Why Dwell Needs the Sprawl Repair Kit to Win Re-Burbia

aerial rendering of strip center that has been urbanized, and with solar panels and vegetable gardens on its roof

   Dwell and inhabitat.com really need for the Sprawl Repair Kit to win Reburbia. And the rest of us do, too. Why? There are several reasons:

   The Sprawl Repair Kit goes to the heart of what Reburbia is supposed to be about: re-designing suburbia in a sustainable way. The T-Tree (the other chief vote-getter, with which the Sprawl Repair Kit is running neck-and-neck) amazingly ignores the program entirely! It appears to be located in a field somewhere, like the discredited idea of “towers in the park” proposed by Le Corbusier when he wanted to bulldoze central Paris. Where is the context? How does it re-design suburbia? It’s shocking that this project was even included in the finalists, given its wanton disregard for the aims of Reburbia to begin with.

   The Sprawl Repair Kit is based on things that work, and with which we can start making a difference today. The T-Tree is based on things that have been proven not to work. In addition to the cribbing of Corbusier, it’s a thinly-disguised rip-off of Moshe Safdie’s Habitat project in Montreal. You’ve likely noticed that Habitats have not been popping up in your neighborhood recently. How are we going to create sustainability with things that people don’t want? We won’t, of course. And this is only the beginning of the things that don’t work about T-Tree. Its sustainability is about as superficial as the cartoon leaf cutouts that are its windows. But beyond the fact that its architecture is unlovable by the non-architect, it doesn’t work in many other ways, either:

*Because it’s not connected to adjacent urbanism, you’ll have to drive everywhere, so by definition, the place will be completely unsustainable like the worst of sprawl. But where are the cars? Conveniently eliminated from the renderings. So this won’t even be towers in a park... it’ll be towers in a parking lot.

*It completely ignores its orientation, with equal windows and other surfaces facing North, South, East, and West. People, this is frugality 101! Orientation matters! Any first-year architecture student proposing such a thing should fail their design studio!

*How about thermal storage? These things look like thin-walled tin cans, with no obvious way to store heat. What kind of fools do they take us for, calling this “sustainable”?

   I could go on for hours about all the ways T-Tree is unsustainable, but you get the idea. But there’s another reason Dwell needs for the Sprawl Repair Kit to win: Whether or not you always agree with them about design, it’s clear that the editors of Dwell try to act responsibly and proactively in helping to build a better world. But the magazine repeatedly gets criticized for being all about style, chronicling nothing more than the fashion cycles of kinder, gentler Modernism. So here’s Dwell’s problem with T-Tree: if it wins, then it gives great force to its critics, who charge (unfairly, IMO) that the editors value style but not substance, and flash and dash but not things that work.

   The Sprawl Repair Kit, on the other hand, would be the best possible winner for Dwell because it delivers a highly useful set of sprawl repair tools to the editors. This, after all, was what Reburbia was all about, wasn’t it? So please give Dwell a hand, and vote for the Sprawl Repair Kit! Voting ends at midnight! Tell your friends!

~ Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Monday, August 17, 2009 - 11:54 AM

Michael Rouchell

I noticed that the lack of railings at the balconies and the elevated bike path of  the Tree scheme makes it easier for the suicidal suburbanite unhappy with his/her surroundings to end it all.

Monday, August 17, 2009 - 12:12 PM

Ian Rasmussen

Agreed. Dwell has really forced its own hand. If T-Tree, or any of the other ridiculous proposals (i.e. "Airships") should win, they will have proved their magazine is a forum for hypothetical projects that look "cool" but have no chance of succeeding (and hopefully no chance of actually being built).

Monday, August 17, 2009 - 02:26 PM

Eliza Harris

I believe they have left themselves some leeway in choosing the finalist; that they aren't completely compelled to choose the highest votegetter. It will be interesting to see if they use that leeway. 

"Judges make the final call on the 1st, 2nd and 3rd prize winners, whereas ‘Reader’s Choice’ is determined exclusively by popular vote."

