Many home buyers, regardless of age, desire the vibrant lifestyle of urban living. They want to walk down the block for coffee or meet friends after work for a drink, easy access to cultural centers and recreation and the option of taking mass transit to the office.

John Thatch
John Thatch

A Jan. 9 session at the 2018 International Builders' Show will explore how builders can capitalize on this “urbanization of the suburbs” and successfully integrate the features of urban living in suburban housing. Here, BUILDER talks with one of the sesion presenters, California-based architect John Thatch of Dahlin Group Architecture Planning, about how to bring urban essentials to suburban communities.

Is an urban lifestyle becoming more popular?
Overall, the appeal of an urban lifestyle has increased, but there are important nuances to how that is defined and executed that affect who urban appeals to and where urban environments can thrive. For example, there is research that suggests that as millennials are starting to form families they're moving to more suburban environments, yet, even as they're looking for the benefits the suburbs offer, they still want the benefits associated with urban cores.

What defines an urban lifestyle?
When defining an urban lifestyle, it's helpful to consider the elements of the urban environment. Urban cores offer desirable jobs, mass transit infrastructure, availability of diverse housing opportunities, entertainment, culture, local retail and restaurants as opposed to national chains, walkable and bikeable streets, open space that offers a variety of recreational activities and venues, and a sense of community. The mix of these elements and the scale of the architecture – intimate, yet, with enough room to accommodate a variety of demographics – create energy that is perceptible.

Can you provide that type of lifestyle outside of a large metropolitan area? How?
Not only can you, but it is already happening in the suburbs surrounding gateway cities. Take for example, Walnut Creek, California – where I now live in a condo downtown – was a small ring city with a little bit of a downtown, about 25 miles outside of San Francisco, with jobs and a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station. With the density that's been and is being developed in the housing and the performing arts theater, movie theater, boutiques, and restaurants, they're growing into their own as a city. You no longer need to go to Oakland for entertainment or to San Francisco for shopping, you have all of that in Walnut Creek and you have people coming to Walnut Creek now for access to those things.

What do you mean by the “urbanization of the suburbs”?
There is a difference between creating busyness and density and cultivating a sense of urban character that feels authentic, not contrived. Urbanizing the suburbs is about intertwining the many appealing elements commonly found in urban cores into the suburban context. Businesses can play an important role in urbanization by where they choose to locate offices. For example, we’ve seen how large companies locating their satellite offices in thriving towns and ring cities with a distinct downtown character in an effort to attract younger professionals has generated momentum towards urbanization in those locations.

Will your ideas work anywhere in the country or only in certain locations?
It can work in a lot of locations as long as there is energy present. Is there a university? Is there a historic core that has character? Is it located along a transit corridor? Is there an educated population? As a population grows, a small town with urban flair can grow into a city. The next wave of college grads are coming into the workforce, and they're not going straight to the gateway cities anymore. When you're just starting out, those cities are competitive with high costs of living. They're going to the second tier cities that have an urban flair and energy to them.