PLAN 90: Article
The Future of Suburbia

A Workshop and Design Charrette at the Center for Advanced Urbanism

The Future of Suburbia was the focus of a student-driven workshop and design charrette convened by SA+P’s Center for Advanced Urbanism in March. 

The topic is the Center’s second two-year research theme  – the first was infrastructure – looking at all forms of global suburban developments through historical, contemporary and futuristic lenses. This workshop marks the half-way point in the biennial theme, which will culminate in spring 2016 with a major conference, exhibition and publication. A number of lectures, courses, design charettes and other events are also being held through the spring of 2016 in support of the theme.

The impetus for the event, and for the extended research focus, is the fact that suburban development will account for the largest segment of new growth and urbanization globally by 2050. Currently, more than 67% of all US residents live in suburban areas and that number is growing. Between 2000 and 2010, the nation’s 51 largest urban areas lost 15% of adults 25 to 34; by contrast, during that decade suburbs saw an average 14% gain within that age group.[i] Between 2013 and 2014, movement to the suburbs continued: the US Census recently reported that suburbs had a net gain of 2.2 million movers, while principal cities had a net loss of 1.7 million.

But according to CAU co-director Alan Berger, ‘conversations around suburbia tend to be very polarized and dominated by ideological biases, which blocks the opportunity for progressive conversations.’  Consequently, he adds, ‘there is a dearth of unbiased, nuanced and innovative research looking for ways to improve suburbanization (instead of condemning it outright).’

This workshop was convened to explore how suburbia might be improved through better design and planning, asking whether new suburban models can be created for developed and developing world contexts and what that might mean for new land tenure models.

‘Suburbia holds great promise,’ says Berger.  ‘As the largest form of new growth and settlement globally, it is a vast frontier awaiting innovation, from urban theory and design thinking to technological adaptation. Designed intelligently, it can be a highly productive urban form in terms of clean energy, water, air, carbon storage, agriculture, social diversity and affordable housing.’

To consider some of the possibilities, students from the Advanced Seminar in Landscape and Urbanism, co-taught by Berger and Fadi Masoud, a lecturer in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning and a researcher at CAU, developed five design briefs. The briefs represented typical suburban conditions in the US and encapsulated some of the various challenges they will face in the future.

After the students presented their briefs, they broke into five separate working groups for hands-on design charrettes with ten affiliated faculty from SA+P and over fifteen invited experts in government and policy, architecture and landscape design, energy and environmental law, real estate and agriculture.  The results of those charrettes were presented in a plenary session the following day. Following further refinement, the designs will form the basis for an exhibition by the same name.

The exhibit will feature large-scale models of future suburbs – designed by faculty, students and global experts at ‘think tank’ charettes like these, to be held throughout academic year 2014-2015 – and will open next April during the conference that culminates the two-year research effort.

The effort will also result in the release of a major book, focused on a wide range of suburban issues including design, architecture, landscape and planning, history and demographics, social justice and familial trends and more. Approximately 35 contributing essays will explore suburban conditions throughout the world and speculate on their future.

[i] Jacob Davidson. "What Everyone Gets Wrong About Millennials and Home Buying," Time.com, November 12, 2014. http://time.com/money/3551773/millennials-home-buying-marriage/.