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ILP Institute Insider

March 7, 2016

Moving Beyond Suburban Legends

The Future of Suburbia conference will spark new ideas for the mixed urban landscapes growing explosively around the world.

Eric Bender

By 2100, at least three billion more people will be living in metropolitan areas around the world, by United Nations estimates, but most of them will not end up in traditional city downtowns.

Instead, this population growth will build “polycentric” cities, with a few high-density vertical-growth centers scattered across a metropolitan landscape dominated by suburbs that spread out horizontally, says Alan Berger, an MIT professor of landscape architecture and urban design.

Berger is co-director of the Center for Advanced Urbanism (CAU), which will host the “Future of Suburbia” meeting, a two-day conference starting on March 31.

This conceptual view of a future suburb with 3 million inhabitants shows low-density development between city cores that optimizes open space for productive and ecological opportunities. The low-density development design also takes advantage of autonomous vehicles. Image by Matthew Spremulli, MIT Center for Advanced Urbanism.
Designed to appeal broadly to professionals involved in urban planning and development, the event will explore how suburbs and their metropolitan areas may be made more sustainable and livable through better design and planning.

The gathering will build on a two-year research effort by CAU, which has sought to go beyond traditional analyses of urban landscapes, such as debates comparing the benefits of cities and suburbs, Berger says.

In an era of rapidly evolving technologies and tough environmental challenges, rethinking the design and operation of suburbs, he says, could help to boost their sustainability, their economic growth and the quality of life they provide for their inhabitants.

“We need a dialog because the horizontal suburban form hasn’t been optimized; it’s not that efficient and in many cases it’s not that sustainable,” he says. “We’re trying to ask questions about those topics so we can build a better horizontal city in the future.”

“For instance, what does the suburb look like when the car is autonomous?” Berger asks. “We estimate that about 50% of the paving can be removed from suburbia if you have autonomous vehicles, largely through the efficiencies they bring. Among the efficiencies, houses won’t need garages or driveways, because you will call your car from a shared remote lot.”

This potential reduction in paving, in turn, holds huge implications for storm water and the risks of urban flooding. “Cities are usually at the bottom of watersheds and suburbs are upstream,” he points out. “If you reduce half the paving in the suburbs, you have a lot more absorption in metropolitan areas to reduce urban flooding downstream.”

Suburbs are showing explosive growth partly because “we’re in an age when we simply don’t have governments around the world that will put up the capital for the heavy expense of centralized mass transportation,” Berger says. “There’s just no collective momentum to build the infrastructural capacity to support the vertical city form, so the horizontal form will continue to dominate globally.”

Moreover, most of the three billion additional people will live in the developing world, whose cities may be poorly planned and have infrastructure that would be extremely difficult to upgrade.

“All of these countries with projected rapid urbanization will want to rethink development completely,” he says.

“The African Development Bank told us that adding that many people to current metropolitan areas that are already completely dysfunctional would be a huge human catastrophe and an economic disaster,” Berger says. “Instead, the Bank wants to build out new suburban areas that are well planned for environmental and economic function.”

Frameworks for better design
Around 70% of all U.S. residents now live in suburbs, which are typically single-family homes. “Suburban development looks very different in different parts of the world,” Berger points out. “Suburbia for Chinese megacities comes in the form of 15-story apartment towers with generous open landscaping around them. Many Indian examples are car-based garden cities, which again is a suburban fabric unlike those in the United States.”

The Future of Suburbia conference will look at various forms of suburbs worldwide through four overall design frameworks: autonomous, productive, heterogeneous, and experimental.

Autonomous: The incoming Internet of Things will bring many enhancements to life in the suburbs, and the biggest impact will come from autonomous mobility, Berger suggests. Autonomous vehicles will make us more efficient and more productive economically, and offer huge potential for positive environmental impacts such as reduced urban flooding.

Productive: Spread over the landscape, suburbs offer many options to deal with water, energy, food, carbon sequestration and other “metabolic” demands, helping both themselves and their cities to become more sustainable.

Heterogeneous: U.S. suburbs are often viewed as socially, economically, and culturally homogenous, but more than half of them have populations that are more than half non-white, and that percentage is increasing. So is the presence of foreign-born citizens, who want to own their own homes but often can’t afford property in cities. This diversity of populations raises opportunities for innovative educational, employment and cultural crossovers.

Experimental: “From a regulatory perspective, usually the further you get from downtown, the more you can experiment with new forms of buildings and infrastructure,” he says.

Perspectives from many fields
Professor Robert Bruegmann of the University of Illinois at Chicago will be keynoting the conference, and then he will be joined in conversation by Joel Budd, Social-policy Editor for The Economist.

Here is a sampling of the broad spectrum of research among Future of Suburbia speakers, who will quickly present their work and then join in more lengthy panel discussions:
  • Robert Bruegmann of the University of Illinois in Chicago will give a historical view of how suburbs and cities have co-evolved over thousands of years.
  • Mitchell Joachim of Terreform One will discuss experiments in urban architecture in the context of changing climates.
  • Joel Kotkin of New Geographies will analyze the role of home affordability in the United States.
  • Joan Nassauer of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor will address issues of carbon sequestration in suburbia.
  • Nick Roy, MIT associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics and researcher in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, will analyze results from drone’s-eye views of urban landscapes.
  • And Knut Sauer of Hyperloop Tech will talk about his company’s progress towards very-high-speed transportation systems built on pods-in-vacuum-tube technology.
Conference organizers expect several hundred attendees representing a wide mix of industry, academic, government and nonprofit groups.

Berger looks forward to lively discussions about tomorrow’s suburbs and their metropolitan areas. “When properly designed, suburbs can offer clean energy, water, air, carbon storage, agriculture, social diversity, and affordable housing,” he says.

For more information about the conference, and to register, see the Future of Suburbia website.