Offset House by Otherothers
Other Architecture Offset House by Otherothers

At trendy urban coffee shops, the kind where Edison bulbs float above the counter and vintage chairs line the concrete floor, the prized artisanal beans are, more likely than not, roasted in some suburban facility before they’re loaded on a truck and driven downtown. The iPhones that customers gaze at while sipping their macchiatos were likely assembled in the suburbs of Shenzhen. The avocados mashed on whole-grain toast were probably grown in exurban San Diego or Monterey in California, and were sitting, just a few days before, in a wholesaler’s unit off the interstate. Whether we are aware of it or not, even the most self-consciously curated “urban” lives are staged and supplied by the jumbled realm of suburbia.

And yet the bias against suburbia remains strong among designers and critics, whether it manifests as tirades against sprawl or utter indifference. Unless they’re wooed by an Apple or a Facebook, top-tier architects rarely work in the ’burbs. When Renzo Piano, Hon. FAIA, announced that his studio was conducting long-term research on suburbia, the news was novel enough to be reported by NPR.

Enter the Center for Advanced Urbanism (CAU) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which is determined to make designers think about the suburbs, and to think about them in a particular way. The center’s biennial research theme is the “Future of Suburbia,” and in late March/early April it hosted an exhibition and a conference by that name at the university’s Media Lab. The culmination of the effort—which has involved a dozen MIT faculty and more than 100 experts from around the globe—will be Infinite Suburbia, a 1,200-page tome that Princeton Architectural Press will publish in fall 2017. All in all, CAU is making a concerted bid to reposition suburbia as a serious subject of design inquiry. It couldn’t have come soon enough.

A plan showing David Rudlin’s city-extension Garden City concept in the U.K.
David Rudlin/URBED A plan showing David Rudlin’s city-extension Garden City concept in the U.K.

Suburbanization as Global Default

Two main challenges of framing critical discussions about suburbia are its diversity and its ubiquity. America’s urban fringes include gridded streetcar suburbs, meandering golf-course subdivisions, trailer and RV parks, industrial estates, and “ethnoburbs.” Whatever form suburbia may take, it has become the American default, with more than half of the country’s population residing there. In other parts of the world, too, urbanization is now mostly suburbanization; the outskirts of cities like Beijing and Istanbul are undergoing tremendous growth. Stepping back to find a critical vantage point on this terrain isn’t easy.

The “Future of Suburbia” conference started with a keynote speech by Robert Bruegmann, a professor emeritus of art history, architecture, and urban planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and wrapped up a day later after four wide-ranging panels. Attendees learned about new garden suburbs that will be grafted onto existing cities in the U.K.; a “ghost suburb” for testing new technologies in the Southwestern desert; and how the executives of North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park are reimagining its normative office campuses.

CITE, a "ghost suburb designed by Perkins+Will in New Mexico
Courtesy Perkins+Will CITE, a "ghost suburb designed by Perkins+Will in New Mexico
CITE backbone networks operations center
Courtesy CITE CITE backbone networks operations center

David Neustein, co-founder of Sydney-based Otherothers, presented that firm’s Offset House, a clever proposal for a partially deconstructed suburban home that was exhibited last year at the Chicago Architecture Biennial. Nick Roy, of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, explained how drone infrastructure will change the suburban landscape. With 17 talks in not much more than 24 hours, the pace was galloping, and some of the lectures unavoidably felt rushed.

The tone was contrarian from the start, flouting the usual urbanist doctrine of density and multi-modal transit for all. In his keynote, Bruegmann reprised the key argument of his book Sprawl: A Compact History (University of Chicago Press, 2005): Suburban sprawl is not a bug in the urban machine but part of its standard operating procedure. Throughout history in every part of the world, cities have burst their bounds as their residents multiplied and dispersed. Bruegmann is especially good at laying bare the class snobbery that motivates many critiques of suburbia, going back at least to the early 20th century.

Gensler's Park Center redevelopment plan in Triangle Park
Gensler Gensler's Park Center redevelopment plan in Triangle Park
Rendering of Park Center
Duda | Pain Architects Rendering of Park Center

Reformers vs. Validators

A quick detour for context: Among the few designers who focus on the suburbs today, most fall into a camp that I’ll call the Reformers. Led by the New Urbanists, this group believes that suburban development seriously imperils the climate, and that typical suburban living patterns are bad for public health, community spirit, and individual well-being. You can probably guess what the solution is: Make suburbs more like cities. Suburban Nation, by Andrés Duany, FAIA, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, FAIA, and Jeff Speck (North Point Press, 2001), is a manifesto in this mold, while Retrofitting Suburbia (Wiley, 2011), by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson, gathers practical case studies of sprawling zones that, like caterpillars into butterflies, have morphed into urban districts.

MIT’s CAU, on the other hand, seems to be rallying its own troops around a very different agenda. Let’s call them the Validators. They believe that suburbia is fundamentally OK. They maintain that when people have options, they will usually choose to live in a single-family home in the suburbs, and for intellectuals to resist this is classist and perverse. Validators point out (correctly) that the much-hyped urban revival we keep reading about is mostly limited to affluent white Gen Xers and Millennials. At the conference, economist Jed Kolko analyzed recent census data to show that on the whole, America continues to suburbanize.

