The Worst of Both Worlds - Suburban Apartments

If I could permanently cause one building typology to cease to exist, it would have to be the suburban “garden apartment”.[1] These apartment “communities” usually consist of 2–3 story buildings (open stairs — no elevators) arranged somewhat haphazardly within a multitude of parking options such that there are no clear fronts or backs and there is no discernible relationship to the street.[2] There are numerous reasons why I don’t like this type of building but my most basic critique of the suburban walkup apartment typology is that it just doesn’t adequately solve any problem effectively. They are a strange amalgamation of urban and suburban that exhibit the worst of both worlds — density without connectivity, auto dependence without private space. This, to me, is the fatal flaw.

Even the most ardent urbanist will admit that density has its downsides. Shared walls/floors/ceilings are certainly not a recipe for acoustic isolation and cramming more people into less space is a definite net-negative for privacy. However, in traditional development patterns (natural towns and cities), the downsides of density are offset by the positives — better connectivity with services and amenities within walking distance, transportation options often including a functioning transit system due to achieving the requisite critical mass to achieve it, more active lifestyle, and many more. Suburban apartments have all of the downsides of density without actually enjoying any of those benefits.

On the flip side, suburban apartments retain the auto dependence characteristics of sprawl without getting any private outdoor space. The basic underlying principle of post war suburbia is that every person gets their own slice of land but the suburban apartment does not deliver on that promise. Yet, despite not enjoying the most basic tenet of our sprawling development, the apartment dweller must still deal with all of the negative effects suburbia brings — traffic, congestion, lack of connectivity, mandatory car ownership/maintenance, more sedentary lifestyle, and more. As with the density side of this two headed monster, suburban apartments have all of the downsides of sprawl without enjoying the primary benefit — private space.

Suburban apartments exist because they are cheap — cheap to design, cheap to build, and cheap to rent. They are a way to bring density and lower cost to the suburbs but, to me, they aren’t worth the tradeoffs. I believe that there should be higher density options, of course. I just think that these options should be afforded the benefits that such density can afford, which is a roundabout way of saying that density should always be done in a fundamentally urban way. To trap someone in both density and auto dependence just seems downright wrong, particularly as the lower income brackets that often occupy these apartments are those that are least able to afford the high transportation costs associated with living in sprawl.

Since suburban apartments offer the worst of both worlds without giving anything valuable in return, I think we should just eliminate them from our lexicon of building typologies. When density is warranted, it should be done in an urban manner.

  1. Of course, “garden apartment” is just a euphemism for cookie-cutter buildings scattered in the less desirable areas of the suburban landscape with a bountiful crop of carports, garages, and surface parking mixed in with the occasional landscaping.  ↩

  2. These “communities” are often fenced so that even if the buildings did manage to have a relationship to the street they are functionally cut off from participating in the life of the street.  ↩

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