Suburban America in the 21st Century

Future opportunities

Suburban America in the 21st Century

ULI Indiana and the City of Fishers recently hosted three noteworthy design professionals from the United States and Canada to tour the City of Fishers and meet with the City Council to listen to their current challenges and give feedback about future opportunities.

On Sept. 1st, Browning Day Mullins Dierdorf architects attended ULI’s panel discussion. The discussion was held at the newly created Launch Fishers (, an innovative co-op space for local entrepreneurs, independent contractors and small businesses alike. The three panelists, Lynn Carlton of HOK, Blair Humphreys of the Humphreys Company, and Rob Spanier of Live Work Learn Play, all offered a unique outlook on design.

They began the discussion by reviewing the history of suburbs in America. Examples included Levittown of post-World War II, an embodiment as the American Dream, and McMansions of the latest housing boom. Now we are facing a new shift with new demands from suburban residents.

The panelists made sure that we didn’t think of this discussion as an urban vs. suburban comparison because they both serve different purposes, an apples vs. oranges comparison if you will. Instead, how suburbs can continue to grow economically while attracting new residents and creating a place that the residents will invest in.

Exploring place making

A key phrase the panelists used was ‘place making.’ They joked that it could become the new hot word in the design world that is often overused like ‘green’ and ‘mixed-use’ have been recently.  Generally, they talked about each city, village, neighborhood, etc. and how each has its own distinctive landscape, landmarks, and history that can be celebrated as place making.

This place making does not have to be done as a typical ‘downtown’ prototype. One of the panelists said,

“You don’t have to have a downtown to have a place, and you don’t have to have a place to have a downtown.”

Taking it a step further, as more suburban residents are looking for nearby, bikeable and walkable services, perhaps smaller scale retail nodes are spread throughout the city instead of one centralized location that often requires the use of a car.

Cities as developers

Economically, as suburbs look to the future, the local government is becoming a developer themselves and being armed with the knowledge of what to ask for, they can help shape a successful outlook.  Many of the strip malls and retail centers of today can be re-imagined to fit the unique place of the city.  An example is the Home Depot in the Flatiron District of Manhattan. ( The retail giant recognized a need for their store in one of the densest neighborhoods in America and changed its typical store look to mesh with the neighborhood.

Preserving the suburbs

The panelists took on the topic of Millennials and their impact on the future of the suburbs.  While more Millennials are moving closer to urban centers with plentiful amenities, there is still a high percentage, well over 50 percent, who still want the single family detached home in a nice neighborhood where they can safely raise their kids. As the baby boomers who flocked to the suburbs for this same reason get older, they are looking to downsize as their kids leave the house, but want to stay in the same neighborhood they have invested in over the years, otherwise known as aging in place.  Suburban cities are struggling with this because there isn’t the variety in housing types to support this aging in place and so many baby boomers keep their large homes, preventing many Millennials from moving to the suburbs.

The panelists applauded the City of Fishers for being proactive on this topic and felt there is a lot of opportunity for the future.  Many other suburban city representatives were present, including Carmel, Noblesville, and Westfield.

Other Case Studies mentioned:

The Saxony Development at Fishers

The Habersham Development in South Carolina

Burns Harbor Redevelopment in Northern Indiana


Jennifer Miller is a graduate architect at Browning Day Mullins Dierdorf. Jennifer’s design experience focuses on historic and housing projects. Her passion is in finding the unique potential in every design challenge.  She often achieves this through sustainable solutions that are contextual and tectonic.  Jennifer is actively involved in the design community as a member of the Young Architects Forum and the Urban Land Institute.

Jennifer joined Browning Day in 2015.  She earned a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Art History from Lake Forest College and a Master of Architecture Degree from Arizona State University.