Posts tagged with "Suburbs":
When a book about suburbia contains a chapter called “The Anarchists Who Took the Commuter Train,” you know it is going to be an interesting read. That book is Amanda Kolson Hurley’s Radical Suburbs: Experimental Living on the Fringes of the American City, and it does not disappoint. In six well-researched and informative—yet fast-paced—chapters, Hurley introduces us to a tapestry of suburban social experimentation, from communal living in celibacy to a community of working couples inspired by the Bauhaus. It is a rich collection of projects, most of which have been overlooked by standard urban surveys.
And yes, there were anarchists in Piscataway, New Jersey, commuting to day jobs in Manhattan. Stelton was a development by anarchists decamping from New York’s East Village in 1915. It was centered around an experimental school, the Modern School, which had both year-round and summer residents united by ultraleft political beliefs and, apparently, a love of argumentation. As throughout the book, Hurley takes her research of Piscataway and the Stelton development on the road, visiting the remnants of the town and interviewing former Stelton residents who remember idyllic school days where—as you can imagine in an anarchist paradise—they were pretty much allowed to do anything they liked. Hurley tells Stelton’s story in rich detail, examining everything from how property rights were handled to the ways in which the houses were decorated.
The chapter on Concord Park, which is just outside of Philadelphia, is equally illuminating. Subtitled “Integrating the Suburbs at ‘Checkerboard Square,’” this section details the efforts of a white developer, Morris Milgram, to create a completely integrated suburb in the 1950s. Hurley effectively conveys the many hurdles Milgram faced and the agonizing choices he had to make, most notably his decision to mandate a quota of 55 percent sales to whites and 45 percent to blacks. As one of only a handful of suburban communities to offer high-quality homes to black residents, the quota was deemed necessary in order to keep it from becoming majority black, with the 10 percent disparity added to entice whites to buy. The project was an initial success (it later did revert to an upper-middle-class majority black neighborhood). Hurley again found authentic voices of former residents, combined with tireless research, to record its story.
All of the stories in this book are masterfully told, adding depth to the examination of suburbs within the disciplines of urbanism and architecture—while at the same time providing enough color and commentary to appeal to a reader with little experience or prior interest in the subject. Hurley’s focus on social experimentation and the ways developments affected residents’ day-to-day lives is part of this success.
What gets perhaps less attention, however, is the wonkier architectural-urban analyses of urban design and architecture in contributing to the radicality of these projects. Of the two more “architectural” projects detailed in the book, The Architects' Collaborative’s collection of Modernist homes outside of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the planned city of Reston, Virginia—the dreamchild of developer Robert E. Simo designed by William Conklin and Thomas Rossant—which only Reston could be considered a truly radical challenge to the standard subdivision in terms of its urban design, embracing both density and mixing of uses. Even at Reston, Simon was forced out and the project reverted to typical suburban norms. (The knife in the gut is that the companies that took over the project were Gulf Oil and Mobil—as if we needed any further proof of what oil companies are looking for in terms of how people live and commute.)
As a result, the book is rather short on critical analysis of the role of design and, perhaps more important, whether design can play a role in remedying any of the problems—restrictive covenants, lack of density and connections, the effects of climate change—that Hurley details in her conclusion as everyday realities. As many—if not most—of the projects in the book ended up failing in themselves or at least failing to inspire any larger movements, the role of design in the relative success of an example like Greenbelt, Maryland—where the proto-modernist forms of Art Deco were used to create a successful mingling of a main street with true suburban freedoms—would make for an interesting next volume.
Hurley’s organization of the book reflects this dichotomy between what is considered success and what is considered failure. She begins in the introduction with a full-throated defense of the suburbs, detailing their increased diversity, quality of life, and sense of community, arguing that the examples in the book are a refutation of suburban clichés of conformity, mediocrity, and blandness. Yet she ends with the aforementioned critique and offers a list of ways in which suburbs could improve. Even the most ordinary of suburbs can of course be considered a uniquely American experiment that has had extraordinary success in redefining how people live. As with any experiment, it is the failures that often provide the pathway to new solutions, and Hurley shows how a number of outliers previously lost to history offer clear alternatives. With 50 percent of Americans still living in the suburbs, even the most hardcore urbanist cannot refute the need to reexamine and redesign them. Hurley has provided us with much-needed fuel for the imagination.
