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Saturday, September 12, 2009

Renouncing the Middle Class Lifestyle as Unsustainable

"The ruins of the unsustainable are the 21st century's frontier."

austrini_300.jpgWe've been pondering that statement by Worldchanging ally Bruce Sterling for nearly two years now. In North America, several decades of bad development (and the government policies that enabled and encouraged it) have resulted in unchecked sprawl and played no small part in our global financial meltdown.

Far-flung exurban areas have swallowed up miles of greenfield, replacing farmland and woods with pavement and lawns, and costing taxpayers a fortune in what's possibly the least efficient form of infrastructure: providing utilities and public services to a small number of people spread out over an large area. The social impacts of sprawl are arguably just as harmful. Sprawl is unhealthy for people who live in it. And as we know from the Housing & Transportation Affordability Index, people who have to drive everywhere they go are at an economic disadvantage, as well.

Credit: flickr/Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com
Now, due to increasing awareness of these issues, changing social and demographic trends, and a dramatic economic shift, the suburbs – once the American Dream – have fallen from grace. According to leading thinkers like Arthur C. Nelson and Christopher B. Leinberger, the majority of Americans no longer desire to live in auto-dependent suburban environments. Given the chance, many would trade large suburban houses for the walkability of an urban neighborhood. Middle-class North Americans are already beginning to move in large numbers back into central cities, while property values on the suburban fringe have plummeted.

The approaching end of sprawl is a good thing, but it leaves the future of the suburbs uncertain. Foreclosures, unemployment and retail losses have already been a disaster for many suburban towns, and experts warn that suburbs are fast becoming the next slums as middle-class residents are replaced by poorer people who've been priced out of the central cities. Already, much of the outmost ring of suburban North America is in steep decline. The suburbs have long been unsustainable, and now they are becoming ruins. What are the solutions for this new frontier?

Smart growth policies and long-term regional land use plans can prevent any more sprawl, concentrate growth in the urban core and help restore vitality to existing communities. But what are the best ideas for retrofitting the damaged environments that already exist? What will become of the empty malls and superstores, vacant parking lots, six-lane roads and McMansions this collapse leaves behind? Should the subdivisions be scrapped, or saved … and how?

Credit: flickr/jonny.hunter

The First Solutions

One major solution will be fixing the neighborhoods that have good bones. Some inner-ring suburbs already offer proximity to an urban center, and a dense Main Street-type area to concentrate on. Creating regional transit plans that extend public transportation out to that inner ring is a big step. Transit encourages compact development where businesses can thrive and residents can escape auto-dependence. In February, sustainable cities expert Peter Newman told us how this solution has worked for his hometown of Perth; in Germany, a transit-served suburb has already even gone as far as to adopt a "car free" standard.

Effective transit plans can be combined with other strategies for increasing density while enhancing character and livability. Incentives that encourage infill development are a good place to start. Some local governments, like Vancouver B.C.'s, have realized that it's beneficial to encourage homeowners to contribute to density by building accessory dwelling units; in Santa Cruz, California, the ADU program includes an initiative that makes plans for zoning-compliant prefab housing available to homeowners who want to become landlords.

Image: flickr/indiewench
Other places are harder to fix. It's the newer, outer-ring suburbs that need the most creative solutions, like deadmall and Big Box retrofits, shared spaces and creative reuse.

Empty Spaces

We now have far more buildings than we use. Former industrial centers like Detroit and Cleveland are becoming ghost towns, but even in prosperous U.S. cities, commercial spaces stand empty as more and more businesses are forced to cut costs or close their doors altogether. Commenting on recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau, business pundit Paul Kedrosky writes, "the U.S. currently has enough surplus housing to put the entire population of the U.K., with room left over for Israel." Given the enormous amount of embedded energy that this existing development represents, our best bet is put these buildings to good use.

One solution is finding better ways to reclaim and rehabilitate neglected space. The National Vacant Properties Campaign works to educate communities about solutions for the very worst situations, when owners neglect properties to the point that they become hazardous to the community, or fail to meet their financial obligations. In the Campaign's words:

Effective vacant property reclamation efforts are coming from a broad set of stakeholders – from environmental advocates who see property reclamation as a way to offset urban sprawl, to housing groups seeing to create affordable homes, to those interested in preserving a community’s history.
Through our Executive and Advisory Committees, we bring these diverse stakeholders together to create a unified coalition of organizations acting to make vacant property reclamation an attainable goal nationwide.

