This has popped up in a few places already, but Dwell and Inhabitat have been sponsoring this series called “Reburbia” that’s targeted at coming up with ideas to “fix” America’s broken suburban landscapes.
It’s pretty neat, because the finalists are full of really kooky sanctimonious ideas like “suburban people need AIRSHIPS to commute into the culture-rich city centre without creating a huge carbon footprint.” Seriously. With no shred of irony, these supposed ‘thought leaders’ think some sort of futuristic idea from “The Navigator” twenty-some years ago is actually going to solve the problem of suburban sprawl?
Concepts like these come off as preachy to the people who have consciously chosen a suburban lifestyle–they don’t need to be exposed to the wonders of farm-share in the husk of an abandoned Wal-Mart, they want a nice house and a patch of lawn and a place to raise a family and perhaps a convenient commute. So if we want to create a sustainable future for suburbia, what are we really offering *these* people with a plan like the ones outlined in the Reburbia competition? Nothing, actually.
We’ve espoused our love for Victor Gruen, the grandfather of the shopping mall, plenty of times on Labelscar. The reason why isn’t just because he birthed the development style we hold dear, but also because of Gruen’s original concept behind the mall.
Gruen was an Austrian who immigrated to the United States during the Nazi regime. Several years after his arrival, Gruen (then a successful architect and store designer) was horrified by the sprawl of post-1920s vintage “strips” in America’s burgeoning suburbs, and wanted to transplant the feel of a European town square to America’s rather placeless suburbs. He fancied himself more of an urban planner than a mall builder, and even his malls–which included impractically large courts and civic spaces like fountains and conversation pits–were designed more as places for socializing than commerce.
I realize that the American suburb is fading into its winter, that “one person, one automobile” will likely become impractically expensive soon and that trends are favoring urban living for more educated and affluent young people (exhibit A: I’m a suburb lover who lives in San Francisco). I do not, however, think that the solution for these spaces is to make them mirror the (increasingly faux-) bohemian utopia of the inner city affluent elite. Again, people did not move to the suburbs for backyard water treatment plants (in swimming pools!) or farm share from the shells of dead big box stores. They moved there for a certain quality of life and a certain style of living, and they’re likely going to keep doing it until it becomes impractically expensive to do so.
The death of malls and some ill-fated big box centers presents an almost unprecedented opportunity to have large parcels of land, ripe for redevelopment in mature, established areas. So what *do* these suburbanites want in these places? Here’s a few ideas:
- Take a page from cities and malls. Build a sense of “place” in these communities, whether its indoor or outdoor. Personally I’d like to see more mall-type structures include civic space (parks or park-like spaces, fountains, libraries, galleries, museums, event space) as well as different types of commercial activity (bars, entertainment, dining, food stores/supermarkets, farmer’s markets). Encourage (potentially via tax credits) a blend of local and national chain retail. Also, make sure big block development is surrounded by smaller parcels that can be more free form and develop organically to create a true neighborhood, not an overly planned mega-development. Whoever manages the development should try and leverage social media to pull in the community and create a sense of identification with the center.
- As part of the above, try and zone less for stand-alone big box, which is a terrible idea developmentally and economically. If the demographics are appropriate, most big box retailers will happily settle in a denser, more mixed development.
- Create effective, convenient, affordable, and comfortable mass transit. Transit oriented development around denser nodes isn’t a new idea, but it could be a great way to work in tandem with the above concept for a civic “center” (or mall) and give each suburb a unique identity, encouraging people to visit the communities around them.
- Eschew NIMBY-friendly planning ordinances disguised as preservation or environmentalism. Suburbs of major cities should not have minimum buidable lot sizes of an acre or more, for example. Instead, zone for dense nodes and preserve legitimate open space for the enjoyment of all.
- When focusing on infill for older (pre-1980s) suburbs, zone more densely and focus on trying to enhance existing walkability. Many of the suburbs of this area were built on grids rather than loops and lollipops, meaning that revitalized neighborhoods along arteries and mass transit corridors are more feasible.
- Build a mixture of housing styles targeted at different income and age levels. Again, not a new concept, but it’s shocking how frequently its implemented. Most new housing built in the United States is targeted at high earners, whether its urban condos or suburban McMansions. Create a way for people of all ages and incomes stay in their communities if they choose to do so, and use the civic space mentioned in the first bullet as a means of providing things to satisfy each group (i.e., bars and entertainment for people from their teens to thirties, family-friendly entertainment for people with kids, and dining and socializing options ideal for seniors. Don’t block anyone out).