The years before the Meltdown were a time for building, but that is clearly over now. We’re now in an era where banks are so traumatized that most of them aren’t lending money for new developments no matter what. Future greenfield developments will be few and far between. The wreckage of the housing bubble is all around us, but not always where we can see it easily, as most of it is located out on the suburban fringe in places nobody visits. Some of it is too far gone, possibly including the houses pictured in this post, which have been sitting half-finished for months unprotected in the weather. But there are countless inhabited subdivisions where the houses are finished and inhabited, and where those inhabitants have seen the value of the biggest investments of their lifetimes shredded by the Great Recession. They can’t afford to walk away; what can be done to help them?
I believe that while the previous era was defined in large part by what we built, this new era desperately needs to be defined by what we heal. Simply put, the suburban sprawl we’ve built since World War II is simply too large to discard. And it’s not ours to discard in any case; it belongs to the people that live there.
Sprawl, in its current form, is unsustainable almost everywhere. I remember when I was a kid, and gasoline just before the first Arab oil embargo would occasionally go as low as $0.199 a gallon during what was quaintly termed “gas wars.” Funny how that phrase has taken on a different meaning in recent years, isn’t it? But in any case, gas recently reached $5.00 per gallon in much of the country. That’s a 25x increase in less than 40 years. So it’s no big stretch to imagine a fourfold increase (less than 1/6 as much as what it’s done in those years) to $20 per gallon. And with billions of people now moving from low-impact agrarian lifestyles into the cities of China, India, and other nations, $20 per gallon gas may be closer than we think.
If you live in sprawl and have to drive everywhere to do anything, what happens when that day arrives? I’d strongly encourage everyone to test their Web of Daily Life... it’s an easy self-diagnosis we should all do, so that we can start preparing now.
One solution, of course, is to move to a walkable place, which is what I did. But that only works for just so many of us, because we’ll run out of places to live in the walkable places. For most of us, the better solution is to help to heal the places where we live. I believe that the healing of sprawl is going to be the great challenge of this new era.
Many of my colleagues are already working on this problem; some of them for years. I have, too. My Sky Method is a proposal for a new development paradigm that can either start with open land, or with an existing subdivision. Because it makes the current landowners partners in the system, there’s no need for a master developer to have to come in and buy up a lot of houses. Rather, everyone benefits as sprawl is turned into compact, mixed-use, walkable places.
Others are working on the problem, too. For years, it has seemed so vexing as to be possibly insurmountable. I recall Andrés Duany’s keynote at the Congress for the New Urbanism several years ago, which focused on suburban repair. He closed by saying that “New Urbanists have met many challenges over the years, doing many things that were at the first considered either illegal or impossible. But I worry that this problem is too big. I really hope we don’t fail.”
The great thing about seemingly impossible things is that if you think about them long enough, you eventually might figure out how to do something about them. That’s what has happened here.
The first New Urbanist book on the problem was Retrofitting Suburbia by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson. It’s a book of principles and procedures. You really should read it; it was published at the end of 2008. Galina Tachieva’s Sprawl Repair Manual was just published, and is a stunning toolbox of techniques for doing exactly what the book’s name implies. I consider it to be essential to anyone involved in sustainability, urbanism, or architecture today.
Note: If any of the images above are useful to you, they’re available at high resolution for printing or download on my Zenfolio site. Just click on the image and it’ll take you there.
Friday, October 29, 2010 - 12:39 PM
Baltimore Slumlord Watch
When I see pictures of empty suburban developments, it makes me sad. With the number of homeless people -- some recently homeless due to the mortgage meltdown -- what sense does it make to have all of these empty homes??? Not that we can talk in Baltimore City -- we're one of the most blighted cities in America.
Thursday, December 23, 2010 - 09:08 AM
Actually, in many places, homeless people are colonizing lost subdivisions. But these houses aren't complete enough to provide much more shelter than they would get sleeping on the street, as there's obviously a lot of rain getting in. And because these places are usually far from any other services or any pedestrians, homeless people living here wouldn't have any way to survive because there are no shops nearby selling inexpensive food, nor are there pedestrians from which to beg.