Suburbia Gets No Respect, But It Could Become a Very Different Place

For starters, driverless cars would mean a lot less pavement

A model for how suburbs could one day be designed. The white objects on the left are delivery drones. (Image by Matthew Spremulli)
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For years now, Alan Berger has been hearing that the world’s future lies in its cities, that they are the destinations of a great migration, the places where everyone, particularly millennials, want to live. By contrast, according to conventional thinking, suburbia is becoming a dead zone.

The problem, he says, is that it’s not true.

In fact, notes Berger, a professor of landscape architecture and urban design at MIT, it’s just the reverse. While urban areas are gaining population, the growth is in the suburbs, not downtown. As for millennials, Berger points out that census data shows more are leaving cities than moving into them.

“People who are saying everyone will live in the city in the future aren’t reading the research,” he says.

The impact of driverless cars

For his part, Berger takes suburbia very seriously, which, he admits, makes him an outlier in his field. “People are astonished why I would even want to study suburbia,” he acknowledges. “Urban planners do not study suburbia. Architects absolutely have nothing to do with suburban research.”

But he’s convinced that it’s the communities outside center cities that will be critical to sustaining urban areas as they evolve in the decades ahead. And so Berger, as co-director of MIT’s Center for Advanced Urbanism (CAU), recently helped organize a conference at the university titled, “The Future of Suburbia.” The meeting was the culmination of a two-year research project on how suburbs could be reinvented.

Speakers covered a wide range of subjects, from the important role suburban vegetation, including lawns, can play in reducing carbon dioxide levels, to suburbia’s growing racial and age diversity, to technological advances that may help transform it.

One such technology is the autonomous car, which is what Berger talked about. A lot of media attention has been paid to the prospect of fleets of driverless vehicles constantly circulating on downtown streets, but he says the invention’s greatest impact will be in the suburbs, which, after all, have largely been defined by how we use cars.  

“It will be in suburb-to-suburb commuting,” Berger says. “That’s the majority of movement in our country. As more autonomous cars come online, you’re going to see more and more suburbanization, not less. People will be driving farther to their jobs.”

With truly autonomous vehicles still years away, no one can say with much certainty if they will result in people spending less time in cars. But Berger does foresee one big potential benefit—much less pavement. Based on the notion that there likely will be more car-sharing and less need for multiple lanes since vehicles could continuously loop on a single track, Berger believes the amount of pavement in a suburb of the future could be cut in half. You would no longer need huge shopping center parking lots, or even driveways and garages.

Not only would fewer paved surfaces increase the amount of space that could be used for carbon-storing trees and plants, but it also would allow more water to be absorbed and reduce the risk of flooding in cities downstream.

That kind of interdependence between suburbs and downtowns is at the heart of how Berger and others at the CAU see the future. Instead of bedroom communities of cul-de-sacs and shopping malls, the suburbs they’ve imagined would focus on using more of their space to sustain themselves and nearby urban centers—whether it’s by providing energy through solar panel micro-grids or using more of the land to grow food and store water.

Their model of a future metropolitan area of 3 million people looks very different from what we’ve come to know. Rather than have neighborhoods continuously spreading outward from a downtown core, it presents a handful of dense clusters amid what Berger describes as a “big sea of suburban development that’s much more horizontal than vertical." It would, he says, function as a “kind of holistic sustainable machine.”

Taking suburbia seriously

It’s a bold vision, one that’s geared more to planning new suburbs around the world than transforming existing ones. But as hypothetical as this model may seem, it’s a first step at giving suburbia its due while redefining its role.  

“The reality is that the large majority of people want to live in suburbs,” says Joel Kotkin, a fellow of urban studies at Chapman University in California and the author of The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us. “People make these choices for all kinds of reasons that urban theorists don’t pay attention to. They’d rather live in a detached house than in an apartment building. Or they can’t afford to live in the middle of a city. Or they’re worried about where their kids will go to school."

Kotkin adds, “You hear people say that the suburbs are going to become more and more dense and that they’re going to be for people who aren’t quite smart enough to live in the center city. But most people don’t want that kind of density. That’s not why they moved there.”

So, like Berger, he believes it’s time to start rethinking what suburbia can be and to become more strategic about how it evolves. Together, they’ve co-edited a book of articles and research that sharpens the focus on that challenge. Titled Infinite Suburbia, it will be published next year.

Berger does concede that there are times he feels he’s pushing a rock up a hill, given the common misconception that most of the world’s population is flocking into cities. He says that’s largely based on a United Nations report projecting that by 2050, 66 percent of the people on Earth will live in urban areas. The term “urban areas,” he points out, has been widely misinterpreted as meaning cities.

“Certainly, the world’s urbanizing, but it’s urbanizing in a much different way than cities,” he says. “It’s urbanizing horizontally.”

And that’s why he keeps pushing the rock.

“I’m not that interested in figuring out how to add more houses to cities and squeezing more people into smaller square footages," he says. "I’m interested in what people seem to actually want and how to make that better.”

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