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Creating a Sustainable Suburb (Using More Than Just Bulldozers)

The results of the Build a Better Burb design competition were announced yesterday.

Long Island, that interminable tract of suburban sprawl outside Manhattan, has fallen on hard times. Stripped of jobs and young people–and, perhaps soon, its natural resources–Long Island offers a sliver of the American Dream it promised decades ago. One group of architects has a radical (and elegantly simple) vision for resurrecting the place: Make it less of a suburb, selectively letting some areas hollow out, while building up density elsewhere.

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The proposal, by Park Office and the Network Architecture Lab at Columbia University, is one of seven winners in the 2010 Build a Better Burb competition, announced yesterday. The contest asked architects and designers to re-imagine Long Island as an economically and environmentally viable 21st century hub. Other winners suggest supplanting office parks with organic farms; sequestering carbon; and creating regional business centers by pooling neighborhood resources. The full list of entries is available here.

The Park Office/ Network Architecture Lab team — which includes William Prince of Park Office Architects, Kazys Varnelis, Leigha Dennis, Kyle Hovenkotter, Momo Araki, Alexis Burson — took a divide-and-conquer approach. Their idea is to halt growth in the north and east portions of Long Island to allow the region’s dwindling water resources to recharge. Those areas would transform into small communities for the elderly and vacation spots surrounded by farms and nature preserves.

In the southwest, where geographic features and an existing network of public transit place less of a strain on the island’s natural resources, suburban centers like Babylon, Hempstead, Islip, and Levittown would develop into flourishing, mixed-income cities. There’d be housing, offices, and parks. Vacant car dealerships would be re-purposed as rapid-prototyping factories and equipment distributors. As people flock to these urban areas, the surrounding sprawl would gradually die off.

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Here are some details of various building types, and what they’d be used for:

[Click for detailed image]

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It’s a utopian vision (not unlike William Levitt‘s grand scheme for mass-produced housing more than 50 years ago). How likely is it that Long Island will adopt such as proposal? Not very. The competition was more about generating creative ideas than pinning down a development plan. Still, it shows a glimmer of hope for Long Island and suburbs everywhere. Instead of perishing, ill-fated relics of the 20th century, they can be rejiggered with some clever thinking to survive in a carbon-conscious era.

For more on the competition, visit www.buildabetterburb.org.

[Images courtesy of Park Office and Network Architecture Lab]

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About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D

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