Ideas

Brainiac

What if the suburbs went on forever?

Suburbia has a bad name. As a form of development, it’s associated with sprawl and waste, oversized homes, cookie-cutter communities, and a dreary dependence on automobiles. Yet suburban land is also where most people live — not just in the United States, but around the world — and a new exhibition at MIT argues that it’s time to start thinking seriously about what suburban development should look like.

“Urban planning doesn’t focus enough attention on suburbia, it focuses on making dense cities denser, which is where a minority of the world’s population wants to live,” says Alan Berger, a professor of landscape architecture and urban design at MIT and curator of the exhibition. “We should focus on where the majority of people are choosing to live, which is not a compact and dense lifestyle.”

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The idea that the suburbs are the future is at odds with major currents of academic thought and popular culture. There, we imagine people piling into ever-higher high-rises, either as part of a sleek utopia or a grimy end-of-days scenario. In both cases, the future is set in cities. But that projection is at odds with trends on the ground. According to a 2014 United Nations report, only one in eight urban dwellers worldwide lives in dense megacities. The rest live in flat, distributed settlements outside of city centers, which Berger believes is a trend that will continue for decades.

“At the very precise moment that we’re looking and focusing on cities, one can ask, well, what about the rest?” says Pierre Bélanger, a professor of landscape architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. “If you take all the cities in the world, you could fill up India. My question is, what about the rest?”

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The rest is the subject of the “The Future of Suburbia” exhibition, which runs through April 2 and is being put on by MIT’s Center for Advanced Urbanism, where Berger serves as codirector. The exhibition features several parts, including photographs and video of suburban development around the world, and a model of what a well-planned suburban area of 3 million people might look like in the year 2100. Conceptually, the most unique feature of the model is that it presents a suburban area as a place unto itself — just like we’re accustomed to thinking about cities as places unto themselves — with no necessary attachment to any urban center. At the same time, the exhibition proposes ways in which the suburbs can provide services and ecological systems that support the city center — rather than simply serving as bedroom communities.

“We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about suburban development as being primarily made up of cul de sacs, single-family houses, parks, and schools,” says Bélanger, “but there are other patterns of development in the peripheries of these metropolitan areas that are not necessarily dependent on the [city] core.”

The model is created in a polycentric design, with nodes of dense development and attention throughout to aspects of planning that would allow a large suburban area to fully support itself in addition to its nearest center cities. Berger imagines this sustainability could be achieved through new smart energy microgrids, hydroponic food, and autonomous driving technologies deployed across the broad suburban plain.

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“The whole thing works metabolically as holistic system,” Berger says. “The suburbs are actively providing resources like energy, storage, and waste disposal, and all those systems are built into the form of suburbia.”

It’s a vision that turns on a major reimagining of what we understand by the term suburban — or, as Bélanger prefers it, sub-urban — development. The MIT exhibition will be accompanied by the publication of a book, “Infinite Suburbia,” whose title gets at this idea. Now we think of the suburbs in terms of sprawl and assume that, after a certain distance, the concept exhausts itself. By contrast, the MIT exhibition asserts that, if developed correctly, there’s no reason the suburbs can’t go on forever.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.
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