Preparing For The Infinite Suburb


A Q&A With Alan Berger and Joel Kotkin.

Third in a series of conversations during Infrastructure Week. See the previous Q&A with Dan Katz, Transportation Policy Counsel at Hyperloop One, and Parag Khanna, Geo-strategist and author of Connectography.

The suburbs are back. In April, New York Magazine sounded the alarm that “more and more people are fleeing New York.” Time discovered just a few weeks ago that millennials are moving to the suburbs in drovesRecent studies have shown that millennials associate homeownership with the American dream more so than Generation X or baby boomers. As the world rapidly urbanizes, suburban migration presents an opportunity to define what this growth will look like — and how it might fit in more synergistically with urban cores and rural communities.

Alan Berger (left) and Joel Kotkin (right), co-authors of Infinite Suburbia

The truth is that the suburbs never fell from favor, we just stopped noticing that they became another form of the city. The shape of suburbia is an obsession for MIT professor Alan Berger and his co-author Joel Kotkin. Alan runs the MIT Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism and teaches in the Dept. of Urban Studies and Planning, while Joel is a writer and Professor of Urban Studies at Chapman University in California. Prof. Berger is also a judge for our Hyperloop One Global Challenge.

The two of them accurately highlighted this suburban resurgence long before it was popular, so we picked their brains about how they foresee emerging technology like Hyperloop playing a role in the trend. We discussed how new transportation modes might support suburban mobility and, perhaps, reshape suburbia as we know it.

H1: We hear you have an upcoming book called Infinite Suburbia. What does “Infinite Suburbia” mean?

Alan: The book’s title is meant to be polemical and measurable. Global urbanization is heading towards infinite suburbia. Around the world, the vast majority of people are moving to cities not to inhabit their centers, but to suburbanize their peripheries. Why? For many reasons, and almost always by their own choosing. Thus, when the United Nations projects the number of future “urban” residents, or when researchers quantify the amount of land that will soon be “urbanized,” these figures largely reflect the unprecedented suburban expansion of cities. By 2030, an estimated nearly half a million square miles (1.2 million square kilometers) of land worldwide will become urbanized, especially in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In the United States alone, an additional 85,000 square miles (220,000 square kilometers) of rural land will be urbanized between 2003 and 2030 . Given that these figures represent the conversion of currently rural land at the urban fringe, these lands are slated to become future, seemingly infinite suburbias.

Joel: In the United States, 69 percent of the population lives in suburbs. As late as 2010, over 75 percent of American jobs lay outside the urban core. Many other developed countries are also majority-suburban. In the global South, it is estimated that 45 percent of the 1.4 billion people who will become new urban residents will settle in peri-urban suburbs — areas where urbanized and rural areas meet . The sheer magnitude of land conversion taking place, coupled with the fact that the majority of the world’s population already lives in suburbs, demands that new attention and creative energy be devoted to the imminent suburban expansion.

Projected Growth in Urbanized LandSource: Past and projected rural land conversion in the US at state, regional, and national levels

H1: You point to suburbia as a truly global phenomenon. What does this say about common values across cultures?

Joel: This reflects essential human desires for personal space, contact with nature, safety and, in some cases, better educational options. Dense cities are attractive particularly to those with high incomes and those without children. When people get into their thirties, and start contemplating a family, or simply a quieter life, they usually head to suburbia.

H1: Why do the suburbs get such a bad rap?

Joel: It started early on in Britain, where suburbs offended many of the same people who are offended now — the intelligentsia, artists and gentry. Suburbs have been associated with crassness, ugliness and blamed for the decline of cities. Unlike urban cores, suburbs have few boosters; most media and major academic institutions are clustered in denser, inner city areas. Planning departments have long ignored them, or tried to figure out how to undermine them. Now, the greens are also a factor, weighing against suburban life. Simply put: everyone of consequence generally hates them, except for the vast majority of metropolitan residents who live there.

