The 20 finalists in a competition to reimagine the suburbs have been announced, and the ideas scan a wide range: From pie-in-the-sky to why-isn't-this-happening now.
The REBURBIA competition, sponsored by Inhabitat and Dwell, had a phenomenally quick turn around: After an initial announcement on July 8, entries were due by July 31 and the first round of judging took place last week. And yet despite that break-neck speed, many of the ideas are big and meaty. The more far-out include a plan for zeppelins that would ferry suburban commuters in the city center, to a wacky idea for turning suburbs into low-rise blocks, by stacking scores of modular boxes atop each other. You can even vote for your favorite--and the futuristic stuff seems to be particularly popular.
But frankly, that stuff leaves us cold, because suburban sprawl is actually a problem that needs to be solved now, with solutions that jive with the sensibilities of suburbanites. The motivations animating the contest couldn't get any more pressing: First, we're not getting rid of suburbs anytime soon, and that poses its own problem, as housing stock goes vacant. And second, we might talk about our energy woes and transport efficiency 'til we're blue in the face, but as numerous urban planners can attest, it's how we use land to live and work that's the underlying problem. You can build all the hybrid cars you want--but if our suburbs keep sprawling, the miles we drive grows in response.
Which is why two entries in the REBURBIA competition deserve special attention. They're not flashy, but they're feasible solutions to the problems ahead.
First up, Galina Tahchieva's proposal for a simple "sprawl repair toolkit" that would retrofit the basic building typologies that you find in suburbia. Tahchieva's idea is that rather than scrapping the suburbs, we might rework them, using modest interventions to create an urban fabric based around the ideas of walkability and density. It would basically work by grafting new buildings onto existing ones, thus making a virtue out the massive setbacks and parking lots and mark typical suburban strip-mall development--eventually creating new neighborhoods on a "New Urbanist" model. Tahchieva even has ideas for transforming gas stations into corner stores and suburban homes into multi-family developments with a courtyard.
Even more light-handed is the proposal by Urban Nature, F&S Design Studio, and Silverlion Design. They don't propose building anything new at all--rather, they suggest that we abolish current zoning laws, to allow entrepreneurs to turn neighborhood houses into small businesses. As they point out, sprawl isn't so much inevitable as it is planned--suburban zoning laws don't permit businesses and residences to mingle very closely. But if we eased those restrictions, we might be able to fill in certain homes inside suburban developments, with the help of small-business entrepreneurs. The team proposes everything from credit-repair consultants to florists, dessert lounges, and restaurants.
Could any of these work? They might seem like massive organization challenges--but then again, the very lack of bureaucratic oversight which created the suburbs could become a boon to getting things done, because all it takes to pull off plans like the two you see above are proactive community boards and developers wiling to experiment.
Check out the rest of the REBURBIA proposals here.