Early Suburbs Organize
The freeway that runs past Lee Ann Osbun's Minneapolis suburb of Circle Pines is aging. So is the housing in the post-World War II community where she serves as mayor.
Osbun's neighbors in other suburbs north of Minneapolis face the same kind of problems, too -- deteriorating sewer and water systems, overtaxed bridges, rundown commercial centers and an aging population past its prime.
Their predicament is not unique. Across the country, suburbs surrounding major cities are in various stages of decline. Built in the late 1940s by Americans who wanted a life without urban congestion and crime, the single-family houses now 50 years old are starting to buckle.
The couples with young families who moved into new houses are mostly retired, their children gone, says William Morrish, a professor of architecture at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Meanwhile, the urban problems that drove these families into the suburbs are creeping closer to their picket-fenced backyards.
The easy solution has been to repeat the pattern of flight, this time from the inner suburbs to greener pastures even farther removed from the city's core, said Morrish, who directs the university's Design Center for Urban American Landscape.
Postwar communities built around cities, called first-ring suburbs by planners, are now themselves surrounded by a series of concentric outer rings carved out of rapidly vanishing farmland.
As for the freeways and expressways, instead of delivering suburban residents home from their jobs in city centers, they have become catapults that vault workers past suburban off-ramps and deliver them far out into what was once the countryside.
Along with the destruction of agricultural land, the longer and longer commutes are putting a tremendous strain on aging highways, according to Morrish and other analysts. And they are leaving suburban communities to decline along with their aging infrastructures.
"The ground has begun to move under the feet of first-ring communities," said Morrish. "Some people are angry, others see opportunities."
In the Minneapolis suburbs, Osbun and other officials found an opportunity in the freeway they initially identified as their major problem. Interstate 35 West, the major artery between Duluth and Des Moines, forms a corridor north of Minneapolis that includes Arden Hills, Blain, Circle Pines, Mounds View, New Brighton, Roseville and Shoreview.
All seven suburbs are dependent on I-35W. It both links and separates them, says Bob Benke, mayor of New Brighton and director of transportation research for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Benke, Osbun and their counterparts in other neighboring cities joined forces to lobby for federal highway funding to repair the freeway built in the 1960s.
Soon, however, they realized their county roads and bridges were in equally sorry shape. That led the officials to consider the kind of transportation system that would most benefit their communities.
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out we can't rely on the old ways," said Benke. "We decided we better start worrying about our own corridor. Nobody else was going to."
What began with transportation led the officials to jobs, housing, economic development and social services -- a fundamental re-evaluation of how they envision their communities in 20 years and beyond, said Circle Pines' Mayor Osbun.
They formed the I-35W Coalition in December 1996 and began meeting biweekly.
The suburban mayors believe they can reroute their neighbors' choices about where to work, where to live and how to get back and forth. Their goal is to plan for communities where residents thrive without freeway commutes -- places so attractive they will want to invest their energy and their futures into their neighborhood.
"I'm hopeful people will come to think of these communities as more than just places to eat and sleep," Osbun said.
The I-35W Coalition cities are convinced they can increase their options for solutions by facing the future as a subregion.
Coalition members are pooling their resources to address mutual problems. Instead of competing with one another for limited funds and development sites, they are looking at their needs as a region.
In designating parks and open spaces, for example, planners are ignoring municipal boundaries of the seven cities. They intend to meet their individual requirements for affordable and senior housing by spreading the percentages throughout the two-county area.
"We think we can do these things better as a group than any one of us can as an individual. We're like seven large neighborhoods working together," said Dennis Welsch, community development director for Roseville.
One of their goals is to reduce the reliance on roads -- freeways in particular and highways in general, said Benke. They are considering regional bike paths and pedestrian ways as well as local transit systems.
The trend toward telecommuting should help, says Osbun, who teaches political science. She is optimistic that people who work out of their homes will become a part of their communities through school activities, civic groups and local government.
"People no longer find long-term friendships in their workplace. They're turning back to the place where they live to find a sense of belonging," Osbun said.
But they will need groceries, health care and other goods and services close by. For city planners, that represents a fundamental shift in thinking. The common logic for at least 15 years has been to separate different uses, buffering residential neighborhoods from industrial smokestacks, said Benke. Now they are talking about mixing uses.
The so-called suburb cities encircling Cleveland, Ohio, are also working together to create more self-sufficient communities. They hope to reduce the migration of people, businesses, capital and government resources to the rural areas, says Thomas E. Bier, director of housing research at Cleveland State University.
Cleveland's First Ring Suburbs Consortium, formed in 1996, wants to change policies that currently encourage commercial development outside the urban and suburban core. Tax laws that make it attractive to redevelop downtown areas and older suburbs will give builders an incentive to invest there instead of out in the countryside, Bier says.
Suburban planners taking the initiative to develop holistic strategies for their futures are working without much help from state or federal agencies. Local units organized as counties and cities make broad government planning difficult, says David F. Garrison, a senior planning and evaluation official with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Minneapolis, Cleveland and other pioneering coalitions will probably be the ones to resolve the major suburban public policy issues, he says. "It's very hard work. People tend to fall back on narrower and more familiar confines," Garrison said.
The challenge is to respond to the immediate pressures of growth and end up with a livable region, says Benke. "It's a ready, fire, aim business but we're excited. If ever it can be done, we're going to do our best to do it here."
The I-35W Coalition will be part of a national conference on first-ring suburbs scheduled for October in Minneapolis. The Cleveland consortium is sponsoring a forum in April for mayors of Ohio's older suburb cities.
Posted: June 23, 1998