godschalk3_150xDesigning Suburban Futures: New Models from Build a Better Burb
June Williamson
Island Press
1718 Connecticut Avenue, NW,
Suite 300, Washington, DC 20009;
2013. 160 pages. $70 cloth, $35 paperback.

This still-timely book makes a number of suggestions for adapting and redesigning suburbs in order to create more sustainable urban living patterns. It is really three books in one—a history of suburbia in the United States, a compendium of suburban redevelopment strategies, and a description of award-winning designs from an architectural competition to reshape Long Island, New York.

Author June Williamson is well qualified to bring these topics together. An associate professor of architecture at City College of New York, she works on ideas for turning suburbs from low-density “sprawl cities” into livable 21st-century environments. An adviser to the design competition featured in this book, she coauthored Retrofitting Suburbia, a previous book, updated in 2011, that focused on redevelopment of declining strip malls and commercial areas. Her current book is a more comprehensive look at the whole suburban fabric.

First, Designing Suburban Futures traces the history of suburbia from its origins during the post–World War II building boom to its current status as the whipping boy for sprawl, greenhouse gas emissions, open space consumption, and unsustainable growth. Suburbs have their origin in a pastoral ideal of country places outside the city limits where a more moral life could be lived in a picturesque landscape (think 1869 Riverside, Illinois, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted). Then they morphed into “bourgeois utopias” (think 1948 Park Forest, Illinois, planned by Elbert Peets). Williamson covers this history in a lively crash course on both the ideas of the popular writers and the built projects.

Second, the book recommends a number of strategies for turning bedroom subdivisions into sustainable places through infill, redevelopment, adaptive use, and regreening. Williamson advocates tactical moves such as the following: reuse of the commercial box, establishment of a continuous streetscape, diversification of housing choices and prices, addition of new units to existing subdivisions, and the enhancement of civic life with small plazas. These tactics show up in the competition submissions, along with reinvention of local transit. The author sees these strategies and tactics as positive ways to encourage the “incremental metropolitanism” that occurs as urban areas age and change.

Finally, the book describes the winning proposals from the Build a Better Burb design ideas competition for Long Island. It highlights the seven winning schemes and overviews 14 other noteworthy ones, out of the more than 200 submitted. Intended to overcome a “crisis of imagination,” this competition was sponsored by the nonprofit Long Island Index. The competition program provided digital maps of 8,300 acres (3,400 ha) of greyfields—vacant land and surface parking lots within a half-mile of 156 downtowns and commuter-rail stations in the 1,300-square-mile (3,400 sq km) region made up of Nassau and Suffolk counties. It challenged designers to envision bold new ideas for this vast area of underused land.

The resulting suggestions include moving office parks downtown and converting the land to organic farms, constructing accessory dwelling units in residential neighborhoods, allowing shops in houses, sequestering carbon in highway verges, removing development from freshwater aquifer recharge areas, chopping up malls and adding uses, expanding biking, using undercapacity buses for local freight transport, and re­­imagining financing.

One of my favorite schemes, “Sited in the Setback: Increasing Density in Levittown,” places new rental or extended-family “granny flats” in the backyards of existing houses by adding modular dwelling units along a fence at the back property line. These Levittown houses that originally sold for $7,000 in 1947 are now worth around $400,000. Homeowners have no way to benefit monetarily from their valuable property unless they sell and move away. Younger households wishing to live in the area cannot afford to buy at today’s prices. The proposal reduces the per-capita ecological footprint while doubling the residential density, diversifying housing opportunities, and increasing the tax base.

Another favorite, “SUBHUB Transit System,” envisions rail transit trains exchanging passengers and freight with smaller shuttle vehicles that serve local sites throughout the suburbs. Small-scale industry is located in underused areas adjacent to Long Island Rail Road train stations (the hubs). They are connected with the subhubs through local shuttle-type feeder transit systems that move both people and goods. Commuters can park at the subhubs, which happen to be located at school sites, and take the shuttle to the train station. Combining freight with passenger transit provides an affordable way for small businesses to ship goods, while providing a rightsized system for getting homegrown vegetables and other products to market.

Designers love competitions. They are free to exercise their imaginations, coming up with creative ideas for solving important problems without the constraints of budget-conscious clients; are able to display their considerable graphic skills; and enjoy the potential of winning a prize and reaping fame for their future work.

But publishing large, display-size competition drawings in book form is a challenge. This book makes a valiant effort to overcome this problem by turning the pages in the section on competition awards to read horizontally in a landscape page orientation and reproducing the submissions in full color. Even so, many parts of the text in the design drawings are difficult to read and understand.

Still, with its rich integration of text and figures, Designing Suburban Futures is an eye-candy feast, with color images everywhere the reader looks. Thanks to its wealth of appealing graphics and clever design proposals, this book will appeal primarily to architects and urban designers, but it also offers intriguing ideas for urban planners and real estate developers looking to free their imaginations.

In terms of implementation, the Build a Better Burb design schemes face the primary weaknesses arising from attempting to carry out new ideas proposed in all design competitions: They do not test their proposals against the metrics of financial development models. They fail to consider the far-ranging regulatory regime reforms that would be necessary to put into practice many of their bolder design concepts. They ignore the behavioral changes that would have to occur to gain popular and political support for new physical and social arrangements.

With all their faults, these fresh ideas ultimately may inspire future generations of designers, developers, and planners to expand their practice horizons. Meanwhile, they vividly demonstrate the potential for rethinking the values and opportunities inherent in America’s predominant urban form—the suburb.

David R. Godschalk is professor emeritus of city and regional planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is coauthor of two 2012 publications: Sustaining Places: The Role of the Comprehensive Plan (Chicago: American Planning Association), and The Dynamic Decade: Creating the Sustainable Campus for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2001–2011 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press).