for these rapidly growing immigrant groups, it cannot continue unchecked. Many suburbs have become plagued by the same problems that once faced cities. Drug use, gang activity and poverty have risen dramatically in a number of these communities, even as it has decreased in the cities.

The declining character of these sprawling suburbs has lowered the quality of life substantially for these groups, has stretched social and healthcare services and schools more than ever, and, as a consequence of rising crime, has resulted in discrimination for many of these groups.

Some of these issues can, and are, being addressed with new national, state and local policy. The rest can be assuaged by combating the ills of sprawl. Creating smart suburban downtowns with a mix of uses can help form the logical connections to workspaces, shopping venues, and transportation that help these new Americans get to jobs, find productive ways to spend their free time, and access public and educational services.

It can create a range of medium to high-density housing types, thereby encouraging social diversity and creating an eyes-on-the-street self-policing environment. Finally, these developments can create vibrant community hubs that provide social support networks to enable immigrants to thrive in their new country.

As the influx of immigrants continues - the Urban Institute projects that by 2015, one third of all American children will be the son or daughter of an immigrant - the suburbs will be challenged to adapt and reinvent themselves to ensure positive growth.

Properly anticipating and accommodating this market and ensuring that this growth occurs in positive ways means considering smart redevelopment now, creating dynamic places that can help redefine the American Dream.

Paris Rutherford IV, AICP is the Vice President of Planning and Urban Design at RTKL Associates, an architecture firm based on New Urbanist principles.

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