The battle of development: Urban core or suburbs?

March 6, 2013 Joe Geller

Boston's suburbs are thriving, but data suggests Millenials 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:

  • 20- and 30-somethings are more interested in living downtown and will settle for smaller units as they consider the urban core their living room (something a recent Boston Globe article confirms). They are looking for a truly urban live/work/play environment
  • The central business district (CBD) or urban core ranks higher for investment potential among global investors than suburban markets
  • The average age of people getting married in Boston is 34
  • Income as it relates to buying power has fallen for those in the 20-30, 30-40 and 40-50 age groups, meaning Generation X and Y will likely not have the financial resources to choose to send their children to private school if they live in the city
  • The number of children living in Boston is decreasing (a statistic apparently not shared in most North American peer cities)
  • Online retail sales are expected to jump from $200 billion in 2012 to $500 billion by 2020
  • ULI District Council surveys indicated that the most challenging issue for future development is transportation
  • In a real-time survey of attendees at the session, 86% believed that the CBD and adjacent suburbs would see the most productive development in the next 3-5 years and only 10% believed it would occur outside that area in the route 128 (I-95) suburbs

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.

Suburbs Rule?
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?

So Which Is It?
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.

About the Author

Joe Geller

As a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects with over 30 years of experience, Joe Geller believes landscape architecture betters our quality of life, our communities, and our world.

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