A Not So Suburban Suburbia: Possibilities for Our Urban Future

There are nearly seven billion people on the planet, and more than half of them live in urban areas. Close your eyes and try to picture that. Do you see the towering density of Tokyo or Mumbai? Well, you’re partly right. Megacities with populations topping 10 million are part of the picture, but our urbanization rate also captures lots and lots of areas with populations as small as 2,500 (Instead of Cairo, think Bloomfield, Iowa, for example). What’s more, megacities are groupings of multiple cities and suburbs, and each of these is subject to changing local definitions. As Hania Zlotnik, a population expert from the United Nations, put it earlier this week here at the Aspen Environment Forum, the statistic that we’re more than half urban “hides more than it reveals.”

So if the mostly urban world isn’t going to be a uniform skyscraper forest, is it going to be a sprawling megasuburb with oceans of parking lots? Not necessarily. As Georgia Tech’s Ellen Dunham-Jones shows, there is a growing trend in the United States to retrofit suburbia in ways that incorporate what people like about more traditional urban settings (see video above). Abandoned supermarkets, shopping malls, and big box stores are being sliced and diced into walkable neighborhoods with street grids, mixed uses, and a comfortable feel. Rather than simply spreading out into fertile farmlands, these urban projects are targeting what Dunham-Jones calls “underperforming asphalt” – blank spaces within the urban boundary. As a result, the burbs are getting their own downtowns.

There are other ways that the classic image of suburban life is out of step with the reality. A panel featuring Dunham-Jones, Emil Frankel of the Bipartisan Policy Institute, Geoff Anderson of Smart Growth America, and Amy Fraenkel of the United Nations Environment Programme pointed out some surprising characteristics of the modern American suburb. While the suburbs are traditionally invoked as a place to raise your kids, about two-thirds of suburban households do not have children and that number is getting closer to three-quarters of households. Immigrants, who once looked to the urban core for homes are increasingly moving to suburbs instead. Risks to health and safety, such as higher rates of obesity and more car accidents, challenge the concept of suburbs as threat-free oases, and the increased costs of commuting by car offset some of the expected savings offered by cheaper housing at the urban edge. In short, the suburbs are looking less and less suburban.

One part of suburbia will probably be around for a while: cars and traffic. Even New Urbanism retrofits will likely only reduce the need for cars, not eliminate it. But how long will we be getting around in gas guzzlers? It depends who you ask. At a panel on the future of the automobile, also featuring Frankel, as well as Mary Beth Stanek of General Motors, Lonnie Johnson of Johnson Research and Development, and Niel Golightly of Royal Dutch Shell (see video), showed consensus that the benefits of mobility would keep us in private cars into the 22nd century. The panel discussed several ideas and initiatives aimed at changing the fuel used to move these cars, but most of the panelists thought they would be burning oil for a long time to come, partly due to technology limitations and partly due to consumer reluctance. Frankel noted that the transportation sector is the only part of our economy almost totally dependent on liquid petroleum, saying “the United States does not have an oil addiction, the American transportation system has an oil addiction.”

In sharp contrast later in the day, Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute thought a revolution was possible built on efficiency, lighter materials, and profit motive (see video). Lovins asserted that “by 2050 the US can get completely off oil coal and nuclear and a third off natural gas while growing the economy by 150%.” He also believes “this transition can be led by business for profit, enabled and accelerated by policy shifts that need not be at the congressional level, and can make society over five trillion dollars richer plus the value of whatever hidden costs like carbon emissions were avoided but weren’t counted.” Also among the optimists at Aspen was Daniel Nocera, who believes his low cost electrolyzer can eventually turn every home into a private power plant and gas station using only sunlight for energy and water for storage. Cars would run on hydrogen that was split off from the water. He hopes to have a prototype built in India by the end of 2011.

So, which vision of our transportation future as an urban species will prevail? Perhaps Johnson, who is working on advanced batteries to power electric cars, had it right when he said “you get what you work on. If you work on incremental improvements, if you work on short term solutions as a patchwork, then you end up with incremental solutions. If you work on game changing approaches then you’re going to end up with game changing results.”

Changing Planet

Brad Scriber is the Deputy Research Director for National Geographic magazine, with an emphasis on researching energy topics. He also contributes to NG Daily News, the Great Energy Challenge, and Pop Omnivore. Follow @bradscriber on Twitter.