Re-inventing Suburbs

I’ve asked Eric Hunting, our ‘p2p architecture’ analyst, to look into the Re-Burbia competition, which aims to make suburbs sustainable.

Here’s his report:

“In the Summer of 2009 the green design blog Inhabitat held an open design competition on the intriguing theme of recycling suburbia. Apparently striking a chord, the competition saw some 400 entires which where culled to 20 finalists and finally four winning entries; 1st-3rd place and a People’s Choice award based on reader votes.

With the recent real estate market collapse paired to wild fluctuations in energy prices, public awareness has emerged of the unsustainability of the conventional American suburb and the systems cultivated to create and support it. Suburbia is now coming to be perceived as a problem; a fundamentally dysfunctional habitat concept in the 21st century context whose negative social, cultural, economic, and environmental impacts are no longer tolerable. Many have predicted that the radical shifts in the cost of energy coupled to the issue of national carbon emissions management and the outright failure of the conventional home financing system would result in a mass re-consolidation of population resulting in the wholesale abandonment of suburbs. Others have suggested that in order for suburban communities to survive they must reinvent themselves around new, more rational, more urban habitat models. In this competition Inhabitat sought to explore the possibilities of that reinvention.

The 20 finalists in this competition present a vast spectrum of ideas about the adaptation of the suburban habitat. Many entires focused on the adaptive reuse of very specific specific suburban structures; the American McMansion and the Big Box store in particular. A few entires were concerned with transportation and the potential obsolescence or reduced dependence on the automobile. But the more significant -and plausible- of the entries were those that focused on the adaptation of communities as a whole in a new urban context and the recovery of underutilized suburban space. The People’s Choice award winner, entitled The Urban Sprawl Repair Kit, was clearly one of the best of these, offering an interesting set of example adaptations of a series of suburban commercial buildings and housing into new urban mixed-use community space. This entry offered one of the best and most plausible visual impressions of the reinvented suburban habitat. Another promising entry in this same theme was the Entrepreneurbia concept, premised on the notion of freedom of zoning restrictions to allow mixed light commercial and agricultural development through resident entrepreneurship within the traditional housing development, creating a decentralization and traditionally urban localization of functional elements of the community that nonsensical conventional suburban zoning has long precluded. One particularly novel concept called Inter-Estates explored the recovery of the space of highway embankments for urban farming and new community development. This was a kind of reinvention of the notion of the Linear City, though the problems of road-side pollution and the use of radical new pylon-supported housing made this a more speculative concept.

A great many entries seems particularly focused on the repurposing of the Big Box store for the sake of recovering its massive space -rooftop and parking area in particular- for urban agriculture. Many novel and plausible approaches to this were shown. This author has long been intrigued with the idea of the conversion of industrial structures, shopping malls, and Big Box stores into co-housing community structures and one of the entires here -entitled LivaBlox- explored the idea of such structures as host to a new modular housing system -though it’s not clear how much of the original structure would actually be retained in this design.

Ironically, one of the least plausible of the concepts presented was awarded the first prize in this competition by Inhabitat’s judging staff. Dubbed Frog’s Dream, this was a concept for the conversion of abandoned developments of McMansions into Living Machine artificial marshes for mass water recycling, with roads converted into water channels and houses gutted and stripped of roofs to become semi-enclosed marsh garden plots. The obvious fact that stick frame structures could never be utilized like this without quickly rotting into a toxic heap seemed lost on the judges who apparently were more intrigued by the ironic analogy of the suburbs to a great swamp. Clearly, Inhabitat’s readers took this competition much more seriously than their own staff.”

2 Comments Re-inventing Suburbs

  1. AvatarJeff Vail

    Thanks for the report! While I think that how we address suburbia will be critical (and probably a great barometer of progress) in how we address issues of climate, energy, food, etc., I worry that most efforts today treat the symptom (suburbia) rather than what I’d argue is the root cause of it and many other symptoms (namely hierarchy, and its will to growth).

    I’ve approached from the perspective of whether it has the potential to transform into something “resilient” in light of energy descent in a four part series “Resilient Suburbia?” here:

  2. AvatarEric Hunting

    I think your series of articles offers a truly brilliant analysis of the logistics of the suburban situation and its potential for evolution when confronted by the economic and environmental compulsion to change. And you make a key point about the comparative logistics of the city. While on the face of it cities may be more resource efficient, they are clearly subject to more stratification in their systems (physical, social, economic) that makes their evolution in response to a changing world situation more difficult and more capital-intensive. Clearly, suburbia has more potential ease of change, if exercised. One could say there is an inertial force created by economic and systemic densification in the urban environment that resists its evolution out of chronic dysfunction and tends to require massive socio-political mobilization to overcome.

    This is a problem I’ve been discussing elsewhere on the question of why it’s so difficult, if not virtually impossible in some cases, to build progressive and sustainable architecture in the city -why sustainable and alternative architecture is so often pushed to the edge of wilderness of necessity. The architectural follies of Dubai -so much a parallel to the American skyscraper craze of the early 20th century- are reflective of a cultural situation where the top of the upper-class controlling so much of the urban property, economics, and politics actually live in that urban environment, see the urban society as an audience, and thus use urban architecture for their own self-expression, whereas in the western world the top wealthy -increasingly culturally divergent and insulated from the mainstream society- have come to live in increasing personal isolation on the edge of wilderness and see the city as merely an economic tool to be exploited for profit with the most cost-efficiency using the most banal risk-less architecture possible. And so in Dubai we see model high-tech eco-citiy projects and in America we get generic urban architecture and multi-million-dollar straw-bale mansions in the wilderness.

    There is similar inertia in the suburban environment created by the social dysfunction of that habitat -the inability of suburbanites to function as coherent communities and resulting social resistance to architectural experimentation driven by fear over property value impact. This is why progressive and sustainable architecture is just as rare in suburbia as it is in major cities -if not more so. We do have this common problem of suburban housing associations resisting such simple things as people putting up clothes lines to dry clothes, not to mention solar panels, wind turbines, and victory gardens.

    Still, I fully agree with your observations. As dysfunctional as suburbia is, we may be beyond the point of feasible wholesale obsolescence of it without hardship and so the more likely change may be an incremental evolution of it relying on the leverage of production localization. The hard part may be necessary cultural evolution.

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