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Amy Traub

Re-envisioning Suburbia

"In a future where limited natural resources will force us to find better solutions for density and efficiency, what will become of the cul-de-sacs, cookie-cutter tract houses and generic strip malls that have long upheld the diffuse infrastructure of suburbia? How can we redirect these existing spaces to promote sustainability, walkability, and community?"

To my eye, those are public policy questions. I think of land use regulations, mass transit funding, the challenge of acquiring land for new public spaces, and incentives for affordable housing development. But as Dwell Magazine and point out, these questions also raise design issues. And as their just-completed suburban design competition proves, design makes for much more compelling images than the typical stuff we policy wonks dream up.

The winning design is a fanciful plan for turning abandoned mcmansions into wetlands and wastewater treatment plants. But my eye was drawn to the second place finisher, a proposal that, as the judges point out, is a policy idea at heart. And that idea is simple: get rid of the zoning regulations that prevent commercial businesses from operating in residential areas. Then, stand back and watch entrepreneurs transform suburban subdivisions into flourishing mixed-use areas.

As a serious proposal, this leaves a lot to be desired. Consider that the marquee business is a single-family home turned nightclub. I may be raising my family in Manhattan, but even I don't want thumping music next door until 3 a.m. every night. And who wants to wake up to find their neighbor's house suddenly transformed into a medical waste disposal firm, or a dog kennel? In general, it's a good thing zoning regulations exist. The answer isn't simply to "abolish poorly conceived zoning laws," but to conceive better ones, laws that allow for mixed use areas, denser development, and the infrastructure to handle it (a significant weakness of the Entrepreneurbia design, as several commenters pointed out) without necessarily letting a disco spring up on every corner.

But there's no need to take the proposal so literally. What I love about the design is that it lays bare the tremendous role that usually invisible laws like zoning regulations have on our everyday life, and the fabric of our communities. It highlights the fact that we live the way we do, in the kinds of places we do, in part because public policy has shaped our lives. Our role, in turn, is to figure out how to shape that policy for the better. The Reburbia competition is an intriguing source of ideas about what it might look like if we did.

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Posted at 8:14 AM, Aug 20, 2009 in Cities | Housing
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