It is high time to innovate and modernise the suburbs if you want the cosy detached or semi-detached house with the white picket fence to continue to be a part of the dream of a good place to live for child families and senior citizens. There is a looming danger that the suburbs will decay both materially and socially as its inhabitants grow older. And with fewer child families for the next 10-15 years this could have grave consequences for the least attractive neighbourhoods. We offer a suggestion for an alternative suburban life.
Half the residences in Denmark are detached or semi-detached houses, and by far the majority of them are found in suburbs. Roughly two and a half million Danes - mostly child families and seniors - live in these suburban neighbourhoods.
In the future a lot of families will still be living their lives in the suburbs, because that is where the residences are. At the same time a number of social and commercial innovations will make life in the suburban neighbourhoods more attractive.
Many dream of replacing the standard model (the nuclear family in the little house) with a family and home life that is more in keeping with the times, and it appears quite likely that more people in the future will chose alternate ways to live their family and home life. That is the subject of the report After Suburbia, in which the Copenhagen Institute for Future Studies offers a suggestion for how a more diverse and specialised home living could look in the future.
More and more people will get the opportunity to realise the family and home life they dream of. That is the whole point of the growth of prosperity, technology, and organisation: to give us more choices. A greater proportion will be able to afford more, for example through pensions and two full-time academic level incomes. A greater proportion will get technological tools that will make distance solutions and working at home possible. A greater proportion will get the opportunity to work with flexible schedules. And a greater proportion, not the least the many youthful senior citizens, will get more leisure time.
It is our belief that although the residential dreams of most Danes either lean towards a rustic idyll or a pulsating city life, the majority end up in a perfectly traditional suburb. That is after all, when you come right down to it, what's most practical in relation to family life, friends, jobs, transport times, education, shopping, etc. Suburban life also makes good sense in a network society. If you live in a suburb, you have access to both the amenities of the big city, to green areas, and to a large selection of workplaces, malls, entertainment centres, and a decent infrastructure. The suburb is thus in many ways the obvious choice for the modern flexible and fragmented family. Many add elements from their dreams about the simple rural life or the big city life, such as outdoor kitchens or off-road vehicles or compact, mobile multifunction furniture that actually fits better into a 40 m2 city apartment than into a 200 m2 suburban villa.
Modern family and home life needs room for both solitary and gregarious activity. In addition, both practical and emotional needs must be met, and in particular there are demands for both mobility and anchoring. Future solutions in the residential field must accommodate these seemingly contradictory trends.
The demand for individuality in family and home life is a strong trend. Simultaneously there is an increased awareness of the negative results of the whole individualisation wave, which strengthens the demand for new forms of communities. This could be the family, local neighbourhood associations, or other network-based communities. Because of this, some predict a revitalisation of various forms of communities, such as strictly local communities, modern communes, and modern village communities. Unlike earlier communities, such as those of the 1970s, these new communities will leave room for and support the demands for self-expression from modern 'social individualists'.
By far the greatest number of modern single-family houses was built in the 1960s and 1970s, and they are not the kind of housing that most people dream of spending their life in. A survey from 2001 of people who were thinking about moving shows that 21 percent were living in single-family houses built between 1960 and 1990. Only 17 percent wanted to move to this kind of residence, while more recent single-family houses were wanted by 18 percent. 20 percent wants to live in older brick houses, but only 11 percent do. As many as 12 percent want to move to a farmhouse, while only 3 percent of people who want to move live in one.
Some suburbs have a very high proportion of tenant housing where most of the residents are singles and single parents. But the residents of villa neighbourhoods are mostly 'standard families' consisting of two parents with several children. Also living here are an increasing number of couples of mature age whose children have moved out.
If the suburbs are defined as the residential neighbourhoods that lie outside the inner city, but not in the countryside or in smaller cities, then roughly half of all Danes live in suburbs. Such a definition would mean that parts of the boroughs of Aalborg, Aarhus, Odense, and Copenhagen are counted as suburbs. In a more narrow definition of suburbs we're talking about 45 purely suburban municipalities, in which roughly 20 percent of the population reside.
One of the myths about housing is that there is a shortage of it. What we have is a shortage of good, cheap housing with the right location. But at the same time Denmark has one of the highest standards of housing in the world. The problem is simply that the houses are of the 'wrong' kind (e.g. rental accommodations, which is not at the top of people's wish list), they are located in the 'wrong' places, e.g. the boondocks, and they are occupied by the 'wrong' people, e.g. elderly couples and singles in family houses. Is it really necessary that so many people who are not actively employed cluster together in the expensive houses in the Greater Copenhagen area and strain the road net?
