A Competition to Re-Think the Suburbs

A little bit of absurdity may not be such a bad thing.
September 2009
Christopher Swope
By Christopher Swope  |  Former Editor
Christopher Swope was GOVERNING's executive editor.

I love design competitions. There's no better way to bend your brain than to see how architects and urban designers armed with Photoshop respond to a common challenge. The latest one to catch my eye was called "Reburbia."

Dwell magazine and Inhabitat.com asked designers to re-envision the suburbs in an age when foreclosures and rising energy costs mean "the future of suburbia looks bleak."

You don't have to buy that apocalyptic premise to find the ideas it produced intriguing. The winning entry foresees converting subdivisions of vacant McMansions into wetlands that would would act as natural water filtration systems for nearby urban centers. Another finalist would convert empty big-box stores into greenhouses with restaurants. "One can imagine pushing a shopping cart through this suburban farm," the entry says, "and picking your produce right from the vine."

Neither of those ideas is very practical--it surely would be cheaper to level an old K-Mart than to work so hard at re-using it. But generating wild ideas that speak to big ideals, whether it's the virtue of local food or ways to sustain water supplies, is the point of such competitions. A little bit of absurdity allows the more realistic ideas to stand out.

For example, one finalist showed how modest but strategic modifications to drive-thru restaurants, strip centers and gas stations can create walkable places out of parking lots. Making this happen would require only a few changes in zoning codes and a willingness to convert some parking spaces into new buildings and streets.

Similarly, my favorite entry, called "Entrepreneurbia," wouldn't cost local government a dime. It merely proposes that suburbs relax zoning laws to allow businesses to spring up in residential subdivisions. A vacant home could become a corner store or a boutique. Mixing uses this way would have to be done carefully. But as places hit by foreclosure are finding, better to have a home-based business next door than an empty house choked by weeds.