Reclaiming unused spaces is a hot trend, with pioneers rapidly innovating ways to make dead-space liabilities into repurposed assets (read some of our recent thoughts on this trend in last week's feature on Temporary Spaces and Creative Infill). Resourcefulness like this has gone on for a long time in neglected urban spaces, and continues to make headlines during this economic contraction, as we've seen with artists in Detroit and Dumpster swimming pools in Brooklyn. Will it spread to suburbia?

Reuse or Waste?

Sturdier urban relics have become famous sites for renaissance in cities around the world: iconic rehabbed warehouse districts include Portland's Pearl District, Brooklyn's Dumbo, and Amsterdam's Docklands. And we recently profiled Toronto's promising plan for retrofitting its post-WWII concrete towers.

Unfortunately, one main problem with the ruins of the unsustainable is that these buildings were never really designed to last in the first place. Big-box stores are generally designed to last only about 20-25 years, and the nature of retail leads to some stores closing much earlier. The cavernous shells of a Best Buy or a Sam's Club are suited for very few purposes beyond storing massive quantities of consumer goods. Often, old big-box stores are just abandoned, becoming centers of blight.

According to this article, however, some local governments are responding proactively, by requiring that big boxes be built with certain features that will make them more versatile should the retailer move on:

More communities are introducing policies that require big-box retailers to help redevelop the spaces they leave behind. Some require them to tear down the stores if they're empty more than a year. Others have introduced design standards that require landscaping and more than one main entrance so that the building can accommodate multiple tenants in the future.
A retailer the size of Wal-Mart can make or break a town like Wisconsin Rapids, which has about 18,000 residents. "It changed us," Wisconsin Rapids Mayor Carson says of Wal-Mart's decision to leave downtown and build a superstore on the edge of town. The move eventually helped, she says.
The Centralia Senior Resource Center
"We, as a city, now have a central location for our seniors that's better than having it on the outskirts of town," Carson says.
About 20,000 square feet of the old store were knocked down to make way for a community garden and benches. Inside, seniors now enjoy a library, meeting rooms, a walking track, pool tables and state-of-the-art kitchen and computer center. The center also holds aging and disability centers for two counties.

Ultimately, however, these buildings will need to come down, and adopting a long view as early in the construction phase as possible will mean less material is unnecessarily wasted. We've talked a lot about design for disassembly in the world of consumer products – smart designs that allow product components to be dismantled easily, so that they can be sorted and re-used as nutrients in the industrial cycle (one great example of this thinking is the pop-apart cell phone). Design for Disassembly (DfD) is increasingly being studied and tested by building professionals. A DfD case study home was constructed in Georgia in 2006. While this project is residential, the interest on behalf of the industry is growing.

Sugar Creek Charter School, built in a former K-Mart in Charlotte, N.C.
Source: Big Box Reuse
It seems like big-box stores would be an ideal starting point for city-mandated building code that required adherence to DfD best practices. After all, if it's likely that the store will be defunct in less than three decades, it would be a major benefit to be able to take it down and return the massive pile of components to the building nutrient stream. What if you could dismantle a shopping mall and build a school? It's a solution worth thinking about.

What's truly uplifting, though, is that people are turning a crisis into opportunity, thinking of these frontiers as Special Innovation Zones. Because the ruins are worthless -- or worth little -- pioneering types with big, risky and exciting ideas have a better shot. In many cases, it seems that these up-for-grabs properties are inspiring a kind of experimental "what-if" boldness that's less common in established urban neighborhoods, where cost, regulations and NIMBY-ism can stand in the way. An abandoned home that's already been stripped of its conventional wiring and plumbing, after all, is an ideal frame on which to build a home energy system entirely out of renewables ... and the neighbors aren't likely to fuss. It's possible that one day, these sites will be the Kitty Hawks -- the original testing grounds -- of some of the most important innovations that future generations will take for granted.

However you imagine the future of the suburbs, one thing is certain: The one thing we can't do is keep them the same.

Credit: flickr/mark.hogan.

Top article credit: flickr/austrini, Creative Commons license.

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