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.”