H1: What do you think earlier proponents of moving from cites got wrong, how can we harness new technology in a way that offers greater choice and sustainability?

Joel: The initial problems came from not confronting such issues as quality of life, social space and walking opportunities. Some tract suburbs provided better, often more affordable housing, but with little in the way of social amenities. Fortunately this is changing in many new developments, as can be seen in places like Woodlands and Cinco Ranch outside Houston, or Valencia and Irvine in Southern California.

Alan: My research group at MIT is currently working on a project that envisions the future of the American suburb past 2060. We have focused on the continued development of polycentricity in metropolitan areas and a tendency to expand in space as transportation technology, infrastructure, and policies allow. The framework of polycentricity will be carried forward because of spatial economics and the lowering cost of distance to affect location decisions. This future could plausibly include Level 5 autonomy (no human intervention required) for most vehicles in operation, where all driving situations can be handled by an autonomous driving system (car, truck, or all-terrain vehicle). Zero carbon emissions and Level 5 automation are absolutely in the near future, probably before Generation Z is buying cars for themselves.

Personal transportation modes will remain dominant in suburbia, but shared automobiles will transform the need for bus/rail service in suburbs. All of this assumes that consumer adoption and regulatory approval are achievable and that there is ubiquitous, reliable, and secure, low-cost wireless connectivity to the Internet-of-Things. Research suggests that level 5 autonomy will lead to 80% accident reduction.

The new spatial economics of automation will create huge environmental dividends. Reduced paving will lead to less urban flooding, less forest fragmentation, soil conservation, more groundwater recharge, and more landscape to use for common goods. Total automation will radically change the daily needs of various population segments. I can imagine increased long-distance commuting and mobile office vehicles, drone delivery for many errands, on-demand care and newly mobile elderly segments, and the elimination of drunk driving to name a few.

Future Suburban FabricConceptual view of future suburban fabric - Image Credit: Matthew Spremulli, MIT Center for Advanced Urbanism.

H1: Alan, you’re one of our esteemed judges for the Hyperloop One Global Challenge. Reviewing the applications – or engaging with teams and stakeholders at the event – what was one of the biggest surprises for you?

Alan: At a recent review of the U.S. finalist proposals in Washington D.C., I was pleasantly surprised by what I would describe as ‘regional optimism’. There was great enthusiasm and acknowledgement that we need to disrupt the broken transportation systems that are not serving emerging regional economies well. For instance, many individual cities talked about how connecting with regional partners would rejuvenate cities well beyond their own borders. There was a palpable energy to fix things and to pragmatically solve big problems that have national implications, not just local ones. It is truly rare to be in a room all day (literally 9 straight hours) with state and local agency heads from all over the U.S., the people in the day-to-day regulatory and political trenches of their cities, and hear them dream about the future in such uninhibited ways.

H1: You’re at a dinner party and a colleague proclaims Hyperloop only makes sense for intercity transport. How do you respond?

Alan: I would politely tell my colleague she needed to think about the broader applications of the infrastructure. The Hyperloop's value is exponentially greater than that of the technology itself. Like other new infrastructure, it will be joined with other innovations — 'packetized' — creating a multiplier effect. In the case of the Hyperloop, when a pod reaches its exit it will begin to function as an autonomous vehicle and completely solve the ‘last mile’ problem. The passenger will continue to ride in the same car until it reaches its final destination. What a “city” is will be redefined in the extended regional context of commuting extra long distances in short times.

H1: You’ve mentioned that even though more than 70 percent of people in the U.S. live in suburban areas —the suburbs are still growing. How can the U.S. successfully accommodate growing suburban interest and what can be done to invest in/revitalize/repurpose existing suburban infrastructure?