Tuesday, August 18, 2009 - 02:30 PM

What about entrepreneurbia

What about Entrepreneurbia? That seems to have been overlooked in this conversation. It's not at all unrealistic like the airbia or t-tree proposals. Like this repair kit, it too has a couple of small items to work out but it can be tested on one suburban complex very easily, just like this one.

I agree that this is an attractive proposal, don't get me wrong there. I'm  just a little hesitant to think that in a decaying area, an investor is going to want to buy land and build a business very quickly. I guess it would have to be a type of business that doesn't depend on locals to keep them afloat - because they can't even pay their mortgages. That never stopped Westerners from buying stuff they don't need though, hehe.

Anyway, here's a vote for entrepreneurbia too. At least this one isn't in textbooks already! Dwell would do better to name Entrepreneurbia as first and this one second so prove their forward thinking ways and not letting a textbook example win an innovative design competition.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009 - 03:39 PM

Steve Mouzon

For some reason, entrepreneurbia never caught my eye... let me take a look at it in more detail. As for the Sprawl Repair Kit being in textbooks already, that's a misconception. I know Galina personally and she's in the process of writing the book, but it isn't published yet. So it's really cutting-edge stuff, not something stale that's been out for years.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009 - 05:21 AM

Steve Mouzon

I've gone back and looked at entrepreneurbia more thoroughly, and it clearly would be my second choice. Like the Sprawl Repair Kit, it identifies zoning codes as the biggest culprits of the creation of sprawl. Like the Sprawl Repair Kit, it focuses on techniques that can be used today, not decades down the road after new technologies might be developed (or not.) So why should it not be first rather than the Sprawl Repair Kit? Primarily because it does less to radically re-shape suburbia to make it a more walkable place. But still, it should be highly applauded!

Re-Burbia and the Sprawl Repair Kit

aerial rendering of new buildings around a sprawling outparcel restaurant

   Dwell and inhabitat.com are co-sponsoring what they call Reburbia, which is a competition to redesign the suburbs in a more sustainable fashion. Their 20 finalists are now posted for voting, which ends at midnight on Monday.

   Many of the results are shocking... for a variety of reasons. There’s the suburban airship that would actually make sprawl worse, the egg-beaters over the freeway that work better the more we drive, and the tower of boxes that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the suburbs at all. The majority of the solutions are based firmly on the Gizmo Green hope that our gadgets will save us. Matter of fact, several of these entries are such poster children for Gizmo Green that they sparked an idea: look for a monthly post on this blog in the future entitled Gizmo Green Goofiness of the Month. Others, such as the Providence Journal’s David Brussat, have weighed in with similar reactions.

   But embedded within the entries is one that is shocking for another reason: it uses common sense, and actually works! It’s the Urban Sprawl Repair Kit by Galina Tachieva. Galina’s proposal is a toolbox of incremental steps for turning suburban sprawl into urban fabric. And it’s stuff that we can do right now.

   Why repair sprawl? Sprawl, because it requires you to drive everywhere, will begin to become uninhabitable as gas becomes more expensive. Actually, it’s already happening. Last summer, people were already discovering that they couldn’t afford to live where they were living, and had gas prices not eased quickly, they would have had hard choices to make. And with a billion new cars coming online in the next few years in China and India as we approach worldwide Peak Oil, there’s not much doubt where gas prices are going in the longterm.

   So what do we do? Extremists argue that we should simply abandon sprawl and let it rot. Try telling that to the people that live there. To the extremists, the more than 100 million Americans that inhabit sprawl are just statistics, but to the sprawl-dwellers, it’s the place where they’ve made their life’s two largest investments: their house, and the financing of that house. So proposals that hope to just sweep them aside don’t have a snowball’s chance of success.

   Galina’s proposal, in contrast, actually takes sprawl and makes it better, and more sustainable. How is this possible? Anytime you mix uses where there was only a single use (housing, retail, office, etc.) before, you increase the chances that someone can walk to something rather than driving. Anytime you increase the quality of the pedestrian experience, you also increase those chances. Galina’s Sprawl Repair Kit provides tools for these things and much more.

