Tag Archives: suburban development

Why the American dream is a tribute band

“Helloooooooo, Suburbia! (The audience goes wild.)

“When the tour bus got into town this morning we drove by some Santa Barbara-styled homes (loud roar from the audience) on our way to lunch at a post-modern strip mall (another loud roar).

“Now who’s ready to rock? (Yet another loud roar.) And who’s ready to rock AND roll? (Loud roar, with a hint of bewilderment.) Let’s get this party started with some Rick Springfield! (Guitar riff; thunderous roar; mosh pit ensues; tear gas fills the air.)

This is what entered my head as I looked upon the “Foreclosed” article and slide show at Architectural Record.

Suburbia needs help. It was designed with the mindset that energy and resources will always be inexpensive and abundant. The amount of energy and resources used per capita is proving to be unsustainable. So what do we do?

We can’t continue to build suburbia the way we’ve been building it. But we can’t build it in a manner that won’t be accepted by contemporary society. Our culture moves forward by being nudged, not by being thrown over a cliff. The short-term goal of redesigning suburbia should involve a nudge, and the long-term goal should involve a series of nudges.

In regards to city planning, one could argue that we’ve seen it all. These nudges are going to push the designs of our cities towards something we’ve seen in the past, but should it resemble something that’s worked before (i.e. a city plan that’s been inhabited for hundreds of years) or something that’s been proposed (i.e. a city plan that’s been drawn and not built, or that’s been built and rejected by its inhabitants).

Does this design by Studio Gang Architects really differ from this by Archigram? Is the Simultaneous City really that much different from Pruitt Igoe? Is this neighborhood really just this neighborhood plus Frank Gehry?

We’re stuck with suburbia (think of the environmental impact if we wiped the slate clean), but there’s no reason why it has to be a bad place. (Bad is highly subjective, although my use of bad involves its complete dependency on inexpensive energy and resources.)

Suburbia will become better by taking advantage of what’s already there with more density (not high-rises–remember, just a nudge), making purposeful use of the spaces between circulation and destinations (just a fancy way of saying design and make use of the wide open spaces throughout suburbia that currently are a waste of unoccupied lawns and parking lots), and subdue the car-centric attitude of design and focus on alternate means for people to get around if they want to walk (and accomplish something by walking other than burning some calories).

We have seen it all. Suburbia will always be a tribute band and, if successful, will probably look like something from the 80s–the 1780s.

“Rock me Amadeus!”

Images of suburban sprawl

Art for art’s sake –  it’s a phrase that comes up in architecture quite a bit. Architecture is supposed to have a balance between what works and promotes the intended program of the building, and what is pleasurable and enriches the soul. If architecture is merely an enclosure that fulfills a function, then it fails. If architecture only looks globular and theoretical, then it also fails. There must be a balance.

This balance also works at the macro scale of community development. If the design of a neighborhood or city reflects only the intended function (like providing areas to live and work, and circulation paths connecting these areas) without providing spaces for civic pride or a connection to the local landscape, then it fails. If the design represents curvilinear sweeps across the landscape without any meaningful connections between live, work, and play, then the design fails as well.

A photographer named Christoph Gielen has taken photos of suburban development that, in a way, almost reflects the same attitude in city planning that some contemporary “starchitects” have taken towards designing buildings – form follows form. The photos reveal a level of haphazard geometrical form making with little regard to functional attributes to form making such as local climate or societal connections. I have spent a good portion of my life living in suburban developments, and I have asked myself the same question over and over – who the hell laid out these streets?

A sign of good development is not the overbearing geometrical pattern consuming the macro scale of the environment, but rather the meaningful connections that promote a healthy lifestyle at the micro scale.

Are “Living Streets” bad for cars?

The term “Living Streets” is just one of a plethora of words being used to describe a design and implementation strategy of humanizing our transportation corridors. In more simpler terms it means having streets focused more on people and not solely having them promote vehicular flow.