A section of Otherothers’ Offset House
Other Architecture A section of Otherothers’ Offset House

Alan Berger, the landscape architect who co-directs CAU, and Joel Kotkin, an author and researcher at Chapman University in California, developed the conference program, and it showed. Kotkin, whose many pieces of journalism include “The Triumph of Suburbia” and “Rule, Suburbia,” is the bugbear of pro-density urbanists. He dismisses the notion that the American Dream could ever become owning a cozy condo downtown: “Fundamentally, people want single-family homes,” he told the 200 or so attendees assembled in decidedly un-suburban Cambridge, Mass.

Although there was plenty of innovative thinking, there was little that might cast the underpinnings of suburbia in a negative light. For instance, Joan Nassauer, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Michigan, gave an excellent talk on the potential for turning large suburban lawns into quasi-woodlands, or “rewilding” them. Yet no one discussed alternatives to thirsty grass lawns, even as California emerges from five consecutive years of drought.

Joan Nassauer’s concept for rewilding suburban lawns
Zhifang Wang/Nassauer Lab Joan Nassauer’s concept for rewilding suburban lawns

Likewise, we heard presentations on the Hyperloop (the transportation system dreamed up by Elon Musk, now being tested in Nevada by Hyperloop Technologies) and on suburbia as a “motopia” (by Eran Ben-Joseph, who heads MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning), but not on cycling, walking, or public transit. We heard about the suburbs’ diversity explosion (courtesy of Ali Modarres, the director of urban studies at the University of Washington Tacoma), but not about racial tensions in Ferguson, Mo., and McKinney, Texas—except when an audience member complained about the omission. The role of policy and governance in shaping suburbia was also mostly sidestepped.

For a short conference devoted to a broad topic, this seemed fair enough, if a bit tone-deaf at times. CAU’s vision involves enhancing the productivity of the suburban fabric we have rather than replacing it with one we don’t—a vision that was set out clearly in the exhibit (now closed) in the Media Lab’s lobby. There, a large, dynamically lit model showed a diffuse urban region with “waste belts,” logistics hubs, and autonomous vehicle networks. Think equal parts Ebenezer Howard, Silicon Valley techno-utopianism, and the crunchier side of landscape architecture.

New York City carbon footprint map, showing average total and annual household footprint by zip code
Courtesy CoolClimate Network New York City carbon footprint map, showing average total and annual household footprint by zip code

Suburbia and Climate Change

But this framework resulted in one major and (presumably) deliberate omission that was harder to accept. The environmental impact of suburban land use, particularly its role in climate change, was simply waved away. Bruegmann cited Australian findings that greenhouse-gas emissions per capita are higher downtown than on a city’s outskirts, while Berger argued that high density doesn’t solve environmental problems. End of story.

The notion that compact urban areas are better for the climate is subject to debate. In support of it, though, is a decent body of research, including a 2010 paper in the Journal of Urban Economics finding that cities “generally have significantly lower emissions than suburban areas,” as well as data showing that denser cities have lower emissions per capita than spread-out ones. Bruegmann ascribes this to affluence, not land use: People in dense developing-world cities like Mumbai consume less, and therefore use less energy. But plenty of affluent cities, like London and Paris, also have relatively low per-capita emissions. These tend to be cities where people inhabit smaller homes and drive less.

A 2014 University of California, Berkeley study found that urban density doesn’t translate directly to low carbon emissions, but the three main drivers of carbon footprints are household income, vehicle ownership, and home size, “all of which are considerably higher in suburbs.” If so, then better planning and design in suburbia could move the needle on two out of three variables to help mitigate climate change. That would be a huge opportunity (many would say an obligation). So why discount it? Surely one can be pro-suburb while recognizing the benefits of living smaller and driving less.

Terreform ONE’s cricket farm-cum-emergency shelter
Mitchell Joachim/Terreform ONE Terreform ONE’s cricket farm-cum-emergency shelter

As a suburbanite myself, I know there’s an urgent need to move beyond misconceptions about the suburbs. But throughout the event, Berger seemed defensive, worried about the discussion going off-script. He stressed that attendees should view suburbia through a “bioregional” lens first and foremost. He vetoed a question (OK, my question) about the density threshold at which Americans perceive a neighborhood to be “urban.” Near the day’s end, he noted that CAU researchers had tracked social media postings about the conference. “Most of them were positive,” he said, glancing around the room. I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not.

Berger wants to establish a new global theory of suburbanism, making it a legitimate and exciting field of academic research. That’s great—and he has plenty of company. Outside of design schools, a whole field of suburban studies has recently sprung up, led by social-science researchers like Myron Orfield at the University of Minnesota and Roger Keil at Toronto’s York University. There’s even a National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University in New York.

Somewhere between the social scientists, the Validators, and the Reformers, there is common ground where we can talk about improving the suburbs while respecting their real merits, and where we can be honest about the challenges they face without writing them off as either cultural backwaters or “the next slums.” MIT’s conference brought us a step closer, and no doubt Infinite Suburbia will bring us one or two more. But we’re not there yet.

A plan for the ghost suburb CITE
Courtesy Perkins+Will A plan for the ghost suburb CITE