In Levittown, The Ur-Suburb, A Proposal To Remake Sprawl Into A Small-Biz Oasis [Slideshow]

Diller Scofidio + Renfro, with Dutch design label Droog, comes up with a plan that would allow suburban tract homes to be repurposed as vibrant centers of town life.


When Droog, Diller + Scofidio, and a slew of designers and artists set out to re-imagine the American suburb — specifically Levittown, the most pre-fab of them all — the results were as surreal as you might expect: a “domesticity museum” charged with preserving a dying way of life; a backyard farm with a take-out window, even an “Attention Clinic” catering to all your narcissistic needs.


Imagine the American suburb as a hive of bottom-up entrepreneurial activity.

There were just a few of the homes on display as part of “Open House 2011,” a collaboration between Droog Lab — an offshoot of the Dutch design collective — and the architects of Diller Scofidio + Renfro aimed at reimagining the American suburb as a hive of bottom-up entrepreneurial activity, no new buildings or infrastructure required. By running businesses out of their homes, suburbanites could simulate New York City’s thriving informal service sector of dog walkers, take-out deliverymen, dry cleaners, nail salons, and livery cabs which provide New Yorkers with mobility-on-demand or laundry-on-demand, rather than requiring they own cars and washing machine — the classic suburban model.

“What we think, from looking at New York City, is that this model might be outmoded,” said Diller Scofidio + Renfro partner Charles Renfro at a Saturday morning symposium on the project in Tribeca. ‘Why not allow people to be in charge of their own futures’ As a first step, we thought these residents could be motivated to find their inner service providers,? which led the team to Levittown. “Anybody can be a service provider, and anybody can opt into a service,” at least in New York.

“If you revive suburbs in this way, with a bottom-up approach, you do not need big investments,” explained Droog director Renny Ramkers. “You don’t need to add buildings, you just let the people do it themselves. So it doesn’t cost money, but on the contrary, generates earnings.”

“If you revive suburbs in this way you do not need big investments.”

On Saturday, this thinking produced PS 72, “the Porch Side School,” a for-profit charter of sorts mounted in the driveway of 72 Knoll Lane. As a dozen or so architectural tourists took their seats on wooden bleachers constructed by the architecture firm Austin + Mergold, principal Phyllis Dalton (a real one) led her impromptu class through a pair of lectures on the quintessentially American middle-class topics of Hummel-collecting and photobooking. Afterwards, a tip jar was passed around (proceeds were donated to charity), students drank ice tea and received graduation certificates.

Later that afternoon at the Attention Clinic, a Christina Hendricks look-alike dressed in Mad Men-appropriate attire spilled the secrets of being a dating coach across the kitchen table in exchange for a billed-by-the-minute $100 per hour. Yet another home offered “vacation practice,” inviting guests to rehearse potential vacations in Paris or Rome against backdrops mounted in the living room and back yard, all for a nominal fee (again, donated to charity).


The open houses on display were mere prototypes of what Diller Scofidio + Renfro and its partners had in mind: drive-through restaurants; community pools; true home theaters; front-yard farms, and even a discreet “love hotel” pitched at amorous teenagers.

The proposals might be whimsical, but the project represents the intersection of multiple trends: urban agriculture; collaborative consumption (the subject of a feature in the May issue of Fast Company); maker culture, and walkable urbanism, to name just a few. The future of suburbia is a hot topic in urbanism circles once again following the release of the complete 2010 Census figures and an analysis published a few weeks ago by demographers Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox arguing that Americans? preference for suburban regions over urban cores is overwhelming. This inspired Brookings? Christopher Leinberger to resume last summer’s debate with Kotkin, arguing in his own post that “city vs. suburbs is the wrong debate,” and that the real choice is between walkable places versus auto-dependent ones. Richard Florida sounded a similar note in his analysis of 2011 Community Preference Survey by the National Association of Realtors, which found that Americans want shorter commutes, more services closes at hand on foot, and detached, single-family homes:

“We’ve come to a crossroads that neither dyed-in-the-wool sprawl advocates nor crunchy urbanists dreamed of two decades ago, in which the choice isn’t between urban and suburban but between neighborhood and subdivision. A great neighborhood is a great neighborhood whether it’s in the city or the suburbs. It’s not an either/or, between crowded apartments or Cape Cods on cul de sacs, it’s more of a blend.”

The buttons distributed to Saturday’s participants reading “Welcome to a Future Suburbia” might not be far off.

It’s fair to ask whether cul-de-sacs will become “the next slum.”

But the exercise hinted at a darker future for suburbia as well. Despite Renfro’s assertion that urban services, “pretty much without exception, cost $100 per hour,” it is highly unlikely that suburban service providers could charge similar rates, especially if we take the project’s premise at face value that the entrepreneurs offering these services are eager amateurs. A brief portion of Saturday’s symposium was devoted to questions of zoning, re-zoning and the tax and regulatory implications of collaborative consumption and home businesses, with the consensus being that something more flexible is needed to build an informal sector.

But large informal economies are already a common feature in another type of urban area: slums. In Mumbai, Saó Paulo, and Lagos, millions of squatters and slum residents run small businesses out of their homes because they lack access to formal employment. And while a host of development economists and others have praised the ability of slums to raise the rural poor onto the first run of development (Stewart Brand has made this point repeatedly), it’s safe to say this is not what Levittown residents have in mind.


And yet, considering the demographic shifts facing aging, inner-ring suburbs — which are becoming poorer and more diverse — it’s fair to ask whether cul-de-sacs will become “the next slum,” as Leinberger memorably predicted in The Atlantic a few years ago. In that case, the same immigrants who perform the bulk of low-paying urban services now — the dry cleaners, the nail salons, the neighborhood restaurants — will perform the same tasks in their new neighborhoods, as suburbia begins to resemble the inner cities of old. In that case, welcome to a dystopian future suburbia.

About the author

He is the author, with John D. Kasarda, of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next, which examines how and where we choose to live in an interconnected world