Not the Suburb of the Future

Several people have asked me to respond to landscape architect Alan Berger’s NYTimes piece on “The Suburb of the Future.”  The piece invites us to imagine a series of technologies that will allow all of us to live on large plots of land spreading out across the landscape.  It’s worth reading, because it captures a lot of what goes wrong when architects posit a purely aesthetic notion of urbanism without running the numbers or discussing the full impacts.

(It also contains that self-ridiculing term “what Millennials want,” which in the absence of data means “what I want Millennials to want.”  Most people can’t predict what they’ll want later in life, and their parents and grandparents can only do this by assuming, perilously, that their children are copies of themselves who will follow the same life trajectory that they did.)

There are basic geometry problems with uncontrolled sprawl that Alan Berger is not discussing, and that his vision does nothing to address.  These include the long travel distances which consume more transport capacity and cause more emissions, as well as the removal of so much land from agriculture, flood protection, and the environment generally.  There is also the severe problem of induced travel demand from driverless vehicles, which will expand the demand for road space.

My own city, Portland, has achieved its desirability largely through it’s urban growth boundary constraining sprawl.  If Alan had had his way 40 years ago, the magnificent and relatively new vineyard region just outside of our city, and Oregon’s best agricultural land, would all be covered with houses by now.

Oregon wine country

Oregon’s wine country just outside of Portland. It exists only because our 1972 limits on sprawl kept us from paving it.

 In short, sprawl still has all of the usual negative impacts, and because these problems are not aesthetic, making sprawl more beautiful is not really the point.
Personally, I live in a detached house because am into gardening, so I would never argue that everyone should live in apartments.  In our existing suburbia there can still be plenty of places for people who genuinely want low-density living to have it.  But there is not enough room for it to continue to be promoted as the only way to have a normal life.





15 Responses to Not the Suburb of the Future

  1. Jeffrey Bridgman September 25, 2017 at 7:21 pm #

    Totally off-topic, but it’d be fun to see photos of your garden sometime 🙂

  2. Garth Macleod September 25, 2017 at 8:24 pm #

    It all sounds nice to me. Then I realised going to school and work was not mentioned by Alan once.!

  3. el_slapper September 25, 2017 at 11:23 pm #

    This hunger for gardens and individual houses comes back as far as the gauls. In those times, a free man was the owner of a house and enough garden to feed his family. No garden, no freedom, just serfdom or slavery. So even if it’s globally a bad idea, it’s not about to leav any soon.

    • Mike September 27, 2017 at 11:54 am #

      A few people have a working vegetable garden, a carefully-maintained flower garden as a type of art, or environmentally-friendly native plantings as refuge for critters. Most people have a useless lawn that’s always empty and is a thirsty botanical monoculture that requires mowing.

      • EJ October 7, 2017 at 8:53 am #

        I live in fairly dense, older suburb, and my front lawn is less than 20 feet square. Somebody visiting recently said “wow, that’s all the grass you have to cut? Must be nice!” People live on these giant lots covered with grass, and it’s purely a chore to them. It’s madness.

  4. Marc September 26, 2017 at 3:53 pm #

    Academia and practice may have grown tired of the “Landscape Urbanism” fad* but the underlying “ruralize the city” dogma still motivates designers, as it has since Capability Brown, Olmsted, Howard, McHarg, and Waldheim… only Jacobs understood the dogma for what it was: a delusion that has largely inhibited Anglo-Saxon culture from producing splendid cityscapes ever since the Enlightenment.

    *Remember that? It was all the rage in 2010 when I graduated!

  5. Zak September 27, 2017 at 11:09 am #

    The move of millennials to suburban locales may also be a product of the environments we regulate for. Cities are increasingly expensive and affordability is becoming increasingly acute. Providing options for young families between the one-bedroom apartment and the quarter acre lot is an area where regulations have yet to fully respond to the increased interest in urban lifestyles.

  6. R. W. Rynerson September 29, 2017 at 11:19 pm #

    My parents’ 50×100 ft lot in Irvington (NE Portland) had enough lawn and garden space to provide we kids with plenty of chores! Our mother filled shelves with canned garden produce and roses bloomed in spite of lack of serious attention.