   And in doing so, it stands out clearly against the background of proposals that sacrifice usefulness to be “visionary.” But true visionaries aren’t those who just concoct useless stuff, but rather those who imagine solutions that work... but that nobody else has proposed yet. Check out the Urban Sprawl Repair Kit and see if you don’t agree that it’s the true visionary proposal amongst the finalists. And please vote for it (click the word “votes” in the red arrow to the right) if you agree.

~ Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Friday, August 14, 2009 - 08:20 AM

Bruce F. Donnelly

There's another thing too about Sprawl Repair. It's not just a one-off idea. It's a whole bunch of ideas aimed at the same goal. It's a pity that the website offered so little scope for Galina's work. It is all of the following:

1. A general approach to making the suburbs better

2. A module for the SmartCode, and

3. A constructive entry in competition of polemics.

Oh, and the name. The thing being "repaired" is the urbanism, not the sprawl. 

Friday, August 14, 2009 - 10:37 AM

Michael Rouchell

The common approach to sprawl repair that I see too often is to demolish the restaurant or gas station and then build a "sustainable" building in its place.  At least this proposal reuses the existing buildings to some extent.

Sunday, August 16, 2009 - 09:16 PM

Seamus Dubh

I look at it as bringing back the whole town square concept.  Look at a map of these sprawls, you'll see the names of the towns and cities that use to be there.

Miami 21

sidewalk cafes at night along Espanola Way on Miami Beach

   The Miami City Commission will consider Miami 21 on Thursday at 2 PM at Miami City Hall. If approved, this will be a major step forward in the building of sustainable places. Miami 21, at its core, is a robust SmartCode, and is designed to create walkable, mixed-use, compact places over time from existing urban fabric. It is intended to replace the old use-based zoning code, which, like countless other use-based (Euclidian) codes around the country, has been identified as a prime culprit in the creation of sprawl. This story <note from 2011: link is abandoned, but idea is still worth noting> in the Miami Herald shows what has happened in a formerly decrepit stretch of Biscayne Boulevard to which Miami 21 standards were applied as a demonstration project. The transformation is striking... read about it.

   Miami 21 is being calibrated by DPZ, the chief authors of the SmartCode. Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk (the PZ of DPZ and Dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Miami) has shepherded the project since its inception. DPZ’s work has created a new industry of firms calibrating SmartCodes for municipalities all across the country who want to repair and build their cities in more sustainable fashion, and firms providing other SmartCode services.

   But Miami 21 is not without controversy. Chief amongst the detractors are architects, who deride Miami 21 because they think it will take away their design freedom. Apparently, they want their buildings to be able to zig, zag, and wiggle any way they choose without regard to the fabric of the city their buildings are helping to create. But we’ve seen nearly a century of this approach, and the results have been disastrous. Buildings that shout “look at me” as they twist and writhe with no concern for the street might provide notoriety for their architect, but they seldom do much for the neighborhood. These buildings are often like people who have had far too much to drink at a block party; screaming, calling attention to themselves, and contorted in all sorts of unimaginable ways, but not being a good neighbor.

   Buildings are sometimes seen as a chance at immortality, because buildings sometimes last far longer than their creators. But buildings built more recently tend to be demolished sooner as we have forgotten how to build in a lovable way. So the reason for designing screaming buildings in the first place may well be an illusion... as well as any hope at sustainability, because the carbon footprint of a building is meaningless once its parts have been carted off to the landfill because it could not be loved.

   So if you’re in Miami Thursday, please be at City Hall at 2. It’s time to take a big step forward in the building of sustainable places.

~ Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Friday, August 7, 2009 - 5:27 AM

Steve Mouzon

Update: Miami 21 failed to pass last night by a 2-2 vote after 4 years and over 500 community meetings. The special interests prevailed over common sense and the common good. This is a very sad day for the city of Miami.

Saturday, September 5, 2009 - 04:43 PM

Steve Mouzon

Update 2 - Last night, the Miami City Commission approved the First Reading of Miami 21. The Second Reading will occur in roughly 6 weeks.

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