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NEXT: What is the Future of the Suburbs?

David Staley David Staley NEXT: What is the Future of the Suburbs?
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On Friday February 26, I will be participating in a panel discussion sponsored by Ohio State’s Center for Urban and Regional Analysis asking the question “What is the future of suburbs?” and I thought I would give you a sneak peek of what I plan to say.

I should start by saying that it is difficult to imagine the “future of the suburbs” because suburbs are different depending on their location. American suburbs aren’t European suburbs aren’t Australian suburbs. I suppose that my own orientation is to focus on American suburbs and to consider how they might develop over the next 20 years.

Of all the trends that will affect the future of the suburbs, the one I find most intriguing is the idea of “solar suburbs.” Researchers at the University of Lincoln in the UK have argued that suburban residences fitted with solar panels and criss-crossed with electric cars could produce more than 10 times the electricity than similarly fitted buildings in a dense urban core. The implication is that a suburb so designed would be able to power the urban core as well. From a reputation for inefficient housing and two- and three-car gas guzzler garages, future suburbs might be the place we look to for models of energy efficiency.

Quite aside from the change in the suburbs this solar future represents, suburbs supplying power back to the urban core would change the relationship between suburb and city. Historically, this relationship has meant that suburbs were largely residential, with shopping and other retail part of the process of suburban growth. Commuters travelled from their residences to occupations in the city. Solar suburbs would change this dependency relationship.

Indeed, the nature of the relationship between city and suburb is how we will define the future of the suburb. Will suburbs serve as energy farms for the urban core? Or will suburbs “declare independence” from the central city, and begin to behave as their own separate mini-cities? I am looking at Gwinnett county in Georgia, a growing suburb of Atlanta that has its own minor-league sports teams and other cultural features. Far from a residential and mall experience, some suburbs are developing into their own cities, perhaps with little to no direct relationship to an urban core. Or might we see a change in the urban-suburban relationship such that commuters will leave their residences in the urban core for jobs and occupations in the suburban periphery such that the city becomes the suburb?

Some suburbs are indeed looking more like cities. This trend has been developing for a while, and we need only look to the changes occurring in Dublin for evidence of this. Dublin is redesigning itself to be more walkable, to have residential areas in its downtown core, and to have the kinds of shops and restaurants (as opposed to big box shopping malls) that we associate with dense urban living. Why commute to Columbus when occupations, restaurants, residences and cultural amenities are within walking distance in a suburb?

It would appear that Millennials are also interested in suburban living, especially if those suburbs have an urban feel to them. The Census Bureau reports 529,000 25-29 year olds moved from cities to the suburbs in 2014, and that 426,000 moved from suburb to city. Among those in their early 20s,721,000 moved to the suburbs while 554,000 moved to the city. These figures suggest that the Millennials—whom we associate with “the return to the city”—are not as ready to give up on suburbs. The Millennials, with their specific demands for urban living, may accelerate the trends to “urban suburbs.”

Having just spent some time in San Francisco, another trend we might be witnessing is the movement of the urban poor out to suburbia. In the US, we have long associated the suburbs with middle class residences, with the poor congregating in the urban core. With the “return to cities,” many of these areas are become expensive for the poor. In San Francisco, especially, housing prices are skyrocketing and are within reach only of wealthy tech workers. The poor are being pushed out away from the city, and we might see this pattern across many other US cities. It is possible that in 20 years the suburbs will be associated with poverty and low-cost housing, while the urban core is where the prosperous and well-off live.

We can identify at least four possibilities for the future of suburbs:

  1. The de-population of the suburbs, as people are drawn to the attractions of dense, urban living.
  2. As the prosperous move to the urban core, they crowd out the poor, who escape to the suburbs, a reversal of a trend begun in the 1960s.
  3. Suburbs sever their relationship to the urban core and develop as their own mini-cities.
  4. Cities develop a dependency upon suburbs for their electricity and energy.

Which future do you see for the suburbs of Columbus?

David Staley is president of Columbus Futurists and a professor of history and design at The Ohio State University.  

The next Columbus Futurists monthly forum will be Thursday February 18 at 6:30 PM at the Panera Bread community room (875 Bethel Rd.)  Our topic for the evening will be “The Future of Fusion.”

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