Currently there are lots of obstacles to more mobile home living, but the future offers possibilities for more mobility. Flexible work, more people working at home, work in creative fields, digital service, etc.: work that could just as well, or perhaps even better, be performed on a small, out-of-the-way island as in a metropolitan suburb? It is also possible that the way the internet is being used in connection with the sale and purchase of houses, especially by the younger generations, in time will bring down the costs associated with a change of residence.
Other obstacles to mobility on the housing market derive from the rules and agreements of the labour market, because they discriminate, to a greater or lesser extent, against other and more flexible work arrangements than the traditional 40-hour week. In particular, high barriers to mobile home living are a problem when the challenge of the future mainly lies in utilising the existing housing optimally. If this is accomplished, Denmark will neither have housing shortage, run-down villa neighbourhoods, nor marginal areas.
Try to imagine that you and your family were able to change your housing situation more frequently, all according to changes in the family's or the individual's life phases and situation, interests, needs, and dreams. Try to imagine that all the obstacles to a mobile home living that exist today were gone.
In the following we present two prospects for life in the suburbs in the year 2013. The first is, broadly speaking, a straight projection of the past and the present, and we have difficulty imagining that it will not result in the decay of the suburbs. The second is one of the alternatives that may exist for a suburban revival.
The two prospects do not fulfil the demands we usually place on scenarios - i.e. that they must be equally likely. And maybe things won't turn out as we have imagined in these images of the future. Our most important purpose is to show that there are different versions of life in the future suburbs. That alternatives do exist.
Scenarios can be likely and they can be desirable, but they rarely are both at the same time. We leave it to the reader to decide which scenario is the most likely and which is the most desirable. The second part is not the least important, for the future is something that we create in concert, whether we are aware of it or not. And we create it today.
The dream of suburban life from the 1970s died long ago. Not just because of segregation and social problems in the suburban boroughs with many council estates. The idyll is also gone from many villa neighbourhoods. Villa neighbourhoods are out of fashion among the younger generations, and an increasing number of them are mostly inhabited by senior citizens.
Increased pollution and traffic noise plague life in the suburbs. Parents no longer dare let their children walk or ride their bikes to the neighbourhood school; they drive them there. Those suburban communities that were created around the old villages in the sixties and the seventies and were based on grassroots democracy are quietly dissolving because we are living more specialised lives with commuting, shopping at giant malls, free choice of institutions, etc. Events of the past decade have given the suburbs all the disadvantages of the big city without giving them any of the advantages.
Suburban problems showed up early in areas with many council estates, while the dream of life in the suburban detached house in attractive surroundings lasted a while into the new millennium.
When someone chooses to move to a house in the suburbs, it is often because it represents the best chance they have of a functioning family and home life. In more and more cases it is not a choice made to satisfy a dream, but rather to resolve a situation. And many couples find that both their mutual relationship and the relationship with their children suffer from the pressures brought on by economic worries and lack of time. Thus the dream of the detached house in the suburbs has tarnished and many have begun to search for new opportunities and new dreams.
During the first decade of the 21st Century, the dreams about the good family and home life have grown more varied. There are far more opportunities to choose something different and to pick and choose among options. We've got more alternative family and home lifestyles to choose from, including more choices at different stages of life. The most powerful motive is the dream of a life where the 'golden triangle' - the relationship between work, family life and individual time - is balanced. A lot of people have chosen to be masters of their time rather than slaves to it.
The detached houses in the suburbs are not in vogue any more. Today, in the year 2013, the dream society is an actuality, and the dreams are focused on the authentic, the genuine, and the contrasts. This means either dreams about the simple life in the country and by the sea, or the opposite, 'compact living' in the big city.
The young postpone the choice of a family home until it is almost too late and either moves to the beautiful Danish countryside or closer to the big city.
Many suburban neighbourhoods are dominated by world-weary senior citizens, because frequently there are no suitable places for them to move to in the vicinity. Some villa neighbourhoods and suburbs have therefore turned into regular senior citizen towns.
The demographic changes of the last 10-15 years have left a surplus of family housing. We've got 30-40 percent more senior citizens who no longer need a family house, while at the same time the number of families with children that would like a detached house has gone down by 20 percent. Hence, detached houses in less attractive locations or in bad shape have become hard to sell, and the elderly are forced to stay in them until they are carried out. This has led to a negative feedback loop and caused some neighbourhoods to run to seed.
