ReBurbia: Designers Take on Greening the American Suburb
In the past few years, we’ve seen some interesting shifts take place between urban and suburban dwellers. Gas prices have risen and the life of the commuter has gotten to be too expensive for many; massive foreclosures have prompted countless former homeowners to downsize to urban apartments; and a move toward a greener lifestyle has driven a growing segment to move to the inner cities where owning a car isn’t a necessity. So for the first time since their inception, we’re seeing the suburbs becoming the less desirable place to live. But the homes, supermarkets and big box stores are all still out there, languishing in the urban sprawl. What can we do about it? Short of demolishing entire neighborhoods and wasting the space, we can haul out the repair kit and start fixing the suburbs.
Reburbia was an inspiring design competition run by Dwell Magazine and Inhabitat. It called for planners, urban designers, architects and engineers to come up with a way to re-use suburban space in a positive way. All of those wasted areas with nothing in them (many part of the original suburban design), all of those big box stores with their massive parking lots, and all of those McMansions with their ridiculous array of way-too-many bathrooms and wasted yard space would be repurposed into something useful and beautiful – something that would serve future generations of Earthlings. These are the four winners of the Reburbia competition.
First prize went to designer Calvin Chiu for his project Frog’s Dream. He envisioned turning abandoned suburban neighborhoods into wetlands and natural water processing centers for nearby urban centers. A natural population of plants, algae and bacteria would purify the water that would then be transported to the closest city. While it may not be the most immediately do-able idea, it does demonstrate just one of the many ways that we can start transforming deserted suburbia into part of a new and improved urban support system.
Entrepreneurbia, the entry from Urban Nature, F&S Design Studio, Silverlion Design, took second place in the competition. It’s less a model than it is a simple, common-sense suggestion: change rigid suburban zoning laws to allow for more constructive use of the space. The entry suggests that when living, eating, shopping and working spaces are no longer segregated, these formerly suburban areas become self-sustaining communities. Residents wouldn’t need cars because everything is within walking distance, but public transportation would exist to carry them into urban centers when needed. Forward-thinking business owners would be drawn to these promising new areas. Overall, suburbs that used to be sterile and boring would become vibrant, independent cultural centers.
Forrest Fulton took third place with his proposal, Big Box Agriculture: A Productive Suburb. The idea is a somewhat radical one: take supermarkets away from being resellers of food to being producers of food. According to the designer, as suburban businesses close their doors for good there will be a growing number of empty buildings, lots and parking areas going unused. Fulton suggests that we reuse those areas to grow sustainable crops: container farms can be built right on top of the asphalt, the interior of the stores can double as restaurants and greenhouses, and customers can pick their own produce. Customers would even have the option to bring their harvest right into the store to an on-site chef and enjoy one of the freshest meals they’ve ever had. Putting the food production in suburbia reuses the land wisely, drastically cuts down on food transportation costs, and as a result of both lowers the cost of food.
The Urban Sprawl Repair Kit from Galina Tahchieva took the special People’s Choice Award, and for good reason. Her thoughtful, practical suggestions are by no means out of reach for today or the future. She suggests making use of the typically wasted wide open spaces that define suburbia, putting homes and office buildings into the vast unused street setbacks and parking areas. She also suggests building onto existing buildings to make the formerly monofunctional space into a multifunctional one, cutting down on the long drives to get anywhere that mar suburban life currently. Even the foreclosed McMansions can be revamped into senior centers and community centers without demolishing any existing buildings or erecting any new ones.
The other entries, though they didn’t take a prize, were all thought-provoking and brilliantly conceived. While they may not all be suitable for immediate (or even eventual) implementation, they do deserve a real, honest look. Projects like the above from Ha Young Ihn and The Miller | Hull Partnership encourage us to think about all of the ways existing buildings and infrastructures can be re-used in a positive way. By turning dead shopping malls and empty big box stores into green markets, community centers, and even suburban farms, we can revitalize faltering areas without making the economic and environmental impact that comes with new construction.
Some of the entries focused less on living and working spaces, and more on energy generation. Proposals from Alan Berger & Case Brown and Joseph De Le Ree showed us that we can exploit existing structures and highways to generate cleaner energy for everyone. By reusing abandoned big box stores as biofuel generators or putting massive wind turbines over heavily-used freeways, we would be giving something back to the environment and to the citizens of the area.
The entries that dealt with housing were perhaps the most inspiring: both where to house people in suburban-turned-urban environments, and what to do with the abandoned foreclosed McMansions that dot the suburban landscape. The two above were incredibly creative in their visions: LivaBlox from Evan Collins proposes re-using existing big box stores (and their cargo containers) as residences, then using the tops of the buildings for urban farms and solar power collection. T-Tree, by Adil Azhiyev & Ivan Kudryavtsev, proposes social housing built on currently unused suburban land. The solution would cut down on energy and living costs; wind mills on the top of each structure would further reduce utility costs.