Wednesday, December 21, 2011

suburbs. shifting

I came across a thought provoking article about the 5 ways the suburbs are changing. While I don't agree with everything the article says, I do find it interesting in the way it begins to classify the exurban versus the suburban landscape. Often times I get myself wrapped up in the conversation of suburban and relate it to where I grew up, which in the case of the author's opinion, is actually invalid. What I should be saying is that I grew up in an exurban landscape and, thus, am actually different than a true suburbanite.

If you go ahead and read the article, what it really highlights is the role of perception in the discourse of landscape theory and project execution. Nothing new about that. But, if you read through some of the comments at the bottom, it's interesting in the way the perception of a "problem", or lack thereof, surfaces.

Designers (quite) often get stuck in the academic when it comes to big picture problem solving - hence, few radical suburban redevelopment initiatives. I think there are a few reasons why:

1) Funding and the lack of it. It's hard enough to conceptualize ways to address the issues associated with suburbia (or exurbia, if you wish to further categorize), let alone find the funding to make the better ones come to life. A solution here needs to arise from the ability to bridge the gap between science and design - how can we show people, with proof, that a radical idea can go above and beyond a comp plan and really address core issues of disconnection, population and demographic shift, property values, the 50 year picture? I'm really getting at the idea of gaining federal dollars for big picture projects that address issues larger than just infrastructure and facade redevelopment.

2) Going back to the article and the idea of problem perception. So many people living in suburbia (or exurbia) are there and are content. Even if we, as designers, who think it can be changed for the better, our biggest obstacle in affecting a change is making an impact in the minds of the individuals who make up the community. Again, it goes back to proof and being able to articulate in more than just what ifs, powerful graphic depiction of future scenarios based on speculation and the notion that our solution works because we belive in it. There's an interesting opportunity to employ a scenario planning approach that merges high level conceptualization with real empirical quantities that can both relate to and inform the other. After all, getting ideas past a planning board is hard enough, but seeing a radical project that can truly alter the way of daily life and routine is even more daunting.  

3) Holistic. While we do think big picture, I don't think we pursue projects in enough of a holistic manner. Going back to the notion of infrastructural improvements: we design something that will help to mitigate traffic or improve aging bridges and, in general, beaf up roads that no longer meet the contemporary needs. OK, great. But, really, the question we should be asking, and addressing, is multi-dimensional. What causes the need for infrastructural improvement? Sure, age is undeniable as a factor, but so is the evolution of our daily routines and addiction to be able to move quickly and easily between point A and point B. If we think more holistic, I think it can look something like this:

We can improve infrastructure while at the same time improving crucial components of existing systems or routines. Often times (myself included) we will drive to a certain destination, park, do what we came to do, then drive 2 minutes down the road, park, do what we need to do and drive away. If we improve infrastructure by adding lanes and improving the congestion of overwhelming traffic volumes, all we're really doing is saying, go ahead and continue abusing the ease of vehicular transit. Instead, we should address the fundamental issue of why we are so inclined to park, get out, drive, park, get out, drive park, ad infinitum. This aligns with the notion of town center, or at least the fundamental construct of walkability and connectivity. Strip malls in the suburban context are certainly not going anywhere, but improving their relationship to each other and their interface to parking and roadways is very real.

Then we can begin to rethink parking and rethink the natural reaction of widening roads to handle traffic volumes. What if we actually make the roads more appealing and safe to walk across? What if then in this system of connection we add a concept of pocket parks or usable public open spaces that actually can become a place for lunch, for a break (if you happen to work in one of the many strip mall stores)? What if we begin to see a success in this logic, then can we begin to connect to nearby neighborhoods with an actual trail and open space network that exceeds a simple asphalt path with a few curves? This linkage then grows and continues to be a catalyst for change further and further away from the epicenter. And since suburbia (or exurbia) is so disconnected, there exists a potential to achieve a similar scenario in a variety of epicenters.

So, if we go beyond infrastructural improvements and turn federal dollars into something that actually can change and improve the lives of people holistically, maybe we'd actually see some positive suburban change. But, holistic only works if we can blend the pragmatic with the conceptual and the abstract theories with the real, built forms.

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