Reburbia and the future of suburbs

Frogs Dream, the winner, brings back the wetlands
Frog's Dream, the winner, brings back the wetlands

Beginning with this post, I’ll be writing on some local and urbanism-related issues at Greater Greater Washington from time to time.

In “Eyes That Do Not See,” Le Corbusier noted that airplane designers were unable to achieve heavier-than air flight until they understood the underlying issues of aeronautics – until they had posed the problem correctly. Until the tinkerers stopped imitating birds and kites and began investigating lift in a scientific way, they just produced spectacular failures and beautiful dreams. So, when looking through the finalists to the Reburbia suburban redesign contest, it was curious to see how, although many projects owe a debt to the Swiss architect, a great deal show confusion about the problems of “suburbia.”

Reburbia was a design competition where designers were invited to remodel, reuse, redevelop, and restructure the landscape of suburban development. Sponsored by Inhabitat and Dwell, the contest presented 20 finalists and a number of other notable entries for public viewing. Although they’ve already announced winners, the issues that appear in the submissions deserve more discussion. These open competitions are like fashion shows, where the offerings exist as inspiration for other designers more than practical solutions. Some of the ideas tossed around here might make their way into an abandoned mall, but the ideas that grow out of Reburbia are more important. As architects, planners, and citizens look for solution, we have to keep in mind what the problems are to judge any given solution.

Edible Parking? Bumper Crop
Edible Parking? "Bumper Crop"

Declaring that the suburbs need to be re-burbed begs the question of how much, and which kinds, of suburban development are unsustainable, undesirable, or inefficient.  Following that line of thought, designers need to consider whether mitigation of costs can solve an issue, whether simply pulling out unfair subsidies would help, or whether a total revamp has to occur. The projects in Reburbia revolved around a handful of issues that are unique to automobile-dependent sprawl, as well as others that all cities face. The entrants posed their problems around land use, energy waste, sustainable energy production, loss of natural habitats, low density, unappealing or unwalkable street design, transportation inefficiency, water runoff, and the legal mandates for development.

Now, almost every project tries to mitigate energy use, reducing the physical presence of artificial structures, peppering in some windmills, employing natural ventilation, solar power, gardens, and mentioning low-energy transit. The majority of designers are on the same page when it comes to sustainable energy, small footprints, and greenery. Other areas lack a consensus on the solution, but there is room for diversity in the wide spread of issues.

The best entries recognize that flexibility will be crucial to retrofitting. The solutions work in multiple contexts. In particular, “Entrepreneurbia” simply does away with most zoning laws, which mandate low-density monocultures. The scheme would let communities and economies develop in a natural way before even considering expensive redevelopment. Careful deregulation would drastically improve the lives of residents, especially the poor, by letting individuals respond community needs with little startup funding. Often living in older suburban areas without cars, low-income suburbanites are stuck walking long distances to shops and transit, suffering from cities built for cars.

Urban Sprawl Repair Kit, Designed by Galina Tahchieva
Urban Sprawl Repair Kit, Designed by Galina Tahchieva

For adding new density to old areas, another strong project develops the sensible and practical idea of marginal infill buildings as a “Urban Sprawl Repair Kit.” These would replace front-oriented parking lots with street retail and new mixed uses. Although the general idea is nothing new, the project forms the beginning of a pattern book for retrofitting various typologies of suburban buildings, a big step toward common practice. Surgical infill development and reuse will play a significant part of any schemes to remake the suburbs. At the same time, infill development would not make sense if simply demolishing and building anew is more profitable. Looking forward, the scheme’s renderings for residential construction are the most promising, where single family homes, which are longer-term investments, simply become more street-oriented and attractive.

A number of entries approach issues surrounding the high-energy agriculture that is crucial to modern society. One, a winner, converts big box stores into greenhouse farm-stores, where shoppers get much closer to the source of food, reducing energy expenditures for getting fresh vegetables, even in the winter. A similar urban agriculture scheme employs aeroponic gardens above parking lots, taking advantage of all the otherwise wasted sun and rain. The details of both of these projects may not be truly practical, but applications might find practical use in marginal land, as seen in “Regenerative Suburban Median,” which combines a road diet with a community garden, great for fixing those wide suburban streets. On a related note, this project, which parodies suburbs by comparing them to feedlots is hilarious.

Taking a purely environmental angle, several entries removed the human impact on land, erasing the houses and the driveways to put the prior pastoral use back in. For certain exurbs, this approach (such as in “ParkUrbia”) may prove appropriate, but the concept of simply adding more land is just a reiteration of any number of extreme decentralizations that encouraged sprawl, but were never as beautiful as the drawings showed. “ParkUrbia,” for example, looks a lot like Le Corbusier’s 1924 vision of almost-rural villas, a misleading example that helped to valorize suburban development. Others simply let nature take over the abandoned and foreclosed subdivisions. “Frog’s Dream,” the Grand Prize winner avenges lost wetlands in just such a way.