At some point during the modernization of America (after World War II) more people became enamored with living away from the typical city neighborhoods. There were many factors that made suburban development a reality including changes with financing a home, job growth for returning soldiers, the US having one of the only economies not severely hampered by the WWII, new highway construction making it easier to live outside of the city boundaries, and probably to a certain degree people making a quick buck on land speculation. (I don’t mean to sound cynical, but if you ever wonder why a capitalistic society follows a certain path there’s a good chance that someone is telling us that we absolutely need what they’re selling.)

I live in a neighborhood that was first built in the early 1960’s. Besides noticing the obvious suburban development patterns such as single-zoned uses (no integration between the residential and the few commercial developments on “the block”) and the winding streets that make it difficult to navigate through the neighborhood (most likely an attempt to reduce the amount of non-resident traffic through the neighborhood), I was amazed at how wide certain neighborhood streets were. I swear there’s one street that if lanes were painted on it you could have street parking on each side of the street and still have room for four more lanes.

So why are neighborhood streets that rarely ever provide a short cut to people who don’t live in the neighborhood so wide? The one reason I can think of is that in most jurisdictions the local fire department requires a certain width for streets to allow them easy access to homes. So as the fire trucks have become larger the streets became larger to accommodate them. Of course the byproduct of this is that streets create an environment more accommodating to cars than people, which if you ever watch the few cars traveling on the “multi-lane” neighborhood street you’ll notice these streets allow cars to travel much faster.

But then there are suburban traffic corridors (i.e. the primary streets for getting around suburbia). These streets, with their many lanes, multiple access points onto side streets and parking lots, and fast speed limits are incredibly unfriendly for pedestrians. Here in Colorado there is an organization called Denver Living Streets that is trying to provide solutions for turning major urban corridors into a more pedestrianized environment.

Of course there is concern that turning some of the larger traffic arteries into a more pedestrian friendly environment will create more traffic on these streets. One of the streets aimed at for creating a “Living Street” is Colorado Boulevard. I’m sure you know of a street like it where it’s 3-lanes in each direction with a continuous middle left turn lane in the middle. It lacks right turn lanes at certain major intersections, and it’s most usually a pain in the butt to turn left onto any street or parking lot where there’s no traffic light. And because of the suburban development where the major traffic arteries are spaced apart from each other by at least a mile, Colorado Boulevard is usually the only street you can take when you want to go from one certain place to another.

So if Colorado Boulevard isn’t designed for pedestrians, does that automatically imply that it’s designed for automobiles? After years of driving on Colorado Boulevard, and being dumb enough to try to make a left turn where there wasn’t a traffic light, I would answer with a resounding no. As far as providing access to automobiles Colorado Boulevard’s purpose is to be a thoroughfare for people traveling from one part of town to another, and to provide people who are driving access to the businesses, residences, and offices along the street. When you combine these two purposes together (at the same time) this seems to create the traffic jams that are prevalent with most streets like Colorado Boulevard.

When I read the “Living Street” initiative (especially in reference to Colorado Boulevard) I imagined something like this, where the lanes dedicated for the thoroughfare traffic was separated from the lane dedicated for access to the buildings along the street. The byproduct of this is a more pedestrian environment where buildings can be closer to the street edge because of the slower traffic in the “access” driving lane, and people crossing the street no longer have to cross the equivalent of eight or nine traffic lanes at once.

We will always need streets that provide vehicular access where one can travel from one part of town to another in a timely manner. For me “Living Streets” promotes this idea by separating this vehicular access from a part of the street that is a more pedestrian oriented environment. I believe this strategy will work (and has worked), because the currently streets like Colorado Boulevard are really good for nothing.

The Tragedy of Suburbia

I just came across a great talk on the TED website by James Howard Kunstler called The Tragedy of Suburbia.  The talk is based on the idea of creating public spaces that promote the ideal of democracy, where the design for these spaces originates from a need to improve society and not on the desire to provide parking for consumers.

There is some very appropriate cussing within this talk so consider yourself warned (it’s not really a lot).

And definitely check out some of the other talks given on the TED website.  No matter your passion there is a talk on here that will surely move you to do great things.