This week I’m sitting back and taking a birds-eye view of some interesting topics that are, or could influence future urban development, leaving behind some of the more hard-edged topics of recent weeks.

Our suburbs are changing, that’s a reality of cities across the globe. However, with suburban communities, no matter where they are located, seeing rapid growth it’s the ideal time to think hard about how where we live might be improved and made better.

There’s lots of areas to think about from density, infrastructure, demographic change, to reducing the carbon footprint of suburban development and facing the realities of affordable housing, here’s a few topics I find interesting as background as we start to think about trends coming our way in 2020.

Walkable Communities

There’s increasing demand for walkable neighbourhoods, suburbs that in part help deliver a feeling of community, of being connected.

However, we need to keep in-mind that zoning is an essential part of the conversation and that for economies of scale walkable communities may often require a mix of housing density. Zoning can also create the mixed-use, pedestrian oriented density of development that many of today’s young singles, empty nesters, and families are seeking.

This won’t always, if ever, be that be easy, as there’s a huge challenge in the infrastructure required to move from typical suburban development to a walkable model.

This is even more difficult if for example there’s a major road network to navigate. However, with cooperation between state, and local government it is possible to deliver more walkable infrastructure, while also encouraging the development of mixed-use projects, and one example from Phoenix, Arizona might be a future model.

Culdesac Tempe is a USD$140 million project being developed as a car-free estate for 1000 residents. Residents renting the 636 apartments will be encouraged to get about on foot, scooters, bicycles, buses and ride sharing services. There will be no resident parking on-site and there will be a ban from parking anywhere nearby under the terms of their lease.

Planning authorities have waived parking requirements to accommodate Culdesacs’s vision. The city was also where in March 2018 the first pedestrian was killed during trials of Uber’s autonomous vehicle. While between 2008-2017 a staggering 344 pedestrians were killed, a very sad but perhaps obvious reason as to why walkable communities are so topical.

Ageing in Place

As we face the reality of an ageing population it’s often suggested that urban planning should start more deliberately to embrace suburban communities that welcome (retain) and accommodate aging residents.

Three of the most important needs for older residents are accessible supportive housing, proximity to medical care, and social connections. The idea of dedicated ‘villages’ might still be valid and necessary however, as we live longer and healthier lives, working well beyond 65 or even 70, more compact communities look a good idea.

Without resorting to dedicated housing, more compact communities can then efficiently look after and provide vibrant homes in clusters of seniors. It’s true that many seniors also live in low-density, usually car-dependent suburbs, that with careful planning and re-housing and re-cycling of existing larger homes, could become retirement attractive communities.

These communities are often located in cities and inner-ring suburbs and re-housing policies like these would not only be a better way to serve their older residents, but the re-use/re-development of existing housing stock would also make room for younger people and families.

The Role of Schools

Away from aged-housing and right at the other end of the social and economic scale is the role of schools. The role that urban planning plays here is a hot topic in many cities, and that includes Sydney and Melbourne.

It appears that we are currently playing catch-up with schools and not building a flexible education systems to better serve suburban families. The problem is not confined to new areas of development, but also impacts many established and older areas.

As suburbs become more diverse, education authorities need to ask how education infrastructure can be delivered to meet increasingly complex needs of students and the wider community. Rapidly growing populations put both new and established at a disadvantage if expanding student numbers cannot be easily accommodated.

New outer-suburban areas can lack immediate scale to attract government funds for new schools and so it may be worth considering sharing resources and collaborate as a short-term solution. Portable classrooms may be an immediate but a band-aid solution however, better quality, shared and multi-use school projects look a worthwhile solution.

Housing & The Climate

Worldwide urban growth and the climate are linked and so how are development and building communities rising to both the challenge and opportunity presented as we confront climate change.

Rising energy costs have for recently been a focus with many Australians however, building energy-efficient buildings is not a new idea. The difference today is that there are new urgency being applied to energy-efficient design, at that includes where we live, no matter the density.

What’s already one focus is the upfront emissions coming from the building materials that make up our new buildings. It’s been estimated that embodied carbon accounts for 11% of greenhouse gas emissions and over a quarter of building emissions.

As a result, many suppliers are re-evaluating their entire product supply chains to reduce emissions impact at every stage, from raw materials to manufacturing, delivery and installation. As eco-materials are developed this will act as a new resource for architects and an influence on how new projects are designed and built, buyers are in-turn looking for such options in new projects and detached homes.

It’s one factor that is creating a culture of co-operative planning among architects, engineers and developers as energy efficiency, building performance, and design become a focus for buyers at every level of the housing market.

However, there’s also a wider questions of sustainability that may well encourage cities to build more medium-high density and this change also poses a challenge among some communities.

Better Suburbs

While there are challenges in creating better suburbs, we do have active policies across Australia to make this happen.

In the ACT for example The Better Suburbs Statement 2030 was developed in 2018 through a new model of engaging with Canberrans on suburban policy, and covers such areas as; stormwater management, tree planting, waste and recycling, roads, parks and open space, pedestrian infrastructure, streetlights, shopping centres and a few very basic aspects like weed control and graffiti.

All of these topics from the ACT’s program will be familiar, perhaps even seen as ordinary, but they do help illustrate that the suburbs that make up our cities are a mix of big-picture policies, some of which I’ve touched upon and other very basic needs like those being tackled in the ACT.