Dan Wood, FAIA, is a cofounder of WORKac and author of We’ll Get There When We Cross That Bridge and 49 Cities.
This article appears in The Architect’s Newspaper’s April 2017 issue, which takes a deep dive into Florida to coincide with the upcoming AIA Conference on Architecture in Orlando (April 27 to 29). We’re publishing the issue online as the Conference approaches—click here to see the latest articles to be uploaded.
Americans define themselves through work; it builds character, or so we believe. The American Dream is premised on individual achievement, with the promise that our labor will be rewarded and measured by the things we collect and consume. For many, the sine qua non of the dream, our greatest collectible, is the single-family house. Of all our products, it is the one we most rely upon to represent our aspirations and achievements.
Throughout the history of our republic, the idea—promoted from the beginning by the likes of Thomas Jefferson, heir to Palladio and father of the American suburban ideal—of living in a freestanding house in the middle of one’s own personal Eden has been the dream of generation after generation of Americans. So while it was possible for Le Corbusier to say, in Paris near the beginning of the last century, that “A house is a machine for living,” from our perspective, on this side of the Atlantic and on this side of the 20th century, it would be better to append that famous maxim: “A house is a machine for living the American Dream.” At this point in history, this statement seems entirely self-evident but still we are reminded by our leaders to get our piece of the dream. In promoting his vision of an “ownership society” in a speech at the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in Atlanta in 2002, President George W. Bush said, “I do believe in the American Dream… Owning a home is a part of that dream; it just is. Right here in America, if you own your own home, you’re realizing the American Dream.” And during the early years of the new century, the economy soared as millions of wood-framed dreams sprang up across the country, enabled by an elaborate new financial calculus cooked up by Wall Street.
But then the magic formulas—which scripted the construction and consumption of ever-larger houses in ever increasing numbers by bundling our dreams together into tradeable units—began to fail. The dream quickly became a nightmare. As the legitimating environmental, economic, and socio-political narratives that for so long sustained the endless reproduction of suburbia began to collapse, it became clear that the suburban house, rather than the manifesting of our achievements, masked our delusions. According to the historian John Archer, “the romanticized isolation of the individual (or nuclear family unit) in a manufactured Arcadian preserve is an increasingly untenable fiction.”
The myth that we all stand alone, propelled by our own initiative and hard work is part of that fiction. Suburbs, and the detached single-family houses of which they are comprised, reinforce it. They work to isolate and separate us, to dislocate us as individuals, detached from any larger heterogeneous collective body. The common cul-de-sac is, both literally and symbolically, the end of the road, a terminus in a system. Safely sequestered within its four (or eight, or sixteen, or thirty-two) walls, we stand apart from the crowd, reaching out through an array of devices to make contact with those who are, more or less, just like us. Space becomes less a medium in which we mix and more a barrier that insulates us from those unlike ourselves. And as houses balloon in size, this sense of disconnection is amplified within the walls of the house itself, with each inhabitant withdrawing to ever more far-flung and insular domestic realms.
The social and political consequences of this withdrawal are increasingly obvious in the deterioration of a civil society and the erosion of civil discourse. The further we live from each other, the less we are capable of seeing each other as people with shared dreams and struggles and the more likely we are to see an other, unlike us, whom we fear and demonize. The evidence of this is clear in the last election, in which President Donald Trump’s campaign of xenophobia claimed the most votes, according to the Washington Post, in our suburbs, small cities, and rural areas. As our houses spread out—as the distance between us increases—we vote more myopically to protect our own perceived interests (and the interests of those we see as like us) at the expense of what is arguably the greater collective good.