    When I moved to Denver, I was trying to figure out why my new neighborhood’s generic half-mile grid line bus routes did not warrant as much service as their peers in PDX. I found that most of the lots in my neighborhood were 60×125 ft, plus alleys (only a couple of Portland neighborhoods have alleys). So, the casual Realtor drive by gives the impression that the two peer districts are the same, but geometry says otherwise. Of course, there are other pros and cons, but the environment built at the dawn of the auto age remains a big influence. (And except for a Mojave Rose, growing roses in Denver was a pain!)

  7. R. W. Rynerson September 29, 2017 at 11:45 pm #

    In 1972, I wrote the rail access portion of a Port of Portland study of relocating their International Airport to St. Paul, Oregon, in the heart of some of the best farmland in the world. When I was finished with the rush project, it dawned on me that were it to move to St. Paul, it would destroy Willamette Valley farming in favor of sprawl. Luckily, it was also one of the few places foggier than the existing site, but my surmise is that the reason it was dropped was that the Port’s leadership saw the burgeoning interest in better land use planning and the legislated requirement that transportation projects conform to land use plans. The Port went ahead with improving the existing site, instead of using millions of dollars to raise real estate prices on farmland..

    The lead legislator in that era was a dairy farmer, Sen. Hector Macpherson (R-Corvallis) who memorably said “Visualize the alternative, a Valley where neighbor encroaches on neighbor, a land unproductive agriculturally where hunger and want must surely follow, a land defiled and unsightly, a monument to man’s greed and shortsightedness,” More pointedly, he said “scratch a farmer and you’ll find a subdivider!”

  8. Michelle Poyourow October 2, 2017 at 11:06 am #

    A small but revealing flaw in Alan Berger’s thinking was his idea that residential streets would be “one-way teardrop shaped loops,” and also that they would have electric car charging stations at the end.

    How do the cars get back from the car charging stations? Since the road leading to them is one-way?

    When people make small predictions that obviously violate the laws of time and space, it makes me skeptical about the rest of their predictions.

    I also do not see how a “suburb of the future” involves 25 (count ’em) households sharing a tennis club, long roads, and copious greenspace all to themselves. That sounds like a suburb of today, for extremely rich people.

    Why would a country club development plan be scalable to the needs of millions of non-rich people, just because they don’t have to operate their cars while they sit in them? Nothing about the geometric or geographic problem of housing and transporting people changes when something drives our cars for us. The future is not country-clubs-for-all, sadly.

  9. Benjamin Smith October 7, 2017 at 2:17 pm #

    I assume this is the Broadacre City of the 21st century?

  10. Robert Wightman October 15, 2017 at 5:23 am #

    Do the people who come up with these ideas ever make a map to show how much land would be taken up to house al the people who are supposed to eventually live in these dream suburbs?

  11. RossB October 19, 2017 at 12:07 pm #

    >> Personally, I live in a detached house because am into gardening, so I would never argue that everyone should live in apartments.

    This comes up often when folks defend a suburban lifestyle. Whether it be gardens,or a backyard for kids, the assumption is that folks want more space.

    But in many cases, it is the opposite. I remember reading a Consumer Reports article about lawn mowers a few years back, and most of the people in the poll wanted less lawn. Not that surprising, but this goes against the assumption that everyone wants more yard. Lots of people, myself included, want less. A little, Japanese style (or Brooklyn style) backyard would be fine, but not a big yard, no matter how many Sunset Magazine articles I’ve read.

    Which is why urbanists generally simply suggest choice. Let the market decide. If you want a buy a house with a big yard, be my guest. Rarely, if ever, does the zoning code say “you can’t have a lot that big”. But the opposite happens all the time. Even when lots of people want a small place, the zoning rules prevent that, and they end up buying bigger than they want.

  12. Anton October 20, 2017 at 12:04 pm #

    About the lack of space. Isn’t there enough for everyone plus much? In most “proper” countries the population is decreasing anyway.