Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Maybe It Is Time To Give Suburbia A Little Respect


A model for how suburbs could one day be designed.
Hello Everyone:

Yours truly is back from a little child-parent bonding time and ready to plow ahead.  A quick programming note, yours truly will be on the road, in the United Kingdom in mid-September.  Blogger will be posting photo-blogs during the UK sojourn and the Candidate Forum will take a short break but be back in time for the great debates.  Now onto today's subject: suburbia gets no respect.

 For sometime, urbanists have been carrying that the future of the world is in its cities.  Alan Berger, a landscape architecture and urban design professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been hearing this line for years, the city "...are the destinations of a great migration, the places where everyone, particularly millennials, want to live."  Randy Rieland of smithsonian.com writes in "Suburbia Gets No Respect, But It Could Become a Very Different Place," that suburbia-as-a-dead-zone is conventional wisdom.  This thinking, according to Prof. Berger, is not true.

Suburban development
Photograph by Dan Reed:Flickr
Creative Common license
Although urban centers are gaining population, the epicenter of growth is in the suburbs, not the downtown areas.  Surprised?  In fact, Prof Berger points out "...that census data shows more are leaving cities than moving into into them."  Are still surprised?  He told Mr. Rieland,

People who are saying everyone will live in the city in the future aren't reading the research.

The impact of driverless cars

Professor Alan Berger is someone who takes suburbia very seriously. Admittedly, it makes him an outlier in his field.  He readily acknowledges,

People are astonished why I would even went to study suburbia...Urban planners do not study suburbia.  Architects absolutely have nothing to do with suburban research.

Be that as it may, Prof. Berger is convinced "...that it's the communities outside center cities that will be critical to sustaining urban areas they evolve in the decades ahead."  As the co-director of MIT's Center for Advanced Urbanism recently co-organized a conference, "The Future of Suburbia."  The conference was the finale of a two-year research project on how suburbs could be re-imagined.

Modern middle class suburbia
Eastern USA
The speakers at the conference covered a myriad of topics: the role of suburban vegetation and how it can reduce carbon dioxide level and suburbia's increasing racial and age diversity, and technological progress that can help transform it.  One such technological advance is the autonomous car, which was the subject of Prof. Berger's presentation.  Driverless car have gained a lot of currency in the media.  Specifically, the prospect of fleets of driverless cars circulating through downtown streets.  However, according to Prof. Berger, the driverless car will have the greatest impact in the suburbs, which have been define by how cars are used.  Prof. Berger told Mr. Rieland,

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

Some of you may be thinking if the whole point of increasing access to transit options is to get people out of their cars and reduce environmental pollution, why would anyone encourage people to live further away from work?

Autonomous car
Randy Rieland writes, "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.  However, Prof. Berger predicts one big potential positive affect, less pavement.  This predication is based on the likelihood of more car-sharing and less need for multiple lane roadways because the vehicles could continuously travel around a single track.  Mr. Rieland adds "Berger believes the amount of pavement in a suburb of the future could be cut in half.  You no longer need huge shopping center parking lots, or even driveways and garages."

What about the potential for environmental damage?  Fewer paved surfaces mean an increased amount of space could be available for carbon absorbing trees and plants.  It would also mean more water seeping into the soil and reduce of the risk of flooding in the urban areas.

The suburbs at night
news geography.com
It is this type of interdependence between the suburbs and urban areas that is the essence of Prof Berger and his colleagues at CAU vision for the future.  Instead of typical cut-de-sac communities and malls, they imagine a suburbia that "...would focus on using more of their space to sustain themselves and nearby urban centers-whether it's by providing energy through solar pan micro-grids or using more of the land to grow foo and store water."  A future of self-sustaining suburbs, if you will.

This model of the future metropolitan area of 3 million people is a departure from what we know as urban-suburban.  Mr. Rieland reports, "Rather than have neighborhoods continuously spreading outward from a downtown core, it presents a handful of dense clusters mind what Berger describes as 'big sea of suburban development that's much more horizontal than vertical.'"  This would whirl as a kind of holistic sustainable machine......

Georgetown, Brooklyn, New York
Taking suburbia seriously

No doubt, Prof. Alan Berger's scheme is a bold one that is centered on planning  new suburbs around the world rather than rehabilitating existing ones.  As hypothetical as this model may appear, it is the first step in acknowledging suburbia while redefining it.  Joel Kotkin, a fellow of urban studies at Chapman University and the author of The Human city: Urbanism for the Rest of Us, told Mr. Rieland,

The reality is that the large majority of people want to live in suburbs...People make these choices for kinds 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.

Further, 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 they moved there.

Like Prof. Berger, Mr. Kotkin believes that it is time to rethink what suburbs can be and become more pointed about how it evolves.  Both gentleman co-edited a collection of articles and research that focus on this issue.  The volume is titled Infinite Suburbia  and will be published next year.  Prof. Berger does concede that there are times "...he feel he's pushing a rock up a hill, given the common misconception that most of the world's population is flocking into cities."  He points to the United Nations report that projects by "...2050, 66 percent of the people on Earth will live in urban areas."  He clarifies the term "urban areas" as widely misinterpreted to mean cities.  He said,

Certainly, the world's urbanizing, but it's urbanizing in a much different way than cities...It's urbanizing horizontally.

This is why he keeps push the proverbial rock up the proverbial hill.

I'm not that interested in figuring out how to add more houses to cities and squeezing more people into smaller square footages...I'm interested in what people seem to actually want and how to make that better.


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