But is the detached house, with its resulting social detachment, a prerequisite of the American Dream? Is it possible to imagine other futures for the dream and, consequently, other futures for dwelling? What would happen if personal happiness were no longer so closely tied to economic success derived from the fruits of one’s labor? These are questions we would do well to consider. Jobs are disappearing. And while presently most of us still need—and may even want—to sell our labor, it is becoming clearer that with each passing day there will only be fewer buyers. Our relationship to work, and therefore to the American Dream, and therefore to our manner of dwelling, and therefore to politics, is changing.
According to the network theorist Geert Lovink and the political activist Franco Berardi, the capitalist promise of “full employment turned out to be a dystopia: there is simply not enough work for everyone…. Zero work is the tendency, and we should get prepared for it, which is not so bad if social expectations change, and if we accept the prospect that we’ll work less and we’ll have time to think about life, art, education, pleasure, love, and what have you rather than solely about profit and growth.” Our current world is built on a foundation of profit and growth. Our urbanism—and the infrastructure and architecture with which it is constructed, including the tens of millions of homes spread thin across the landscape—is the result of a centuries-old economic system. And that system has consistently sought to segregate sites of labor and production from sites of dwelling. The single-family house in a suburban bedroom community along a congested commuter route is the product of a capitalist system in which we head out each day to sell our labor in an indifferent market, returning as night falls to replenish our energies and reclaim our identity.
As the market for labor decreases in an increasingly automated world, we need to begin thinking about the consequences and benefits of a future without work, or, more accurately, with far less wage-earning work. Even now we can see that a shift is occurring. The recent collapse of the distinction between places of work and living is both a symptom of the underlying economic and technological transformations that are reshaping work as we know it and a sign that points toward other ways of dwelling. Out of necessity, and, in many cases, desire, people are beginning to experiment with other ways of living, coming together to form new (or new again) types of shared live-work households. And as the tendency toward zero work increases, we will all need to rethink the way we live. Because if we take the classical definition of work out of the equation, the whole structure of our cities, as well as our manner of living, makes a lot less sense.
Already, this probability is leading economists, technologists, and political scientists—but sadly few politicians on either the left or the right—to speculate on the structure of society in the future. A key question is how people will sustain themselves without jobs. There are renewed calls for a universal basic income by tech leaders like Elon Musk (or a universal basic dividend suggested by Greek economist and politician Yanis Varoufakis); Bill Gates has even suggested that we have an income tax on robots. In any case, a new economic model—which will, necessarily, be accompanied by a new politicalorder—in which we are freed from the obligation to sell our labor in order to survive will require that we consider other conceptions of human productivity, other forms of human association, and of course other ways of living.
In such a future, the American Dream, as it is currently defined, would have no utility. But how would we organize our lives in a world where we work less? What would we do? How would we live? In his essay “Fuck Work,” the historian James Livingston points toward an answer when he asks, “How would human nature change as the aristocratic privilege of leisure becomes the birthright of all? As architects, seeking a way forward, we might ask a different version of Livingston’s question: How would human habitats change, as the privilege of leisure becomes the birthright of all?
Liberated from the idea that our dwellings must be understood as freestanding castles, as isolated retreats from society through which we represent our individualism and secure our market share, we could instead conceive of assemblages of dwellings that collectively define a domain of mutual cooperation, interaction and civil discourse. We have counter-histories of dwelling that offer us guidance in thinking about other possible domestic orders. In 1886, Jean-Baptiste Godin, the French industrialist who built the Social Palace at Guise, wrote that when “constructed with a view to unity of purpose and interests, the homes, like the people, approach each other, stand solidly together, and form a vast pile in which all the resources of the builder’s art contribute to best answer the needs of families and individuals.” And following this, we might allow ourselves to imagine—as a way of shaking off the dust of the 20th century—living in what the social reformer Robert Owen described as a “magnificent palace, containing within itself the advantages of a metropolis, a university, and a country residence, without any of their disadvantages, …placing within the reach of its inhabitants… arrangements far superior to any now known … [nor] yet possessed by the most favored individuals in any age or country.”
