Until recently, our city’s margins were neglected by researchers. Precisely how much neglect seems to have corresponded with the margin’s distance from its urban core, the city’s beating heart and a real draw for analytical minds. But Infinite Suburbia, a mammoth collection of 52 essays edited by MIT landscape architecture professor Alan Berger, geographer Joel Kotkin, and environmental urbanist Celina Balderas Guzman, seeks to elevate the discourse on our suburbs. The compendium is the result of a yearlong study at MIT’s Center for Advanced Urbanism, and, like suburbia itself, is sprawling, often beautiful, and a bit relentless.
We have, over the last decade, heard repeatedly that the 21st century is the age of the city. But Infinite Suburbia’s editors rightly recognize the vast majority of people who have moved to cities do not populate the cores but rather the edges. In the United States, for example, 69 percent of the population lives in suburbs. Our edges are rapidly shifting and expanding, demanding meaningful evaluation.
Still, the term suburbia isn’t specific; it has a vagueness with which many of the essays engage. Historian Jon Teaford writes about the myth of the homogeneous suburb, noting that industrial suburbs differ from those pocketed with shopping malls or others that serve primarily as wealthy enclaves. The variety of activity present in suburbs today is as rich as the variety present in urban cores.
Espen Aukrust Hauglin and Janike Kampevold Larsen, professors of urbanism and landscape at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design, write about how in Norway, suburbia springs up in the pockets of limited spaces between geographical features. One clear example is the Grorud Valley. The valley’s history and geomorphology create a fabric of land use that contrasts with more traditional ideas of suburbia. In the valley, farmland, residential communities, and old mining infrastructure are adjacent to one another. Nature and recreation were large influences on the design of Norway’s satellite towns, so the path systems that gird these towns create a transition between the city and surrounding environment that enables recreation. Recent developments suggest that inner-city parks are gaining prominence in the valley, though.
Dr. Margaret Grose, landscape professor at the University of Melbourne, asks in her essay the pertinent question, “how can we design ecologically-richer suburbs?” It turns out biodiversity is not high on many planners lists of goals, if it’s considered at all. Grose suggests inverting the planning process so that ecological goals come first. Designing backwards through the planning stages and analysis can help give ecology its due in suburban design.
The expansion of cities outwards in the last few decades and the resultant land use change has been both rapid and irreversible. As both editor and author of Infinite Suburbia, Berger investigates how planners in the past sought to “belt” suburbia with agrarian and recreational landscapes.
But with the clustering of cities into polycentric city-regions, greenbelts are being ask to function in new and peculiar ways. Rather than serving as a container for development, greenbelts can connect regions. Berger warns that they must be employed intelligently and compatibly with demands for growth, or they risk being ineffectual. For some examples of greenbelting done right, Berger recommends the Brussels capital region of Belgium as well as Hamburg, Germany.
Despite the potential ecological benefits of greenbelts or prioritizing biodiversity, experts still consider suburbia the most ecologically-destructive form of development. Consider the growth of the east coast megalopolis, a region defined decades ago by French geographer Jean Gottman, running from Washington, D.C. north to Boston. What habitat it hasn’t destroyed it has badly fragmented.
Alex Wall, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia, asks in his essay what a counter-figure to this megalopolis might look like. While his essay doesn’t quite describe such a figure, it does make a strong argument for analyzing development at the regional scale in order to better understand the true ecological scope.