Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs

By: Ellen Dunham-Jones &June Williamson

One Line:

A valuable overview of the challenges facing the outmoded nature of the American suburban landscape and analysis of the crucial first steps to be taken towards the next stage in the evolution of our development patterns.

Review:

The American development pattern of suburban planning has reached a level of maturity that allowed for a more thorough critique by the design community. Beyond its original goals of increasing home ownership and fostering living potential outside of city centers, the full effects of suburban planning are clearer now than ever before. It would be […]

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Google ExteriorOne of sustainability’s greatest shortfalls can also operate as one of its greatest strengths. As a term, sustainability has been criticized for lacking concrete definition and encompassing too many different topics and perspectives. Part of that is by design. The core components of sustainability revolve around balance and dynamic equilibrium, basic tenets of natural ecosystems–which are far from simple. The result is that the effectiveness of any efforts under the banner of sustainability can be weighed by a number of sources through a series of different lenses. While good for the environment, this can be cumbersome for parties wanting to make a “positive” impact without a series of more demanding benchmarks.

The flip side is that its encompassing nature can be used to reinforce vague or ambiguous efforts that are propped up buzz words and cosmopolitan trends while the environmental benefit is relatively small. The line between big ideas that carry many positive effects for the planet and big plans that provide little ecological effect due to lack of concrete goals is an important one for us to stay on the right side of.  Continue Reading…

grocery store aisleIn skimming through the recent articles on the Sustainable Cities Collective, I came across one that featured a story about an Austrian “Smart Buildings Program” at the University of Applied Sciences in Salzburg. One of the projects for students was probing the design for the most efficient supermarket, effectively built to Passivhaus standards–which any American architect will tell you is ambitious for a retail entity that relies so heavily on cooling. Given that our country’s food system is highly carbon-intensive, a study for how its sale and distribution can be more ecological responsive is certainly worthwhile. Continue Reading…

international green construction codeIf the goal is to limit the overcrowding of cars on the street, is it a better solution to dilute density in order to spread people out or to foster the ability for more people to carry out more of their day via alternative transit? Is the best way to avoid excessive signage and light pollution to forcibly segregate all commercial program or might it be easier to simply regulate sizes for signage and candlepower for lighting? In an effort to limit the amount of cooking odors disturbing nearby residences, would it make more sense to remove proximity of all retail business or to set standards for the design and location of cooking exhaust?

Questions like these draw into focus the difference between two mindsets for planning and design, prescriptively restrictive vs. performative. The deeper question is whether it makes more sense to guide design and development by prescribing solutions with an (educated) guess as to how they may perform over time or by simply setting standards for testing how things should actually perform? While the former has proven to be easier for governing bodies in many cases, the latter can be built on what we actually have rather than an idea of what could occur. Continue Reading…

The Smart Growth Manual

By: Andres Duany, Jeff Speck, and Mike Lydon

One Line:

The experience of three planning veterans boiled into a valid list of smart growth concepts that can serve as a primer for new development efforts.

Review:

While there has been notable traction in the design community for efforts to retool the assumptions for sub-urban planning in America, in some ways the movement of “Smart Growth” suffers from the same haunting characteristics of “sustainability.” The very broadness of both terms, necessary to encapsulate the scale of all they contain and can possible […]

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Too often, we find ourselves in new suburban developments that are little more than a watered down model of a historic precedent. With large swaths of sub-divided into saleable parcels, the go-to combination of a windy road, ample lawns and a smattering of colonial reminiscing can get the property off the hands of a developer into the eager grasp of new tenants. But when it comes to actually fostering a sense of community, more often than not we see houses thrown up in reasonable proximity with hopes for the best. This method leaves a lot of clubs in the bag for crafting variables entirely within our collective control to produce better results. Among them is the relationship between our homes and the streetscape, with plenty of ways to promote connection rather than just proximity. Continue Reading…

demolition stoop urban ruinDensity plays a key role in the creation of a walkable, pedestrian-oriented, sustainable community. Though there are examples of denser development patterns that are not walkable, it is hard to create walkability without hitting a certain threshold of units per acre, so bolstering the streetscape with new buildings can be important for the sustainable aspirations of a young municipality. However, for cities like New York, density is not a recent phenomenon. The city has been building since its inception, which has lead to density not only being achieved from new construction, but in large part due to the wealth of existing buildings that have been around for a while. Given the vast amount of resources frozen in our existing building stock, our older urban landscapes need to look through more lenses of sustainability than only the merits of new development. Continue Reading…

Dark Age Ahead

By: Jane Jacobs

One Line:

Well known for her voice of calm critique, Jacobs examines the necessity several pillars of cultural vibrancy as well as why our failing to maintain them could levy an age of cultural deficiency for modern day North America that compromises defining aspects of who we are.

Review:

For those that have read the works of Jane Jacobs, she is not prone to writing about all of the things we are doing extremely well.  Her final literary installment is no different. Jacobs references historic Dark Ages–eras of where large amounts of resilience and cultural capital are lost–and relates them to the present course […]

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maroma resort beachWhen most of us manage to carve out the time, money and effort required to clock out of the daily grind for a while, the top priority is stepping away from the nagging mundane worries that are waiting for us every morning. Vacation spots excel at helping to push thoughts of the job, the commute, the chores and the bills to the side in deference to an image of luxury, if only to be enjoyed for a short time. Given Gallup’s recent numbers on where the environment sits in the list of priorities for Americans, chances are that sustainability doesn’t rank high on most of our vacation itineraries. Continue Reading…

trees, sidewalk, people, streetThis was one of the underlying questions within the discourse on a recent webinar that targeted how designers can engage in progressive community development. I had the pleasure of being joined by fellow panelists, Christine Modor and Fleur Timmer with moderation by author David Thorpe. Titled: Urban Architecture and Building Better Communities, the discussion fielded questions on the role of architects and landscape architects in helping to craft useful and coveted community spaces. Continue Reading…