Of course, the American Dream can’t be transformed overnight. There are aspects of it that are deeply embedded in our collective consciousness. At its core, the dream is about security, comfort, and familiarity, as much as it is about aspiration, accomplishment, and status. Any new ideas about the way we live, if they are to dislodge us from our long-habituated connection to the single-family detached house, must be accompanied by new architectural models and delivered through compelling new narratives that situate the needs and desires currently manifest in the house within new patterns that make collective life more desirable.
This may seem to be yet another call for a utopia, and therefore criticized as being divorced from the pressing concerns of the real world. It is not. For as Lewis Mumford said, “the prospects of architecture are not divorced from the prospects of the community. If man is created, as the legends say, in the image of the gods, his buildings are done in the image of his own mind and institutions.” The real world is changing rapidly all around us; meanwhile we cling to increasingly outmoded dreams. In the future, if we hope not only to survive but also to thrive, we’ll need to change our minds and rethink our institutions. We’ll have to prioritize community as much as we currently prioritize individuality. We’ll have to decide to live together. We’ll need new dreams.
Keith Krumwiede is the author of Atlas of Another America: An Architectural Fiction (Park Books, 2017).
The last twenty-odd years may have seen the remarkable comeback of cities, but the next twenty might actually be more about the suburbs, as many cities have become victims of their own success. The housing crisis—a product of a complex range of factors from underbuilding to downzoning—has made some cities, such as New York and Los Angeles, a playground for the ultra-wealthy, pushing out long-time residents and making the city unaffordable for the artists, creatives, and small businesses who make vibrant places.
While it is impossible to cast a national generalization, in a broad sense, the cities’ loss could be the suburbs’ gain. Many young people and poorer residents are moving to the suburbs, although not necessarily because they want to. This is creating a market on the fringes of the city for a more vibrant mixed-use development based on public transportation and urban amenities. The traditional American suburban model of sprawling single-family homes and clusters of retail is not necessarily the only way these territories are developing, as even the big box mall models are taking new forms.
In some ways, the urban and the suburban are flattening, as Judith K. De Jong argues in her book New SubUrbanisms. Culturally, formally, and conceptually, they share more than we typically think. While suburban residents crave quasi-ersatz urban experiences, many in the urban areas are living as if they are in the suburbs, in more insular developments that minimize their interactions with the city and other citizens. In the suburbs, on the other hand, there is potential for an increase in mixed-use and mixed-experience living.
Adding to this new “intersectional suburb,” which we consider in our feature, are the demographic shifts that are continuing to upend the notion of classic post-war suburbs. We examine how a recent report by the Urban Land Institute surveys the new landscape on which the formation of new suburban projects will take place. A recent study by urban planner Daniel D’oca and his students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design even called this phenomenon “black flight.”
What makes these changes so loaded with potential to provoke new types of suburban development and living is that the suburbs already cover an enormous amount of land in the U.S. University of Michigan professor of landscape architecture Joan Nassauer cites Major Uses of Land in the United States, 2007, a 2011 U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service study that shows that 3 percent of all land in the U.S. is covered by “cities,” while upward of 5 percent is taken up by suburbs.
This means that while there are new tracts of land being built, much of this experimentation will be transforming what is already there, but with new technologies and understanding of what a healthy urbanism looks like environmentally, culturally, and economically. It is an incredibly fertile ground for architecture and urban design to imagine how to retrofit the suburbs and make them part of the next generation of cities.
When discussing his vision for the future of cities, Vishaan Chakrabarti cites Paul Baran’s 1962 diagram “Centralized, Decentralized, and Distributed Networks,” which argues that a distributed, rhizomatic network of nodes and connections is the most resilient way to organize a system. If the affordability crisis in urban areas drives more people out of city centers, then maybe mixed-use centers could be located all around a periphery, creating new conditions that are very well suited for the new technologies and environmental challenges that face the suburbs.
As the suburbs adapt to technologies—such as self-driving cars and solar power—to update their inefficient and problematic infrastructures, they will have new opportunities to address new transit options that connect them to the rest of the urban landscape. They will also be fertile ground for more industrial and commercial uses.