However, new groups that previously could not afford detached houses have begun moving into these neighbourhoods, and not always with the blessing of the old inhabitants who decide to seek new pastures.
On the one hand we have the increasingly 'green' city centres and on the other hand the beautiful, no longer marginal, rural areas. Both extremes attract, but despite this most people still live in the suburbs. The threatening suburban slum became a reality in a number of badly situated housing neighbourhoods, and that provoked a revitalisation. House owners are becoming increasingly worried about property values and are hence forming communities to prevent an unwanted development.
There is a great need for neighbourhood restorations in these areas. So far neighbourhood restoration projects have been reserved for big city buildings and urban ghettos in material and social decay, but lately attention has also turned to the material and social decay that goes on in the many suburban neighbourhoods.
It has been difficult to develop a community spirit in the villa neighbourhoods. To accommodate the demand for both individuality community, in many neighbourhoods fences and privet hedges have been torn down, in part or in whole.
Many garden owners happily turn over half their garden to make a community area. Clusters of five to ten houses have formed mini-communities with well-kept green common areas together with small individual garden plots or porches. The new common area is used for a common purpose. It can be anything from a joint driveway and garage to playgrounds and community vegetable gardens that you take turns looking after. Or jointly owned sheep, horses, and chickens. In some cases they even join forces to buy one of the houses and tear it down or convert it to a community hall with crèche, bar or restaurant, exercise room, and domestic workstations.
In contrast to the anonymous villa neighbourhoods of earlier times, where you couldn't tell if you were in a suburb of Aalborg or Holbaek, villa neighbourhoods have become specialised in a multitude of ways. There's the kitchen garden neighbourhood, the swimming pool neighbourhood, the flower neighbourhood, the senior citizen neighbourhood, the child family neighbourhood, etc. Today the factors that determine what a house is worth is not so much whether it has a large kitchen or a Jacuzzi in the bathroom, but rather its surroundings, the joint facilities, and neighbourhood activities.
In 2013 you not only choose your house, but also your neighbours and the kind of community you want to be part of. Modern communities, for senior citizens and for families with children alike, are first and foremost groups of neighbours, and many single-family homes today have been rebuilt to house two or more dwellings.
This development is not the work of the homeowners alone. Municipalities, service companies, and banks have contributed to develop social and commercial innovations. The municipalities have actively supported this development in order to avert a future full of dying towns populated by senior citizens.
The more self-sufficient families and villa neighbourhoods have also relieved the pressure on children's institutions and schools. In some places it has actually reached the point where the teachers come to the families instead of the children going to school or day care centre. But in any case, developments have promoted a network around the families that has generated a surplus of energy, a more balanced existence, and better adjusted children and grownups. New service centres have appeared in the residential areas; cutting across the trade divisions and separation into private and public functions of earlier days, these centres function as local shops that carry everything the local families need in their daily lives.
Credit associations and building societies have bought a lot of houses from senior citizens with the proviso that the original owners get to stay as tenants for a limited period or for life. In many cases part of the grounds are sold off and added to community area for the close neighbours; this way the senior citizens don't have to worry about the upkeep. The credit association also arranges to clean the windows and the gutters and to keep roofs in good shape. This way the senior citizens need not worry about such things and instead have the strength to be with and help the children and the parents of the neighbourhood.
The housing associations have fewer buildings to administer, thanks to the privatisation of a large part of the tenant housing. Some of them have reinvented themselves and have turned to new and progressive housing projects. They have bought houses in the suburbs for, among others, immigrant families, and a lot of rural houses and shut-down farms for 'their' many retired old age pensioners who have always dreamt of having their 'own' houses. The housing movement has turned away from the workers' neighbourhoods in the cities and is heading a revitalisation of the outlying areas and the empty villages.
Denmark's residential neighbourhoods, both in the city and in the countryside, have turned into 'small villages' full of life, despite the fact that many still don't care to get directly involved with their closest neighbours. The internet is used to co-ordinate activities with the close neighbours and those who live a little further away - mostly within a range that allows people to maintain contact in their daily life.
The many neighbourhood restoration projects try to create modern versions of the traditional village society on the local scale. In many cases the communities are based on a location, a mental image, and/or a common pastime.
The municipalities have long been too big to handle concepts like locally based democracy and fellowship. Every village in the suburbs now has its own mayor who, assisted by local volunteers and contact persons from the borough and the local business community, is responsible for the development and quality of home living in the area.
Yesterday's suburbs have become networks of towns and 'villages', each with something to offer. They are no longer collections of 'housing machines' that people have to run away from to work and in their leisure time if they want to experience anything.