Landscape Design’s Next Challenge: Welcoming Millennials Back to the Suburbs

Photo Credit: BrightView Design Group

Let’s face it. The appeal of urban living is easy to understand.

Here in LA, we have access to some of the world’s best restaurants, museums, shopping, and attractions that people from all over the world flock to see. We are a hub for commerce and culture. No wonder so many millennials are willing to put up with the I-405 to live here – for a while at least.

Recently released U.S. Census Bureau data reveals that tens of thousands of millennials (and Gen Xers) are fleeing major cities in favor of nearby suburbs, citing factors like housing costs and quality schools – two areas LA famously struggles with. The shift is especially stark here. We lost more than 13,000 residents between 2017 and 2018.

But even as newer suburban communities in areas like Arcadia, Valencia and the Inland Empire experience an uptick in growth, local developers, community planners and landscape designers still grapple with the notion that suburbs just aren’t that cool.

A new generation of developers is taking that stereotype head on, rethinking the design to appeal to – and successfully attract – LA millennials to the suburbs.

One of the strategies? Reinventing suburban landscape design.

A Parks-First Approach

Photo Credit: BrightView Design Group

A primary appeal of moving to the suburbs is the idea of getting more for your money – more space – a yard, greenbelt, etc.

This is especially true in LA, a region that consistently comes up short in the green space department. LA ranked a dismal 74th in the 2018 Trust for Public Land Index, which gives the 100 largest cities in the U.S. a “park score” based on park acres, facilities and investment, and resident access to local parks.

This is an opportunity – suburban developers are increasingly directing their focus to providing access to nature. What they are grappling with now is activation – the real key to unlocking the potential of the landscape.

With a thoughtful master plan, new suburbs can offer exciting, walkable landscapes that draw people out of their homes, creating a stronger sense of community and enhancing multi-modal connectivity – two areas in which suburbs have historically been seen as lacking.

When we rethink the role of the landscape architect and add them to the design team from the earliest community planning and design phases, the outcome might surprise you.

The design for every new neighborhood within the Great Park Neighborhoods in Irvine, for example, started with a park, not a home. The trail network and residential streets are built around a collection of parks that connect the entire community. This parks-first approach was such an important focus that nearly half of the development’s total acreage is devoted to parkland.

Landscape as an Amenity

Photo Credit: BrightView Design Group

Parks add value – about 5% property value – to a neighborhood. Beyond enhancing our quality of life, property values are higher for homes located within 500 feet of a park. While that value is undeniable, average parks – with a play structure and basketball court – are unlikely to differentiate a suburb when attracting millennials.

Part of turning the landscape into a profit-driver involves reimagining the design to meet the needs and wants of a new generation. From fostering a stronger, safer community to providing different options for play that recognize not everyone engages with nature the same way, the landscape can provide a community with a number of compelling selling points.

Within Great Parks Neighborhoods, the design team delivered a diverse collection of parks – each with its own theme. The different activities within each provide incentives for residents to explore beyond their own neighborhood, creating a stronger sense of connection within the community.

Creating Resilient, Lasting Landscape

When creating lasting value, the planting plan is just as important as the design.

New suburban landscapes that make use of native plantings provide the advantage of more sustainable, lasting environments that require fewer resources to thrive, and highlight the inherent beauty of the region’s landscape – something that can inspire future stewardship.

Creating open and accessible parks that intentionally use climate-appropriate plants, with each species serving a designed use, results in a cohesive and beautiful landscape. The added sustainability factor is increasingly appealing to all buyers, and particularly to millennials.

Regardless of the where they choose to live, millennials are driving major changes in the way communities are designed, putting greater emphasis on delivering meaningful, unique, socially conscious, and sustainable experiences.

The natural environment provides endless opportunity to foster experiences and connections, making this an ideal time for suburban developers as well as landscape architects, designers and planners to step up and re-imagine the possibilities.

Welcome to the suburbs, millennials.

Please join the conversation by leaving your thoughts below.

About the Author

Megan HornMegan Horn is Managing Principal at BrightView Design Group. She is based in the firm’s Santa Monica Studio.

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