This article was originally published by The Architect's Newspaper as "The American suburbs are the next fertile ground for architectural and urban experimentation."
The last twenty-odd years may have seen the remarkable comeback of cities, but the next twenty might actually be more about the suburbs, as many cities have become victims of their own success. The housing crisis—a product of a complex range of factors from underbuilding to downzoning—has made some cities, such as New York and Los Angeles, a playground for the ultra-wealthy, pushing out long-time residents and making the city unaffordable for the artists, creatives, and small businesses who make vibrant places.
While it is impossible to cast a national generalization, in a broad sense, the cities’ loss could be the suburbs’ gain. Many young people and poorer residents are moving to the suburbs, although not necessarily because they want to. This is creating a market on the fringes of the city for a more vibrant mixed-use development based on public transportation and urban amenities. The traditional American suburban model of sprawling single-family homes and clusters of retail is not necessarily the only way these territories are developing, as even the big box mall models are taking new forms.
In some ways, the urban and the suburban are flattening, as Judith K. De Jong argues in her book New SubUrbanisms. Culturally, formally, and conceptually, they share more than we typically think. While suburban residents crave quasi-ersatz urban experiences, many in the urban areas are living as if they are in the suburbs, in more insular developments that minimize their interactions with the city and other citizens. In the suburbs, on the other hand, there is potential for an increase in mixed-use and mixed-experience living.
Adding to this new “intersectional suburb,” which we consider in our feature, are the demographic shifts that are continuing to upend the notion of classic post-war suburbs. We examine how a recent report by the Urban Land Institute surveys the new landscape on which the formation of new suburban projects will take place. A recent study by urban planner Daniel D’oca and his students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design even called this phenomenon “black flight.”
What makes these changes so loaded with potential to provoke new types of suburban development and living is that the suburbs already cover an enormous amount of land in the US. University of Michigan professor of landscape architecture Joan Nassauer cites Major Uses of Land in the United States, 2007, a 2011 US Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service study that shows that 3 percent of all land in the US is covered by “cities,” while upward of 5 percent is taken up by suburbs.
This means that while there are new tracts of land being built, much of this experimentation will be transforming what is already there, but with new technologies and understanding of what a healthy urbanism looks like environmentally, culturally, and economically. It is an incredibly fertile ground for architecture and urban design to imagine how to retrofit the suburbs and make them part of the next generation of cities.
When discussing his vision for the future of cities, Vishaan Chakrabarti cites Paul Baran’s 1962 diagram “Centralized, Decentralized, and Distributed Networks,” which argues that a distributed, rhizomatic network of nodes and connections is the most resilient way to organize a system. If the affordability crisis in urban areas drives more people out of city centers, then maybe mixed-use centers could be located all around a periphery, creating new conditions that are very well suited for the new technologies and environmental challenges that face the suburbs.
As the suburbs adapt to technologies—such as self-driving cars and solar power—to update their inefficient and problematic infrastructures, they will have new opportunities to address new transit options that connect them to the rest of the urban landscape. They will also be fertile ground for more industrial and commercial uses.
These changes in the suburban landscape can only be fruitful for architects and urbanists if they allow themselves to see the suburbs not as a “deplorable,” ecologically destitute place, but rather as a design challenge that offers a culturally rich and diverse set of problems that can help a variety of families in varying socio-economic conditions. Once we shed our preconceptions, we can start to analyze them on the terms that have already been set, and we can start to remake the suburbs in the image of a progressive, 21st-century city.
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