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The Suburb of the Future Is Almost Here

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

By Alan M. Berger

The suburbanization of America marches on. That movement includes Millennials, who, as it turns out, are not a monolithic generation of suburb-hating city dwellers.

Most of that generation represents a powerful global trend. They may like the city, but they love the suburbs even more.

They are continuing to migrate to suburbs. According to the latest Census Bureau statistics, 25- to 29-year-olds are about a quarter more likely to move from the city to the suburbs as vice versa; older Millennials are more than twice as likely.

Their future – and that of the planet – lies on the urban peripheries. Hurricanes Harvey and Irma made clear that, especially in suburbs, the United States desperately needs better drainage systems to handle the enormous amounts of rainfall expected from climate change.

They also made clear that new, sustainable suburbs can offer an advantage by expanding landscapes that can absorb water.

Housing affordability is a major driver of the appeal of suburbia, which has historically been, and still is, more affordable, especially for first-time home buyers.

Yet Millennial suburbanites want a new kind of landscape. They want breathing room but disdain the energy wastefulness, visual monotony and social conformity of postwar manufactured neighborhoods. If new suburbs can hit the sweet spot that accommodates the priorities of that generation, Millennial habitats will redefine everyday life for all suburbanites, which is 70% of Americans.

How can technology, revolutionary design and planning transform suburban living?

Climate will determine how environmental goals can be achieved in a given place: solar in the Sunbelt, say, or advanced water management in the rainy regions such as the Pacific Northwest. Suburbs of the same age or size don’t share the same potential benefits or needs. Here are some ideas to shape future suburbs into smart, efficient and more sustainable places to live.

Existing suburbs were developed to maximize house and lot sizes, and some are often locked into aesthetic compliance, such as mowed lawns. These communities were also built around cars. Many residential developments offer small parks or playgrounds within walking distance, but require cars to get to bigger recreation areas.

In sustainable new suburbs, house and lot sizes are smaller – in part because driveways and garages are eliminated – paving is reduced up to 50% and landscapes are more flexible. The plant-to-pavement ratio of today’s suburb is much higher than that of cities, but the next generation of suburbs can be even better at absorbing water.

House and open community spaces are set among teardrop-shaped, one-way roads, which encourage predictable, safe separation of pedestrians and moving vehicles. New suburban developments will utilize technology such as autonomous electric cars (parked at solar-powered remote lots) and smart street lighting, which minimize energy use and harmful environmental impact.

Solar panel parking canopy.

Communities will share neighborhood amenities such as public access areas, drone ports for deliveries, car pull-overs (a wider shoulder in the road for pickup and drop-off) rather than private driveways and open common spaces.

Businesses also like locating on urban peripheries. That dynamic is helping to reshape suburbia’s traffic patterns, since many cars avoid urban centers. As cars move to renewable energy, emissions and road noise will diminish. In the near term, we should hope to see more efficient cars and ride sharing.

Drones at Your Doorstep

The use of drones will reduce the need for many car errands – and their emissions: With their unrestricted air space, suburban communities are likely to be first to receive package deliveries from the drones being tested by Amazon. They would be either hub-based, at Amazon warehouses, within 15 to 20 miles of customers, or truck-based, as with UPS or Workhorse, in which a truck stops and a drone deploys. Small to medium packages – 86% of Amazon deliveries are under five pounds – can be handled by current drones and delivered to covered areas at doorways or at shared car pull-offs.

Cars that Park Themselves

In a future suburban development, a homeowner will order an autonomous car, via an app, from a remote solar-charging lot. As a car approaches, it will “talk” to a home: Lights and other utilities are activated or shut off for greater energy efficiency. Because these suburban homes will not have driveways or garages, front yards can be bigger, devoted to ecological functions or recreational activities.

A Smarter Landscape

The neighborhoods will be friendlier for pedestrians, with sidewalks and paths that connect to open spaces and communal areas. Before we had fenced-off backyards. In the future we’ll have common recreation spaces or vegetable gardens. Or they can be designed for shared landscape features such as forest, vernal ponds, or wetlands that help manage storm runoff and control flooding.

Climate change has resulted in heavier rainfall when storms do come, and there’s a need to store all of this water to prevent catastrophic urban flooding. Less pavement in suburbia means that ground absorbs more rain and snow, and less storm water pours into heavily paved urban areas nearby.

Planners need to view cities, suburbs and exurbs not as discrete units but as regions, with one integrated environmental and technological system.

It’s rare that such a profound change of vision for the future is so close to being achievable. And the Millennial generation, with their there’s-an-app-for-that outlook, is the one that will adopt it.

They find beauty in the utilitarian, and they know just how quickly radical technologies can change everything – including the suburb they want to call home.

Alan M. Berger is a professor of landscape architecture and urban design at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a co-director of the MIT Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism and a co-editor of the forthcoming anthology “Infinite Suburbia.”

A version of this op-ed appears in print on Sept. 17, 2017, on page SR4 of the New York edition of The New York Times.

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