Building up the Burbs

Sorry, city sophisticates, but the metropolis of the future may prove far less intensely urban than you hope. For all the focus on trendy downtowns and skyscrapers, the real growth in jobs and population is likely to take place on the periphery. The new urbanism, built around downtown revival and beloved by the celebrated starchitects, will cede pride of place to the "new suburbanism." And not only in the land of free-ranging suburbs, America.

In contrast to the powers who fight "sprawl," advocates of the new suburbanism focus on ways to make the periphery work better. It's about bringing business and jobs, not just bedrooms, to the outer rings, and reviving main streets in smaller towns and cities, not just in major urban centers. In some senses, the new suburbanism seeks to recover the ideals of early advocates of decentralization such as the early-20th-century British visionary Ebenezer Howard, who proposed dispersing populations into largely self-sustaining "garden cities."

Correcting the problems of suburbia is an international imperative. Almost everywhere, cities tend toward sprawl, more like much-maligned Los Angeles than like Manhattan, the urbanist's heaven. This pattern owes largely to the preference of the middle and working classes for privacy and space--choices ridiculed as boringly bourgeois by urban theorists. "L.A. is the realization of every immigrant's dream--the vassal's dream of his own castle," observed the Italian-born, Los Angeles-based urbanist Edgardo Contini in the 1960s. "Europeans who come here are delighted by our suburbs. Not to live in an apartment! It is a universal aspiration to own your own home." Today, surveys find that 70 to 80 percent of Americans prefer a single-family home and only 15 percent, an apartment in a dense urban area.

These preferences are increasingly universal. In Europe, Canada, Japan and Australia, growth is spilling out of urban centers, even in places that boast extensive mass-transit systems. In London, the center has been losing population since at least the 1960s. As H. G. Wells predicted a century ago, much of southern and central England is a vast suburb of the capital. In Frankfurt, the suburbs now reach out as far as 80 kilometers and in Paris, the center is losing about 1 percent of its population annually as businesses and the middle class move out past the heavily immigrant banlieues. In Japan, too, high prices and congestion have propelled an exodus: between 1970 and 1995, 10 million people settled in suburbs around the main cities of the Kanto Plain, including Tokyo, Yokohama and Kawasaki.

The impulse of many authorities is to try to stop sprawl and the problems (particularly overdependence on cars and malls) it brings. Planners in cities from Sydney to Portland, Oregon, have imposed "anti-sprawl" strategies that attempt to force people back into dense concentrations. Sydney's strict land-use regime, now under attack from both the political left and right, is helping drive up home prices--and drive young families to less highly regulated Australian cities. In Portland, a similar campaign is pushing development beyond the reach of city planners, across the Columbia River to Washington state.

In contrast, the new suburbanism seeks not to fight market forces, but to address the problems. Many of the brightest ideas can be found in planned communities, often modeled on Howard's garden cities, such as Valencia, California; the Woodlands, outside Houston; Reston, Virginia, or Marne La Vallée outside Paris. They are not mere bedroom communities with malls but boast well-developed business parks, town centers and, in some cases, notably the Woodlands, a large amount of well-preserved, natural open space. Other successful models are being developed in older suburbs. Fullerton, California, and Naperville in Greater Chicago have revived abandoned core districts as centers for entertainment, dining and community events. Naperville has also developed a lovely riverside park that attracts strollers, hikers and bicyclists.

Such patterns of enlightened suburban development could be applied around the world. Many nations still get it wrong, building anonymous tracts 30 to 50 kilometers from the closest jobs or town center, mainly as bedroom communities for a big city. A leading example of enforced centralization is Seoul, where the average density of more than 14,000 people per square kilometer is three times London's, five times L.A.'s and 10 times that of growing U.S. cities like Houston or Phoenix.

Greater Seoul, in short, is almost hostile to human life, a widening ocean of high-rises with a shrinking number of traditional Korean houses. Suh Yong-bu, a Korean expert in business demographics, notes that high housing prices and cramped spaces have helped send Korea's birthrate into free-fall, down 30 percent since 1993; much the same problem is felt in other ultra dense urban societies like Japan and China. "The same patterns can be found throughout Asia," notes demographer Phil Longman, author of the "The Empty Cradle," a study of world population trends. "Once everyone is forced into a small city place, there's literally no room left for kids."

We now see the beginnings of a battle over the future of the suburbs. In Britain--where suburbs are home to roughly half the population, but the bias of most planners and politicians is still toward the city--there's a growing movement to bring arts, from galleries to symphonies, to smaller villages. The increasingly high cost of city living may help pro-suburban forces from Britain to Japan, where the government also fights sprawl with limits on megamalls and other measures.

Perhaps the ultimate test will come in the fastest-growing major economies, India and China. Mall developers like Aeon Co. Ltd. (the same people now being told to back off in Japan) are rushing to build suburban homes and shopping areas in India, outside Mumbai, and in China outside Shanghai, Guangzhou, Tianjin and Beijing. Many of them are following American, Australian or Canadian models. There's one Chinese development named "Orange County," named after the famous southern California suburb. To hip urbanites, of course, that will sound like a bad joke. To the world's aspiring majority, it sounds like a bright promise.