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Is This the Future of Suburbia?

Almost 70 percent of Americans live in a suburban environment, according to Alan Berger, professor of landscape architecture and co-director of the Center for Advanced Urbanism (CAU) at MIT, who kicked-off a recent conference there on the Future of Suburbia. United Nations estimates show about 1 in 8 on Earth now live in a dense mega-city, a city with more than 10 million people, which means that 7 out of 8 will live in another kind environment, likely suburban. For Berger, it's easy to overlook the fact that the majority of people don't live in dense urban areas and will not far into the future. Trends suggest cities are increasingly becoming the place only for the "super-rich and very poor." The two-day conference at MIT, part of a multi-year research project at the CAU, aimed to generate some new ideas about suburbia. If suburbs are indeed growing, what design and planning solutions can make them more just, sustainable, livable? Can making suburbs "heterogeneous, productive, autonomous, and experimental" provide the answer?

Heterogeneous: We often assume that the suburbs are demographically homogenous. A white, upper-middle class nuclear family comes to mind as the archetypal suburb-dweller. This notion is increasingly being challenged by the reality: suburbs are becoming more diverse. At the conference, Jed Kolko, an economist and statistical analyst, dismantled the assumptions we may have, showing how the poor and seniors are becoming more suburban. And Ali Modarres, director of urban studies at the University of Washington, used the suburbs of Seattle and Los Angeles as case studies to show that suburbs are becoming more racially-diverse, as well as home to a growing number of people born outside of the United States.

Productive: "The purpose of this panel is to get beyond the typical planning view of vegetation as 'green blobs,' and to look at how the ecological systems actually function in relationship to socioeconomic systems, which is what productivity is all about," said Peter Del Tredici, urban ecologist and professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD). Because of their inherent horizontal nature, suburbs enable a more productive and "metabolic" use of the landscape, whether for growing food, carbon sequestration, or waste and floodwater absorption, even to the point where they could support urban cores.

Professor Susannah Hagan, professor of architecture at the University of Westminster, said looking to the past for models of productive suburbs could be a useful exercise for today's planners and landscape architects. "Ornamental landscapes and productive landscapes have not always been mutually exclusive," she said. The 18th century English landscape was a quintessential metabolic landscape.

Next was professor Joan Nassauer, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture, University of Michigan, who talked about greening sprawl, lawn culture, and carbon storage in the suburban landscape. While the suburbs are rife with mowed turf lawns, they under-perform ecologically. "What we should be asking from these spaces is more ecosystem services." Allowing for the growth of more diverse and mature vegetation will sequester more carbon, but this requires a major shift in cultural preferences.

And Mitchell Joachim, founding co-president at Terreform ONE, showed his speculative ecological-design prototypes, such as his apocalypse-ready cricket shelter (a crowd favorite), which doubles as an emergency shelter, and a modular cricket farm, so that the protein-rich crickets can be harvested as food.

Prototype of Urban Farm Pod, by Terreform ONE/Source: Inhabitat

Cricket farm / Terreform ONE

Autonomous: This panel, moderated by Joseph Coughlin, founder of the Institute of Technology AgeLab at MIT, addressed autonomous mobility. "Transportation reflects and reinforces how we chose to live with each other. How close do you want to live to your neighbor? What activities, and in what density and intensity, do you want to do?" Each panelist looked at how to retrofit our current suburban fabric to enable more autonomous mobility.

Dr. Knut Saue, Hyperloop Tech, advocated for his public transportation project called the Hyperloop, the brainchild of Elon Musk of Tesla, which he sees as the "backbone of the future transportation," transporting not only people, but also goods at speeds of up to 700 miles per hour in a system of tubes.

Rendering of Hyperloop Pod in Dock / Source:Hyperloop Tech

Rendering of Hyperloop Pod in Dock / Hyperloop Tech

Eran Ben-Joseph, head of urban studies and planning at MIT, said personal transportation will continue to be a major force in shaping the suburban landscape. "Did the car destroy the environment, or was it the way we designed for it?" Widespread use of autonomous vehicles (or driverless cars) could change the way we design and plan the suburbs. For example, parking could be made more spatially-efficient, which means impervious surfaces could be greatly reduced.

And Nick Roy, MIT associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics, provided yet another example of autonomous mobility: transportation of goods by drone. The drone industry, he said, aims to "take the friction out of transportation, so that anyone can get anything at anytime and anywhere." Roy didn't seem to foresee drone-filled skies in the near future, as he outlined the many regulatory, economic, infrastructural and safety obstacles standing in the way of this reality.

Experimental: Allison Arieff, SPUR, led a discussion among panelists in the final series of presentations, which presented suburbia as the future site of innovative and experimental land-use, in a state of permanent flexibility, changing in response to shifting environmental or economic conditions.

Robert Geolas, Research Triangle Foundation, presented an alternative model of suburban living and working: the suburban research park. The Research Triangle Park was initiated in the 1950s, on a piece of land in North Carolina that was "all pine trees and possums." Fast forward six decades and it's the largest research park in the country, with at least 200 companies representing sectors such as biotech, green technology, and finance.

Paul Feiler, CITE Development, thinks "there are many more exits than there are entrances for innovators." He views government regulations as obstacles preventing innovations from entering the market. To bypass these obstacles, he and his colleagues have created CITE, a privately funded "ghost town" in the middle of the desert in New Mexico, a self-sustaining testing evaluation and certification facility modeled after a typical American town of 35,000 people, except it will be uninhabited. The above-ground town exists only as a test site; below ground are laboratories and facilities where innovation occurs.

Rendering of CITE in New Mexico / CNN

Rendering of CITE in New Mexico / CNN

And David Neustein, Other Architects, presented experimental ideas for suburbia in Australia, the most suburbanized country in the world, with the largest houses on earth, located on lots half the size of the average U.S. suburban lot. He presented ideas of how to retrofit existing Australian suburban architecture to make homes more socially and environmentally sustainable, allowing residents to downsize without having to relocate.

There was an aura of cautious yet infectious optimism at the conference that kept energy levels high. Conversations with attendees revealed relief that discussions about the planning and design of suburbia can be speculative and inventive.

This guest post is by Chella Strong, Student ASLA, master's of landscape architecture candidate, Harvard University Graduate School of Design.