These changes in the suburban landscape can only be fruitful for architects and urbanists if they allow themselves to see the suburbs not as a “deplorable,” ecologically destitute place, but rather as a design challenge that offers a culturally rich and diverse set of problems that can help a variety of families in varying socio-economic conditions. Once we shed our preconceptions, we can start to analyze them on the terms that have already been set, and we can start to remake the suburbs in the image of a progressive, 21st century city.
Judith K. De Jong’s book New SubUrbanisms presents an American urban landscape that is at once all too familiar and yet full of exceptions and alternatives to the typical narrative. In her well-researched guide, she presents an argument for a new understanding of the relationship between urban and suburban space in the United States.
While touching on cities and suburbs across the country, the book uses Chicago, Houston, and their surrounding suburbs as case studies for what De Jong describes as a “flattening” of urban and suburban space. This flattening is characterized in its simplest terms as the urbanizing of suburban space, and the suburbanizing of the urban space. De Jong outlines three dichotomies of the flattening process—literal and conceptual, cultural and demographic, formal and spatial. Each of these are explored through four architectural typologies, found both in the urban and suburban context—car space, domestic space, public space, and retail space. As a whole, De Jong labels many recent trends in all of these typologies as being sub/urban, or possessing the qualities of both the urban and suburban.
Each of these typologies is given its own chapter. Fronted with vital histories, the chapters challenge the popular ideas of these specific typologies. In each case the socio-economic and cultural forces and implications of benchmark projects are tied to their roles in the development of suburban or urban spaces. De Jong continually reiterates, with evidence, the complex relationship between these seemingly opposing conditions, rather than setting them against each other. Often, surprising histories are revealed, questioning typical narratives. Examples of distinctly urban spaces in suburban settings and suburban ideals expressed in urban developments, build a more nuanced understanding of the gradient and overlap of the two.
Rather than just a historical account, the book is a call to action for designers to think and design more critically. While any historical text has an inherent bias, De Jong presents the histories in a matter of fact way, while offering thoughtful opinions in the second half of each chapter. In the assessment of innovative sub/urban projects, a general optimism arises throughout the writing. Yet the book is still sharply critical of many projects which fail to strive for the formal or spatial ambitions of those groundbreaking projects.
In the car-space chapter, the suburbs as the main domain of the automobile is rebutted with evidence of the car’s long role in urban planning, design, and architecture. The chapter primarily focuses on the space dedicated to parking, and the different forms that have developed out of the need to store mass numbers of cars. The example of Bertrand Goldberg’s Marina City is invoked more than once throughout the book. Its 900 parking spaces allow for the housing portion of the project to be lifted well above the din of the city streets, a technique that provides for a suburban sensibility of space and amenity, as well as an urban form. This arrangement has since become the prototype for many towers across the country, particularly in Chicago.
Along with Goldberg, the work of Victor Gruen is highlighted as proto-sub/urban in its ambitions to bring urban-like spaces and programs to the exploding post-war suburban landscape. Gruen, who is credited with formulating the contemporary suburban mall, envisioned a space which would function like an urban square or piazza, while serving contemporary American consumers. Once malls became what we generally know them as today, Gruen disowned the typology, upset with the lack of community focus. The retail space chapter brings the discussion of the mall up to today. Tracing the decline of the 1980s-style mall, and the rise of the lifestyle center, De Jong again criticizes current trends in retail architecture while outlining possible futures.
By the end of the book De Jong highlights some of the most recent critical investigations of the suburbs, and presents work that she and a team formulated as a rough guide to designing New SubUrbanisms. The schematic designs bring together many of the points made throughout the book, while proposing a more formally exuberant language for the typology. And though this final chapter brings the book together ideologically, it is De Jong’s writing that holds the book together. Without the clarity of writing, the thoroughly researched thesis could have easily fallen flat. Instead, the readers find themselves—either agreeing or disagreeing—quickly understanding a topic that seems to have escaped the general academic and professional discourse. New SubUrbanisms should give anyone interested in urbanism, city planning, or urban design something new to think about.