T-Tree was popular, but played out.
T-Tree was popular, but played out.

However, most of the solutions that brought back parkland, when they weren’t just criticisms of suburbia, fell into old tropes in their attempt to limit the impact. The second most popular submission, “T-Tree,” is a variant of Moshe Safdie’s Expo ’67 or Metabolist modular housing, only more elaborate both of which never caught on, due to their inflexibility and great cost. Other designs like “Radial Erect-Urbia,” “1909 Theory Redux,” and “‘Burbs Redux,” all simply concentrate the buildings vertically in megastructures reminiscent of Archigram’s Walking and Plug-in Cities, concepts that pose the problem of land use and consumption in ironic terms.

But even in their silliness, these concept sketches serve as reminders that homeownership, privacy, and green space strongly appeal to many people. As the blog mammoth noted in their commentary on the competition, simply dismissing these desires out of hand, demolishing neighborhoods, and expecting families to move into the T-Tree’s tiny apartments is counterproductive and vindictive.  As Jane Jacobs noted in Death and Life, the planners who tore up the West Village disdained the traditional crooked cityscape, but never considered whether the actual inhabitants liked it. If people wish to live in the suburbs, it’s not our right to coerce them. If urbanists hope to move any substantial population of the suburbs, they will have to making cities appealing to suburbanites. Those key desires for privacy, ownership, and greenery need to be part of any solution that increases density along with walkability.

Cutest. Entry. Ever.
Cutest. Entry. Ever.

The approach will require some suburbs to get denser, others to get freer, and others to shrink. Some may even need to just burn. However, total upheaval of the suburbs will come only at the nozzle of a gas pump. Any solution that claims to have all the answers, or proposes a total reconstruction of society misunderstands the fundamental problems and the degree to which a planner can fix them. Reburban towns and cities need to be not only more sustainable than suburbs, but also greener than cities are now.

Other interesting entries: Bon Voyage brings the convenience of the strip mall to you; Brick Habitats is a real-life solution for greening up walls; Links Farm replaces golf courses with farmland; and the C3 Initiative tries to make subdivisions self-sustaining.

8 Comments

  • Chris M
    August 29, 2009 - 6:21 am | Permalink

    Much like the growth and success of LEED may be attributed to market driven demand, resulting in the advent of greener buildings, the market will decide how future development plays out – $12/gallon gasoline will have more impact than any lofty concept or pretty drawing. The value of compact and low impact development will need to outweigh the value of the suburbs before any significant shift happens.

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  • August 30, 2009 - 10:20 am | Permalink

    Chris, you may be overstating the need for price changes to move of the market.

    The Federal Government hasbeen one of the biggest boosters of LEED certification. Not so much through regulations (EnergyStar is in that department) but by requiring or supporting it in its own construction projects. The market’s catching on, and people are realizing that spending a bit more on construction saves vast amounts of money over the lifetime of a building.

    Secondly, since so much energy consumption is excess of need, a better analogy for a market shift might be organic food. Demand for that isn’t driven so much by price, but rather by other factors about taste, ethics, and personal concern. These competitions, which cost nothing to the viewer may jump start some mitigation of their lifestyle, even making major changes. We don’t want to wait until gas costs $12, or even $8; it will be too painful, and politicians are starting to understand that.

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  • Chris M
    September 1, 2009 - 8:42 am | Permalink

    Neil –

    I agree that competitions such as this are important for generating ideas for future directions. Your comment about organic food illustrates my point exactly. The organic food industry has grown because of market demand for a better tasting, healthier, environmentally friendly option. Consumers are willing to pay a premium because they see it as better than standard food in that it provides a personal benefit.

    That same principle applies to urban/compact development. The suburbs offer better (real or perceived) value (bigger house/yard, quiet streets, less crime, better schools) than cities.

    There are not too many developers out there with a ‘build it and they will come’ philosophy. They will build what the consumer is demanding. Hence, with $12 or $8 or maybe even $5 a gallon gas, we will start to see less demand for far out developments because consumers will be less willing to travel that far, and increased demand for closer more compact development. It will be more compact, for the most part, because demand, and prices, will be higher.

  • Chris M
    September 9, 2009 - 9:48 am | Permalink
  • September 9, 2009 - 12:53 pm | Permalink

    As mentioned in the original article, I agree, energy will be the #1 cause of change. But that doesn’t mean we should sit on our asses and be fatalistic.

    Professionals need ideas (as we always do) and the public needs to start thinking about the effects and future of their lifestyle, or whether their lifestyle is necessary to meet their needs and desires. Getting 5% back into old towns or new development over 10 years would drastically reduce the economic consequences of $10 gas. I don’t see the problem in trying.

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