Future Suburbs

suburbsAll good solutions are beautiful. They have proportion, balance and harmony – all parts fit with one another, and the solutions fit rightly into the bigger picture.

~ Boast and Martin, Masters of Change

If you’re doing transit-oriented development without adding transit, then what’s the point?

~ Peter Moskowitz

My adult son groans when I lament, “Back in my day, you went to college, got a degree, met a girl and got married, got a job to start your career, bought a house and had kids.” For good measure, I also throw in, “If we didn’t go to college, we got drafted and sent to fight in Vietnam.” More groans.

Millennials are apparently different from us, and not just in their choice of music or their addiction to video games. Tara Bahrampour reports that, according to a study, “the percentage of adolescents in the United States who have a driver’s license, who have tried alcohol, who date and who work for pay has plummeted since 1976, with the most precipitous decreases in the past decade.” Additionally, “youths may be less interested in activities such as dating, driving or getting jobs because today they no longer need to be.” My Boomer generation couldn’t wait to drive, own a car, get away from home and taste what the world had to offer. But today, one teen reports that in a city where it is easy to bike, take buses or ride-share, he doesn’t see much need to drive.

That teen’s view aligns with a recent article by Alan Berger who notes that millennials like the suburbs more than the city. “Yet millennial suburbanites want a new kind of landscape … Millennials want smart, efficient and sustainable suburban development …They want breathing room but disdain the energy wastefulness, visual monotony and the social conformity of postwar manufactured neighborhoods. If new suburbs can accommodate the priorities of that generation, millennial habitats will redefine everyday life for all suburbanites, which is 70 percent of all Americans.”

Berger dissects their interests as follows: drones to reduce many car errands (and their emissions); “cars that park themselves” (autonomous solar powered cars from central lots; fewer driveways, bigger front yards); smarter landscapes that are pedestrian friendly, including sidewalks and paths, open spaces, and communal areas (meaning less pavement and better absorption). Basically, he sees the remedy to traditional suburbs’ issues centering on more efficient cars and ride sharing.

This isn’t too far off from what architect Peter Calthorpe defines for future cities, “compact development, what we used to think of as streetcar suburbs, walkable neighborhoods, low-rise, but integrated, mixed-used environments.” His premise includes preservation (environment, history and agriculture), integration (mixed incomes, mixed age groups, mixed-land uses), walkability, bike-ability, connectivity, transit, and certainly fewer freeways.

Maybe Millennials aren’t as different from us as we think. With smart cities and smart suburbs, the older folks and the younger generation have much more in common than we realize. We both want to be in places we can afford where it’s easy to get around, and where there is exposure to nature, but also other people. We both want a variety of amenities nearby for shopping, dining, recreation and other purposes.

Maybe that’s why most college towns are very desirable (if not usually affordable) places to live. The often older surrounding neighborhoods provide the variety of experiences that we desire. They have walkability, bike-ability and mass transit is often available. Plus, the natural and historic features are usually preserved. College towns also feature Calthorpe’s ‘integration’ (mixed incomes, mixed age groups, mixed-land uses), often lacking in traditional suburbs.

The sprawl of post-WWII America served the purpose of fulfilling the American Dream – everyone had a house and a yard with a dog, cat and 2.8 children. Commuters sped effortlessly on freeways to their jobs in a distant downtown business district, and returned at the end of the day to a waiting wife and chilled cocktail before dinner. But somewhere along the way, we got a little too enamored with the cars and the freeways, not to mention the cocktails. The American Dream became bogged down in congestion, smog and “energy wastefulness, visual monotony and the social conformity” of the suburbs.

Even us old folks could see that suburbs weren’t achieving the dream, but we’ve been slow to fix them. Our default became some collection of massive buildings, arcologies (the huge hive-like structure of many a sci-fi movie), that provide a liveable bubble on an Earth uncomfortable to humans. But, this new generation is weighing in, saying that the concept of a suburb is okay; we’ve just not gotten it right. They’re showing us how to fix our suburbs.

They see a future where cars are less ubiquituous, and routine driving becomes automated. However, even with some flex-place and flex-time jobs, we need efficient transportation to get where we work, so we adapt to more efficient transit options, such as busses, light rail and Uber. The availability of the internet and our smart phones changes how we interact. We can shop and order most goods online to be delivered by FedEx or drone without having to leave home.

They see a future more connected to nature and the environment. This doesn’t occur in a remote wilderness enclave necessarily, but in their larger yards (devoid of driveways), local open spaces, greenways and parks. And, the newer generations are having fewer kids, greater separation between children and starting families later. Bigger families require bigger houses. The quest for McMansions is only one of perception, not of actual need. These kids look for efficiency, not size or grandeur.

We all need more than physical comfort to be content. That means we need to work at making our living and working environments places where people want to be and can be happy and content. So, we need to make (or keep) our cities and suburbs not only sustainable and liveable, but desireable.

Maybe it’s time we listen to the kids.

Additional Reading:

Tara Bahrampour, Not Drinking or Driving, Teens Increasingly Put Off Traditional Markers of Adulthood, The Washington Post, September 19, 2017

Alan M. Berger, The Suburb of the Future, The New York Times, September 15, 2017

Peter Calthorpe, 7 Principles for Building Better Cities, TedTalks, April 2017

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