New SubUrbanisms Judith K. De Jong, Routledge, $51.95
Cookie-cutter Levittowns epitomize the post–World War II generation’s housing: Shaped by subsidies and segregation practices like redlining, vast tracts of cul-de-sacs and ranch homes filled up with white Americans emptying from the cities. Now, as a new generation stands to form 14 million new households over the next decade, the suburbs are poised for major changes.
How and where the next wave lives are the major questions put forth by “Housing in the Evolving American Suburb,” the 2016 report from the Urban Land Institute (ULI), a nonprofit developer and real estate research group based in Washington, D.C. Its analysis takes a big-picture snapshot of America’s suburbs in an attempt to update and more accurately reflect demographics and spread beyond Levittown. Seeing the suburbs figuring prominently in issues ranging from aging to immigration and economic growth, the report aims to create “a new analytic framework for classifying suburban housing markets.”
Drawing extensively from census data, the ULI—working with real estate consultants RCLCO—used factors such as housing types, population density, employment density, and distance from city centers to identify the suburban areas outside of America’s 50 largest metro areas. Organized by census tract, each area is classified into five suburban categories based on land value and a host of development trends.
Using these definitions, one immediate takeaway was that the suburbs are growing. “There’s absolutely…an outward migration from metro areas and regions based on the cost of living, which is principally the cost of housing,” said Stockton Williams, executive director for the ULI Terwilliger Center for Housing. Furthermore, the newer, more peripheral, and affordable suburbs are growing faster in comparison with older suburbs, regardless of whether the latter were wealthy or low income. And, contrary to popular perception, the suburbs are increasingly more diverse. By one estimate, suburban America was nearly 90 percent white in 1980. Now, while what the ULI defines as “economically struggling” suburbs are 62.1 percent minority (a definition that includes all races except non-Hispanic whites), “established high-end” and “stable middle income” suburbs are 33.8 percent and 51.2 percent minority, respectively. By comparison, non-Hispanic whites were an estimated 61.6 percent of the national population in 2015. However, the report and its accompanying online map (available at RCLCO’s website) make it impossible to distinguish what minorities make a census tract diverse. Moreover, segregation can still persist, depending on your standards and how close you look—a fall 2014 Harvard GSD studio still found the legacy of suburban segregation alive and well in Long Island’s Nassau County, which the report identifies mostly as “stable middle income.” While identifying that form of discrimination was not the report’s goal, Williams predicted that immigrants in particular would shape suburbs in the future. He said demand for newer, more peripheral, but higher-end suburbs will “increasingly be driven by second- and third-generation immigrants.”
Also contrary to population conception is the suburban demographic: 75 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds in the report’s top-50 metro areas lives in suburbs. That age group (millennials) may drive major national changes there. “There are still a lot of millennials who have not really formed households, or even if they have, have not even begun to fully express what we expect to be their purchasing power and their preferences in the housing market,” said Williams. According to previous ULI studies, 75 percent of millennials plan to move in the next five years, and that group has a strong preference for car-optional neighborhoods that are diverse and pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly—in other words, compact mixed-use developments. So what will happen when millennials want to upgrade the sizes of their dwellings, form households, or pursue home ownership, especially when as of 2014 the median household income for those aged 25 and 34 was $54,243?
More prosperous millennials may remain in cities or move to newer, higher-end suburbs—ones developed with dense, walkable, mixed-use downtowns as amenities. For the rest, other possible destinations arethe many “economically challenged” suburbs well situated near urban cores. “There, we could see a reinvestment, meaning an influx of younger families, or families of any age who want to buy, who can buy more…because prices are lower,” Williams said. Such a phenomenon is already underway near Washington, D.C., in parts of Prince George’s County, Maryland, which Williams said is “now attracting residential investment and mixed-use and even arts and cultural redevelopment.”
Another complicating factor is the fate of older suburban housing stock. Though it’s unclear at what rate those homes will enter the market, when they do, there may be little demand from younger generations for homes “that were built in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, largely to meet the needs and preferences of the nuclear family unit of that era, in communities that may not always reflect today’s preferences,” said Williams. Lastly, the prospect of driverless and electric vehicles—estimated to enter widespread use in 20 to 30 years, according to the report—could be highly disruptive. Autonomous and shared vehicles could vastly curtail parking requirements that stifle density while making long-distance car commuting more amenable. Electric vehicles could also make the suburbs more sustainable.
