The Suburb of the Future, Almost Here

This article originally appeared on New York Times 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 percent 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 like 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, like 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 percent 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 like autonomous electric cars (parked at solar-powered remote lots) and smart street lighting, which minimize energy use and harmful environmental impact.

Communities will share neighborhood amenities like 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 locations 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 on ride sharing.

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