Quality of Life: Can Urban Renewal Combine the Best of the City and Suburbs?

This article was originally published on Christie’s International Real Estate’s blog Luxury Defined


COVID-19 has not only changed the way we live, but looks set to change where we live too. Case in point: online searches for houses in suburban areas rose by 13 percent in May. As Robert Dietz, chief economist for the National Association of Home Builders, said in a recent report: “The flight to the suburbs is real.”


It’s a trend that’s particularly visible in a megalopolis like New York City, where, The Wall Street Journal reports, moves to neighboring Connecticut have more than doubled from 2019. “We’re seeing an uptick in sales that we haven’t seen in years, particularly in homes priced at $1.5 million and above,” confirms Karla Murtaugh, Realtor at Neumann Real Estate in Ridgefield. “Many New York City residents who rented properties here during the city’s shutdown in March decided to buy after experiencing the amazing lifestyle, beautiful surroundings, and nationally ranked schools on offer.”


But, while suburban markets are experiencing a boom, many housing economists warn that urban property values could be facing a corresponding long-term decline. So, should we be looking to urban renewal as a way to save our cities?


Aerial view of a Connecticut town, a place which urban renewal hopes to emulate

Homebuyers from New York City are increasingly choosing Connecticut’s greener pastures, with spacious suburban areas attracting particular interest. Image: Getty Images


New Paradigms

“Yes,” says human geography expert Joel Kotkin, “the traditional roles of cities have to be integrated with the new realities of the age.” But what needs to happen to attract new residents to a city, when urban buzz often comes at the cost of the fresh air, greater space, and outdoor areas on which we now place such a premium?


It can be done if we develop a new paradigm, says Kotkin, presidential fellow in urban futures at California’s Chapman University. “Cities need to compete for their residents on the basis of quality of life. They need to offer better choices and up their game in terms of amenities.”


In that respect, Los Angeles—long known as a “city of villages,” comprising many small incorporated towns, with business districts close to adjacent residential streets—has led the way since its inception. Kotkin fondly remembers his years in Studio City, “where everyone worked from home, but there were thousands of businesses and restaurants, and lots of places to meet.”

Phoneix Arizona sen from afar

While Phoenix, Arizona, has a bustling downtown core, there are more than a dozen hubs throughout the metro area to ensure that, even on its periphery, inhabitants have access to the same amenities.


Irvine, a newer city in nearby Orange County that was developed in the 1960s and ’70s, took a leaf from L.A.’s book, says Kotkin. He cites it as a model example of a planned community with good services, plenty of green space, and jobs on its doorstep, adding that the other American cities that will fare best are those with dispersed city centers instead of a single downtown. “The ideal is having everything you need—work, schools, entertainment, and recreational facilities—within a 20-minute walk, a 10-minute bike ride, or a five-minute drive from your home.”

Examples of cities that are already getting it right include Phoenix, Dallas, Austin, Kansas City, and San Antonio. In the case of Phoenix, says Dub Dellis, chief operating officer at Walt Danley Realty and a lifetime local of the city, it’s because “while the city of Phoenix is massive in terms of area—almost 25 times larger than Manhattan—the downtown cores of each of the surrounding communities really have identities of their own. They have great restaurants, as well as live performance venues, and art galleries. Our developers saw the opportunity to create communities.”

The Best of Both
So, could mixed-use developments, which combine the best elements of both city and suburban life, be the way forward? Yes, says Michael Berkowitz, a New York-based urban-resilience expert and founding principal of Resilient Cities Catalyst, which helps cities around the world to prepare for extraordinary challenges, such as hurricanes, droughts, terrorist attacks, or pandemics. He believes Domino Park, a development in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, represents the face of the future.


An aerial view of Domino Park

The Domino Sugar redevelopment offers residential, retail, and commercial areas alongside recreational space in Domino Park—a six-acre (2.4 ha) green belt designed by the landscape architects behind New York Citys High Line.


Here, developer Two Trees Management converted the disused Domino Sugar Refinery into residential buildings, along with neighborhood gathering areas and dedicated retail spaces—including a yoga studio, wine store, and Michelin-starred restaurant. “It’s no longer about just building a tower where people live,” Berkowitz explains, “but rather an entire ecosystem in order to flourish.”

Kees Kaan, a Dutch architect who has practices in Paris, São Paulo, and Rotterdam, is applying the same principles in his urban dispersal project for the rapidly growing French city of Nantes. His aim: to create a new neighborhood with its own commercial heart. “It has good transport links with the city center, but isn’t suburban at all,” he explains. “It also has all the amenities people need, including its own main street and central boulevard.”

The SPOT project in Amsterdam
The Spot development in Amsterdam will transform a formerly commercial area into “both an intimate inner-city environment and an expanding metropolis, the village and the city in one,” says Kaan.
Kaan is also transforming an area of southeast Amsterdam, which was once dominated by dreary office buildings. The project, named Spot, will “create an urban village, with areas that are safe to play in and accessible only to cyclists and pedestrians.” Its design will allow for copious green space, and will reconfigure residential and office spaces across several buildings.
Renewed Greenery—and Growth
On the need for increased greenery in urban areas, the experts are unanimous—with Berkowitz citing it as “a non-negotiable.” As a result, biophilic design, a movement that aims to bring nature into the home, is rapidly gaining ground. It’s a way to create a green interior, which goes far beyond house plants, says U.K.-based designer Oliver Heath. “Living walls and interior water features enhance a home’s connection to nature,” he explains, “and this is rapidly becoming an essential for homeowners, not just a nice-to-have.” “That kind of access to nature and outdoor spaces is what’s getting us through this crisis,” adds Berkowitz, “and resilience is ultimately about the capacity to withstand whatever the next crisis is.”
A living wall of plants in a meditation studio
A living wall—such as this one created by Oliver Heath Design for Re:Mind Studio in London—is a simple way to incorporate biophilic design and has been proven to improve indoor air quality and increase a connection to nature.


Happily, another point the experts agree on is that the city will survive—even if it falls out of fashion temporarily. “It’s been under siege for centuries, with ups and downs, but it’s always regained popularity,” says Kaan. And Berkowitz points out that the arrival of an effective COVID-19 vaccine could create its own shift. “When that happens, more people will once again want to be near to others, in the places that have traditionally been the hubs of innovation, wealth, and creativity—the cities.”