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A new lens on suburbia

Center for Advanced Urbanism conference explores the suburbs’ sustainable future.
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Conceptual view of future suburban fabric
Conceptual view of future suburban fabric
Image: Matthew Spremulli

On the global stage, cities may be where the spotlight often falls — but the suburbs are where the action is.

That somewhat counterintuitive reality was the subject of a two-day conference entitled “The Future of Suburbia,” hosted recently by the Center for Advanced Urbanism (CAU) of MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning. The event brought together scholars and practitioners from a range of institutions and disciplines to share perspectives on trends in suburban city forms, while considering how designers and planners could help make them more productive, equitable, and ecologically sound in the decades to come.

“The questions we put out there,” says Alan Berger, professor of landscape architecture and urban design, and co-director of CAU, “were: How can the suburban environment operate holistically? And how can we manage suburban and urban development together, so that there’s a holistic exchange of environmental resources?”

The urban planning and design professions, Berger says, often operate on the assumption that most future growth will happen in cities, even though almost 70 percent of people in the U.S.  live in suburban areas — and the suburbs are growing. Moreover, the United Nations predicts that by 2050, only 1 in 8 people worldwide will live in a megacity; the rest will live in the urban periphery or beyond.

“Suburban types of expansion are the overwhelming majority of global development that's going to happen for the next 30 to 80 years,” Berger says.

Joel Kotkin, professor in urban studies at Chapman University and an authority on demographic and social trends, observed at the conference, “This is the reality we live in, and we have to deal with it. Most people want a detached home.” Indeed, over 82 percent of owned homes in the U.S. are detached.

Jed Kolko, an independent consultant and former chief economist at Trulia, the online real estate company, presented some surprises within the most recent U.S. census data. Contrary to popular belief, population is growing much faster in lower-density suburban areas than in cities. And the suburbs are more diverse than many of us realize.

Minorities, young adults with children, aging Baby Boomers — these demographic groups are increasing their numbers in the suburbs. Based on such trends, Kolko predicts a “continuing decline in the share of those living in cities.”

These shifts present opportunities that designers and planners are well positioned to identify and pursue.  Berger maintained that, “designed intelligently, suburbia can be a highly productive test bed for clean energy, clean water, food, carbon storage, social diversity, and certainly affordable housing.”

Joan Nassauer, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Michigan, shared her research on “greening sprawl” that has important implications for providing carbon sinks as a tool for fighting climate change. With colleagues from an array of disciplines, Nassauer conducted studies in suburban areas of southeast Michigan. Soil scientists took core samples from manicured lawns, and social science researchers conducted interviews to learn how homeowners’ aesthetic preferences are shaped by their neighbors’ landscape practices.

Their efforts yielded an encouraging finding: By area, homeowner lots in suburban residential developments store as much carbon as do managed northern forests. And homeowners prefer more carbon-sequestering native planting and mature trees — if that’s what their neighbors have. These findings can inform tactics to “nudge” suburban development toward providing more ecosystem services.

Another panel addressed one of the primary obstacles to realizing this vision of a sustainable suburbia: transportation. “The innovation of the automobile, or personal transport, is the single most important factor in creating the suburbs and shaping their form,” said Eran Ben-Joseph, professor and head of the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning.

“Did the car destroy the environment, or maybe the way we designed for it did?” he asked, noting that roughly one-third of all development is devoted to car-related infrastructure, from wider streets to parking lots to driveways.

“Autonomous vehicles will change the design of suburbs in the future,” Berger added, “potentially allowing for the removal of up to 50 percent of their current paved surface. This would have tremendous positive environmental impacts on the watershed for cities downstream.”

Knut Sauer, vice president at Hyperloop Technologies, reported on his company’s efforts to radically transform personal mobility. The hyperloop — a venture launched in 2013 by Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and Tesla — would move people and goods in a depressurized environment in a system of tubes, at speeds up to 700 mph. Musk’s original concept involved a theoretical route between San Francisco and Los Angeles, but the hyperloop offers the potential to connect not just urban cores but any point on the landscape, dramatically reducing the time it takes to get from place to place. “It’s a vision of full-blown decentralization,” Berger says.

"Infinite Suburbia," co-edited by Berger, will be published in 2017, with the aim of “setting the foundation for a future collective theory for global suburbia.” The 1,200-page book is the result of an intensive two-year collaborative effort among 52 authors, more than two dozen graduate student researchers, several dozen visiting experts, and 10 partner academic institutions, spanning a dozen academic fields.

The conference helped mark the culmination of this two-year process, but also the beginning of a new four-year period of collaboration, both within various labs and departments at MIT and beyond, with institutions including Mexico’s housing agency, to reimagine the global suburban condition.

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