While some have portrayed the report as another round in the city-versus-suburb debate, that’s not Williams’s takeaway. He argues that the suburbs’ range of housing options make them integral to the success of their cities and vice versa. “You really are seeing pretty significant and sustained growth in a number of the metro areas…where housing is more affordable.” But a range of factors—from fair-housing enforcement to driverless cars, aging in place, and millions of households’ preferences—have yet to play out in each region.
Malls, those slumbering gray boxes marching across the American suburban landscape, are steadily going extinct. Back in 2014, the New Yorker published “Are Malls Over?” in which Rick Caruso, CEO of Caruso Affiliated, was quoted as saying, “Within 10 to 15 years, the typical U.S. mall, unless it is completely reinvented, will be a historical anachronism—a 60-year aberration that no longer meets the public’s needs, the retailers’ needs, or the community’s needs.” The article continues, “Caruso flashed grim photos of their facades. He lingered on a picture of a deserted food court; you could practically smell the stale grease. ‘Does this look like the future to you?’ he asked.”
Even just three years later, it is difficult to imagine the “traditional” mall having a place, even in the most quintessential American suburb, 10 years from now. But while clearly the malls of the 1970s through the ’90s are not the future, the great irony here is that Caruso specializes in developing malls—luxury outdoor malls, such as the Grove in Los Angeles and the Americana at Brand in Glendale, California. And indeed, just as quickly as those once-ubiquitous beige shopping centers are being torn down across the U.S., shinier, flashier moneymaking entities are popping up in their place. The Mall 2.0, it seems, is an artificial landscape sans Sbarro and JCPenny’s, with a plethora of vaguely European structures and simulated boutique experiences in their place. Already, it feels like it’s time to reflect on whether or not these new “shopping experiences” will fare any better than their forebears.
However, in Meriden, Connecticut, a town located halfway between New Haven and Hartford, city leaders took an alternate route: transforming a former mall into a resilient 14.4-acre park replete with pedestrian bridges, a 2,150-square-foot amphitheater, a remediated landscape with a flood-control pond, and even drivable turf to accommodate food trucks and farmers markets. More radically, there are future plans to reduce the downtown infrastructure: “The downtown will go back to two-way traffic, like it was in the ’50s,” said Vincent Della Rocca, project manager at La Rosa Construction, a local family-owned business that helped create Meriden Green.
The $14 million project was no simple feat, involving an extensive overhaul of a formerly blighted area that locals called “The Hub.” In the 1950s and ’60s, the city began developing the space to bolster economic development, and in 1971 the Meriden Mall was built on the site. In the process, the Harbor Brook—technically three different brooks—was obstructed by a maze of underground pipes. The mall closed and in 1992 and 1996 flooding caused by the blocked water streams caused $30 million in damages to the downtown area. The city took possession of the property in 2005, and it was deemed a brownfield site. A Hub Site Reuse Committee was formed and began making plans to transform the area, creating the Site Reuse Plan in 2007.
Years of approval processes and funding grants later, the City of Meriden’s design team, engineering firm Milone and MacBroom, and LaRosa Construction broke ground in November 2013. Due to it being a former brownfield site, there were many unforeseen obstacles, such as underground oil tanks that had to be removed. The brook was exposed and diverted, “the site was cleaned, foundations were crushed, and six inches of topsoil were placed,” explained Della Rocca; additional landscaping included adding drainage channels, pedestrian bridges, and concrete pathways.
Meriden Green opened in September 2016, with future plans to build a new train station and a mixed-use commercial and residential building nearby. It is a soothing green space that brings families and community events to mind. Hanover Pond and the brook that feeds into it offer charm and respite in addition to their crucial flood-control functions.