Joel: The key thing is to take advantage of new technologies. An overwhelming dependence on the personal car, and the ineffectiveness of rail transit (as can proved in declining market shares in many markets) — means some new approaches are necessary that are more effective and less costly. Billions have been spent on light rail and subways in dispersed urban areas like Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas and Atlanta but this has not increased transit share. New technologies will soon make these systems even less relevant and useful.

Alan: Joel is absolutely correct that tech innovations will change the infrastructural situation in suburbia. I think the key issue here is how we define and fund old vs. new infrastructure. There's little recognition that we need new forms of transport, and that building new infrastructure is not the same as modernizing old infrastructure. Of course, repairing bridges and helping to maintain state and national infrastructure are roles the federal government should and must continue to play. Despite that, the federal government needs to step into the future if America is going to continue to be the great transportation innovator that developed our magnificent web of trains, planes and automobile routes on a scale never seen or even imagined before.

In addition to new forms of infrastructure, government needs to re-think transportation capital. Our federal funding model is stuck in the 1950s, servicing city cores with inefficient mobility. There aren't any signs that it's going to finance the innovative infrastructure projects we need for more spread out city forms. Private investors are best positioned to understand and act on the future growth dynamics that will make these new modes succeed.

H1: Before “sprawl” became a contested word, Frank Lloyd Wright was famous for calling for more decentralization and opportunities for individuals to move away from the city. On the introduction of the automobile he wrote, man is “like a bird born in captivity, which finds the door opened. Soon he will learn that he can fly; and when he learns that he is free, he is gone.” In what ways do emerging technologies today have the power to give people greater choice to decide where to live, work, and experience leisure time?

Alan: Wright’s Broadacre City should be reimagined with a Hyperloop! But seriously, we can't sacrifice the need for environmental safeguards, or for safety and security in infrastructure. Neither should the federal government dictate things like location choice by telling people where to live. Our government has to be a partner, not an obstacle in these arenas. It should be developing streamlined, efficient, modern regulations that enable the rapid growth of new transportation technologies — technologies that are themselves key to an environmentally sustainable future. Government should refocus the federal funding apparatus, this time as an active participant in public-private partnerships — the so-called Three Ps.

Joel: The new systems, like Uber and Lyft, allow suburbanites greater flexibility at the same time the internet provides opportunity to turn the home into a primary workplace. In the future, the move towards Hyperloop technology and automated vehicles will further shatter the isolating aspects of suburban living. The beauty of suburban living — quiet, safe, allowing space — really evolves if you can strip out the maddening commute by car or even train.

This piece first appeared on the Hyperloop One blog.

Alan Berger is Professor of Landscape Architecture and Urban Design at Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he teaches courses open to the entire student body. He is founding director of P-REX lab, at MIT, a research lab focused on environmental problems caused by urbanization, including the design, remediation, and reuse of waste landscapes worldwide. He is also Co-Director of Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism at MIT (LCAU).

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of He is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book is The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us. He is also author of The New Class ConflictThe City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He lives in Orange County, CA.

Header image credit: MIG|SvR.


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Infinite Suburbia

"Infinite suburbia" is a money-losing proposition and demands additional infrastructure investment. Right now, all our highway, rail and to a less extent air transportation systems are oriented toward central cities. There's a reason companies keep moving their headquarters downtown even as households have resumed the move to the suburbs.

Also, it's a little bit bizarre to characterize all growth that doesn't occur in city centers as suburbanization on par with, say, Schaumburg in the United States. Especially in the Third World. People who are building settlements on the outskirts of Mumbai or Nairobi are obviously height-limited, but they're packed a lot denser than even a lot of mid-city US neighborhoods and they tend to have a traditional street-and-shop economy that's completely alien to US suburbs. Most of them don't even have cars.

Even more bizarre: "Planning departments have long ignored them, or tried to figure out how to undermine them." Which is why US suburbs have been and continue to be hand-built piecemeal by their residents, Dharavi-style, with no special loans or infrastructure investment from any level of government, right? This victim stuff has really gotten out of control.