Tactics for Co-Opting Suburbia

There is much talk about how to fix suburban sprawl, and even a vocal minority who say that sprawl ain’t broke so there’s no need to fix it (I’ll just say I disagree with them and leave it at that for now). A couple years ago I submitted an entry with a couple colleagues to the ReBurbia competition to rethink and retool suburbia. The grand prize winner of the competition put a very interesting and “poetic” spin on the concept but I wanted to mention and elaborate on some of the more practical ideas submitted. Particularly the second place winner and the people’s choice award winner. These two offer a mighty one-two punch when it comes to actually doing the hard work of transforming poorly planned, built and designed suburbs into growth nodes for future population influxes. I would also like to throw in some of the concepts that have recently been brought to my attention via the Tactical Urbanism Vol. 1, which I hope to help expand upon in the future.

The first runner-up, (entitled Entrepreneurbia: rezoning suburbai for self-sustaining life, and designed by Urban Nature, F&S Design Studio & Silverlion Design) proposed an idea that deals less with actual design as it does ideas of land use and zoning, as Jill Fehrenbacher, founder of Inhabitat, put it, “The idea was one of the few entries in the Reburbia competition that wasn’t really a design proposal at all, but instead a policy proposal — and it was clearly the most practical, cost-effective and energy-efficient proposal submitted to us, and therefore the one which has the biggest potential to effect real change.” The images submitted to demonstrate the ideas include what looks like typical suburban neighborhood homes except they where literally re-branded with commercial signage. The idea being that some of the overstock of housing be converted to commercial uses. I really want to like this idea but it doesn’t address the overarching density issues involved with the suburbs much less the density needs of supporting business like those proposed.

The popular vote winner of the Re:Burbia competition (entitled Urban Sprawl Repair Kit: Repairing The Urban Fabric by Galina Tahchieva) proposed a New Urbanist scheme that involves Retrofitting Suburbia (which is an idea that Ellen Dunham-Jones has written a book about and presented in long and short form in various places). I applaud the idea and can see why it was so popular. The images submitted depict a few scenarios in which typical suburban typologies such as drive-thru restaurant, gas station and a single family detached home with big setbacks are transformed from egregiously designed landscapes against the pedestrian and density to nuanced new places that think beyond designing solely for the automobile.

Both of these ideas apart would probably result in a half backed scheme but combined, I think the ideas of policy change for the suburbs as well as land development code revision could really have substantial impacts. One potential issue with these ideas, even when combined, could be the simple implementation. This is where I would like to offer some tactics pulled directly from the Tactical Urbanism toolkit. Development is expensive and it is hard to justify investment in dead or dying suburbs. One of the most interesting points of the several tactics proposed in this handbook (which including food trucks/carts, play/open streets, pop-up cafes/shops, and chair bombing among others) is that they are usually the very inexpensive and often ephemeral. These offer some valuable tools for drawing interest to an area on a temporary and possibly recurring basis. As spaces are energized and more people get involved and invested in them they begin to take on a life of their own. What may start as a weekend or weekday evening community event in a specially designated space can quickly transform that space into a well loved area where more regular yet maybe not as spectacular happenings begin to take place all the time. As momentum builds places that where once outfitted with mobile vendors and temporary cafes could actually support transformation via retrofitting suburbia style infill and accordingly, the surrounding areas may be able to support variant zoning like that proposed in the Entrepreneurbia proposal.

Of course this alone will probably not fix the myriad of issues wrapped up in suburban sprawl but I think it is interesting that there are so many ideas out there and would be wary of relying on a single silver bullet. Looking at the different ways that new ideas can work off of one another and create new scenarios could be an interesting exercise in future city building.


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