It’s an optimistic project and one that simply makes good sense—the idea that green spaces offer the type of future-proofing no amount of luxurious shopping can ensure. “Today, ladies and gentlemen, is more than just the opening of a park, it’s more than just a grand flood-control measure,” Mayor Kevin Scarpati said at the opening. “This is the start of a new downtown; this is the start of a new Meriden.” And, if others take note, the state of the new suburban mall, as well.
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Airline Drive in Houston is (unsurprisingly) located a 20-minute drive from George Bush Intercontinental Airport and just short of that from Houston’s city center. Since 2005, the area has been known as the Airline Improvement District (AID), part of a scheme from Harris County to revitalize the four-square-mile area and improve “its desirability for residents, consumers and businesses.”
While the AID has been running for more than a decade, issues such as a lack of centralized water service, poor road and pedestrian infrastructure, and bayou flooding still hamper the area’s development. In fact, 50 percent of the district’s land lies within a floodplain—a problem that impacts water and sewage services as well as housing.
“There is no money dedicated to flood relief coming for another 50 years,” said Kinder Baumgardner, managing principal at Dallas-based landscape architecture, planning, and urban design studio SWA. “As a result, all the major urban development that one would want to do is not going to happen until the flooding is dealt with.”
SWA is in the process of implementing a master plan that will maximize the pre-existing communal infrastructure at the AID with the long-term aim of using revenue generated by the resulting businesses to combat flooding in the future. A key part of this plan involves the five major flea markets that can be found on Airline Drive between Gulf Bank Road and Canino Road. Baumgardner said that on weekends, approximately 50,000 people travel to these markets—dubbed Market Mile—“doubling, if not tripling the vicinity’s population.” Though quiet during the week, he described it as a weekend “festival,” albeit blighted by “unresolved” pedestrian circulation.
To SWA, these flea markets are a potential source of infrastructure capital—if the tax base can be expanded that is. (The district currently generates revenue through a one percent retail sales tax). Baumgardner explained that the studio took two approaches to boost the area.
Rebranding Market Mile would advertise the flea markets to a wider audience. The Harris County-Airline Improvement District Livable Centers Study carried out by SWA in 2009 found that just over half of the visitors frequent the market weekly, 46 percent of visitors stay two to four hours each time, and 41 percent visit other businesses in the area while at the market. And of this demographic, which is 90 percent Hispanic, only two percent either cycle or walk in.
In 2009, Harris County pledged $2.9 million to be spent on pedestrian improvements, a scheme that involved two new, signalized crosswalks on Airline and sidewalks on much-used streets. Harris County, however, does not view sidewalks favorably. The county has a policy of only installing sidewalks on new roads if a city or another source finances it. “It’s an expense that doesn’t have to do with transportation,” Mark Seegers, a spokesman for Harris County commissioner Sylvia Garcia told the Houston Chronicle. “The county does not do sidewalks; it’s not what gets cars from point A to point B.” Subsequently, planned sidewalks from SWA will be financed by Airline Improvement District.
SWA’s logic is that, if more people can come to the popular flea markets, more revenue will be generated due to more businesses being set up as a result of greater demand. SWA’s plan works both ways. If the market can’t come to the people, then the market can come to them through what they call “mobile community infrastructure.”
A fleet of retail and food trucks would be able to extend the services of Market Mile to those who don’t have access to it. Taking advantage of regulations (or lack thereof) found outside the city of Houston, such trucks could set up chairs and canopies, becoming a permanent location if they find success in a particular area, Baumgardner explained.
In the future, these trucks could provide more than just goods. SWA’s survey found that just over 30 percent of the AID population had an education no higher than ninth grade. Baumgardner went on to say how the trucks could provide educational facilities too, thus attracting more than just shoppers to the mobile market.
Additionally, 57 percent of people said they would take part in health awareness programs if given the opportunity to do so. Meanwhile, 43 percent said they would participate in job training and finance and business development programs.
“There’s a food truck culture that’s sweeping the country, especially in Houston,” said Baumgardner who added he met someone who already has a bookmobile in the area– perhaps a sign that the project is slowly taking off. Baumgardner concluded: “We want this district to have all the things that a livable center should be planning toward, but we also wanted to look at how a project could get going, even at a limited scale.”
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