The battle of development: Urban core or suburbs?
March 06, 2013
March 06, 2013
Boston's suburbs are thriving, but data suggests Millennials want to stay in the city. How does this affect urban planning and design?
The Urban Land Institute (ULI) session, entitled “What’s Next: Trends in Real Estate,” presented a number of statistics that seem to be in conflict with the expansive development happening in Boston’s suburbs. Some of the more interesting statistics:
So with that context, and my understanding from everything I had been reading lately, my bet is Boston and similar cities will be seeing a lot more re-urbanization and densification and less focus on intensified suburban development. This is certainly what I have been hearing as I work around the country and in Canada doing visioning or planning charrettes for planned communities. The last statistic above certainly encouraged me to think that my peers in the Boston real estate and development community agreed.
Now thinking I understand where development is going in Boston, I was surprised about what I heard at a NAIOP session about the Boston suburbs. Burlington and Waltham along Route 128 in Massachusetts were developed with traditional office/industrial parks lining the highway at each exit, supported by regional malls and suburban retail and traditional subdivisions of single-family homes and multi-family developments. Those traditional office park developments are now being replaced with neo-urban development focused on creating a work environment that creates collaboration, flexibility and potential for growth while providing a play environment with a variety of residential options, eating establishments, movie theaters, bowling alleys and the like. Four projects were described in detail and four more were discussed as moving forward or in the planning stages. All of these developments were described as being attractive to the Millennials and high tech workers.
Given the statistics in the first session I was having a hard time squaring in my mind how the significant growth in the Boston suburbs would attract the people they seemed to need most to support the job growth: the 20- and 30-somethings. If people are in school longer, waiting longer to get married, not having as many kids, and are looking for a real urban experience, why would they move to the suburbs? Can these suburban developments continue to attract the high-tech employers that rely on that demographic to support their business if they now all want to live in the city? If one of the biggest challenges to future development is transportation, are suburban locations, with their limited public transportation and reliance on highway infrastructure, really well positioned to support this type of growth? Can these suburban developments create the buzz necessary to attract the expected 24/7 experience?
While it appears that at least one recent live/work/play development constructed in the Boston suburbs has been able to attract significant national and local retailers as tenants, I still wonder whether the long term trends and demographics identified at the ULI session will bear this out for the future. How will people like me who are 55 and older affect these new suburban developments? Will 55-and-over housing options become a more significant portion of residential offerings in the future? Will assisted living be a central part of these new urban cores? It is exciting to see the suburbs focusing on an urban experience. But from a planning perspective, wouldn’t it be nice if that could be focused on revitalizing existing suburban downtowns instead of creating these new centers, and is that politically or financially realistic? On the flip side, when the city dwellers do have kids, will they be willing to stick it out in the city? Will they be willing to pay more in taxes to support better schools? Are the cities able to adapt to meet the needs and financial pressures of this new generation?
There is clearly a belief in the design and development community that both urban and suburban development needs to be focused on creating walkable, vibrant communities that provide a myriad of social and professional experiences. It will be interesting to see how this focus evolves in the urban and suburban context over the next 20 years. As a landscape architect and planner—particularly here in Boston—it is certainly an exciting time to be a part of the process.