The suburbs are an energy-intensive housing solution that started in North America and has spread worldwide. The appeal of the tract housing the very thing that makes the suburbs detrimental to society: large lots, expansive houses, low density, and that they are reliant on individual use automobiles. With the mounting pressure of rapid climate change and urbanization of civilization what can we do to negate the poor planning of the suburbs? One solution is to rezone the suburbs to allow business to operate to make the neighbourhoods liveable.
It’s not specifically the built form of the suburbs that makes them unappealing; the buildings there—the houses—are perfectly fine. What deadens these areas is the homogeneity of the uses these buildings are put to. But a building that looks like a house can easily be altered and put to another use. Toronto’s two most iconic and walkable neighbourhoods, Yorkville and Kensington Market, were created like this 100 years ago. If the City took away restrictive zoning, suburban areas will change as local people set up stores and services in converted single family homes and these neighbourhoods will develop organically into complete and vibrant communities.
The permit office should parcel out permits to create a situation where you can go six blocks in any direction anywhere in Toronto and find one or two services. For instance, from my house in North York, you have to walk 12 large suburban blocks to get to the only services available, at Bayview Village. Why isn’t there a little ice cream store or cafe on the first floor of one of the brand new townhouses built across from Bayview Village Park, six blocks away? My home has a walk score of 38 out of 100. Gradually, the City should rezone wherever necessary until every home has a walk score of at least 50. The point isn’t to make all of Toronto like downtown or Kensington Market; just add reasonable access to services that will benefit the neighbourhood. The suburbs would still be the quietest neighbourhoods with the most green space, but they would be better off by virtue of a few local amenities. If a neighbourhood wanted to opt out of this scheme, it could cease issuing these permits altogether, or, alternatively, request that the City issue more of them and to try becoming a new Kensington Market.
The idealized version of the American suburb has spread around the world and can be found in nearly every country. The banality of the spread has been ignored by artists, at least that’s the feeling of Martin Adolfsson who set out to document this changing global landscape. For example, it’s hard to figure out where the above photo was taken.
In the book Suburbia Gone Wild, you can see the varying takes on sameness throughout the world. It’s a fascinating look at the spread of the suburbs. It’s good to see artists explore the global impact of hegemonic aesthetics and forcing us to ask: is this development the kind of development we want?
Swedish born turned New York City native; photographer Martin Adolfsson has shifted the focus of the camera lens from conventional portraits to dynamic vivid impressions of the urban upper middle class. Having noticed that artists had failed to address the changing panorama of economic shifts all over the world, Adolfsson decided to highlight the issue of social metamorphosis through an innovative array of environmental portraits.
The eight countries featured represented “the dream of American Suburbia that is being copied and pasted and sprinkled with some Hollywood stardust” (Adolfsson). Additionally, with the conscious choice to omit “all these traces of signs and different languages and people”, Adolfsson has effortlessly encapsulated the uniform homogeneousness between these global hubs.
The suburbs have a problem and it’s that they are lifeless. There’s little to no wildlife and human culture is confined to isolated locations and this is a problem in many ways and people know this.
We’ve looked at ways to fix the suburbs on Things Are Good before, this piece on the other hand, as an assortment of ideas and a good synopsis of efforts being made to save the suburbs from American suburban malfeasance:
After nearly four years of a McMansion mortgage crisis and new waves of Creative Class immigration into America’s leading cities, it’s time to confront a strange new phenomenon: the hollowed-out suburbs. It may not quite be the apocalyptic vision offered up by Christopher Leinberger in The Atlantic three years ago during the height of the mortgage crisis – when it was feared that empty McMansions would turn into crack dens – but it’s still bracing stuff. Indeed, the psycho-demographic pendulum appears to have shifted across America. According to most surveys, people prefer to live in walkable neighborhoods and sustainably designed communities — places that have all the perks of big-city living, as well as the goodness of green parks and good schools.
So what would it take to create these types of walkable, sustainable suburbs on a national scale?
Two architectural & design firms, Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Droog, recently hosted the Open House 2011 event where they re-imagined the classic suburban utopia – Levittown in Long Island, New York – and brainstormed ways that the suburban dream could be revitalized. They looked at what has worked in places like Manhattan and Brooklyn — places where dogwalkers, drycleaners, bohemian cafes, 24-hour bodegas and countless delivery services ease the strain of everyday urban life — and came up with suburban equivalents.
The suburbs are infamous for being inefficient, sprawling, violent, and a great place for growing marijuana. So what to do with all this wasted land? Well, here’s a TED talk on how to convert suburbia into a liveable and more urban space. This video gives me hope for a more sustainable North America.