By Vanessa Quirk
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The Living Market, a plan to redevelop vacant land to create a Marketplace of community space, shops, and affordable housing. Image courtesy of Emily Talen, Sungduck Lee, and the Long Island Index.
Suburbia has a problem. We’ve known it for a while. We’ve chosen to ignore it.
Why? Because the suburbs are difficult. And just… not sexy. We have become so enamored with our cities, with their various complexities and potential for sustainability, that the suburbs, with their single-family home and deep carbon footprint, seem a backwards architectural wasteland.
But letting the suburbs die would be a tragic, missed opportunity. As I noted in “Bursting the Bubble,” Suburbia is not just the Myth it propagates (wealthy commuters and Soccer Moms in SUVs, carelessly polluting the environment and resistant to change), but a large, growing “other”: the suburban poor, stranded and imprisoned by sprawl.
To reverse Suburbia’s built hostility to its “other” and the very Earth itself, we must re-imagine the ‘burbs as nodes of density within a well-connected network. But to make this reality, we must get the Myth’s “chosen ones” on our side, which means versing ourselves in a tricky (and political) discourse.
We cannot just be Architects; we have to be part of a community-driven movement.
Understanding the Suburbanite
Coming out, bikes-slinging, crying “Death to the Automobile!” won’t exactly win over the natives. Neither, unfortunately, will emphasizing the needs of the suburban poor.
To illustrate my point: when plans surfaced for a low-income apartment complex in San Antonio, an affluent neighborhood in Texas, residents e-mailed, phoned, and wrote letters to local officials to let them know that it would “spoil” the neighborhood, bring down property values, and increase traffic/crime. 
Part and parcel of the Suburban Myth of wealth, whiteness, and space is a fear that encouraging density (a veritable naughty word in Suburbia) to provide for the needs of the poor, many of whom are immigrants and minorities, will destroy their communities and turn them into violent slums.
Then there are the other difficulties: slow-moving or impotent local governments, the lack of funding, zoning laws, density restrictions, land-use regulations… no one said wide-spread systemic change would be easy.
As architects, we are in the tricky position of making redevelopment and density, necessary from both a moral and environmental standpoint, palatable to the community. Which means we have to design with three major points in mind: making the ‘burbs (1) safer for its children, (2) more profitable, and (3) kinder to the earth.
Turning a Street into a Complete Street. Part of GOOD's Livable Street Project. Photo via cooltownstudios.
Let’s start with #1, because (frankly) using the rhetoric of “Do it, for the children” is arguably the easiest way to initiate change in family-oriented Suburbia.
As I noted in Part I of this series, walking around Suburbia is not just difficult, it can be downright dangerous. In response, many cities and towns (in New Jersey and Washington State, for example) have begun to adopt “complete street” policies (including bike lanes, broadening sidewalks, etc.) to create safer, more accessible neighborhoods.
Complete street policies are powerful because they’re crowd-pleasers. As Barbara McCann, Executive Director of the National Complete Streets Coalition, notes in a 2010 Report:
“Recent polls show that voters’ top priority for infrastructure investments are safer streets for our communities and children. Our report shows that this commitment is not only wide, but deep: community leaders and transportation practitioners are rolling up their sleeves and working together in small towns and big cities, in almost every state in the nation, to pass policies that will ensure that future transportation investments create complete streets.” 
Complete streets, with their positive environmental connotations (they’re in fact a criteria for LEED Neighborhood Development) and mantra of accessibility, could be the gateway to fundamentally altering the geometry of suburbia towards more walkable, less car-dependent, communities.
While many factors can encourage walking in suburbia, a Fall 2011 study done by the The University of California Transportation Center (UCTC), found that the single best way to incentivize walking is to increase the number of businesses per acre. Thus Suburbia must re-orient itself from its linear structure and towards centrally-focused downtowns where local businesses can flourish. 
Designing for safer,“complete” streets, which necessitate more intersections (thus creating smaller blocks) and improved street connectivity, encourages just such a built environment. This is where strategy #2, making Suburbia more profitable, comes in.
Few in Suburbia would argue with improving “destination accessibility,” making commonly visited locations (like stores and supermarkets) easier to access. The key here is not creating high-rise, extremely dense locations but walkable nodes of business that integrate greenery, mixed-use buildings, and open, public space.
Take, for example, the Living Market (as seen above), designed by Sungduck Lee and Emily Talen, author of Design for Diversity: Exploring Socially Mixed Neighborhoods, which re-imagines an underutilized vacant land in the Village of Hempstead, Long Island, as a mixed-use marketplace.
The Living Market, a mix of cottage industries, food markets, and community gardens surrounded by affordable housing, would be a town meeting point. It would attract affluent people to enjoy its greenery and shop – bringing profit into and stimulating the local economy – but it would also provide a mix of housing options for the low to mid-income shop owners. Density disguised, if you will, in a community-oriented commercial core.
The Del Mar Station in Pasadena, built around a light rail station. The project includes a plaza, rental apartments, and shops. From the station, you can walk to Old Town Pasadena. © Moule & Polyzoides, Architects and Urbanists. Photograph by Tom Bonner Photography.
A Connected, Greener Whole
Of course, it’s not enough to create walkable, enjoyable nodes in an isolated sea of sprawl. As the UCTC study points out, to truly decrease driving and carbon emissions, these nodes must be connected within a network of regional mobility.
Strategy #3: Use environmentalism as the excuse to design our nodes around pre-existing/emergent transportation hubs, transforming them from (typically) “scary” danger spots, into commercial centers of community interaction, and making public transportation actually appealing.
As I noted in “Bursting the Bubble,” being green has a certain cultural cache nowadays. More and more Americans, particularly young Americans, have begun to see the car as a “toxic cell,” one that chains you to traffic jams and fluctuating gas prices. This cultural shift, which will certainly affect Suburia’s future, should be leveraged; through design, we can slowly begin to release the automobile’s vice-like grip over Suburbia.
The Crossings, in Gresham, Oregon, were one of the first mixed-use, walkable developments to be built in the suburbs. Photo via the Congress for New Urbanism.
A Community on Your Side
To redesign Suburbia for the reality rather than the myth (living on in the minds of many of its residents), will involve informed design, a huge infrastructural effort and a nuanced knowledge of suburban political discourse.
Tapping into local organizations and grassroots programs is vital. Partnering with an organization such as Renaissance Downtowns, which uses social media and web-based applications to gather input from the community about the change they’d like to see in their communities, will not only give us a more accurate picture of the needs/make-up of each particular community, but will help us to invest the entire community in the enterprise.
As architects, we can completely alter the fabric of suburban life – for the better of the earth and its thousands of stranded poor – but not alone. It takes a village, to raise a village.
To save suburbia, we’ll need first to win suburbia to our side.
 King, Karisa and Ryan Murphy. “Program for Low-Income Housing Compels Building in Poor Neighborhoods.” The New York Times. April 21, 2012.
 Benfield, Kaid. “Complete Streets Policies are Gaining Popularity Across the Country.” SwitchBoard: National Resources Defense Council Staff Blog. April 27, 2011.
 Boarnet, Marlon G., William Fulton, Kenneth Joh, Mai Thi Nguyen, and Walter Siembab. “Retrofitting the Suburbs to increase Walking.” Access #39. Fall 2011.
Benfield, Kaid. ”The definitive study of how land use affects travel behavior.” SwitchBoard: National Resources Defense Council Staff Blog.
Beyard, Michael D., and Michael Pawlukiewicz. “Ten Principles for Reinventing America’s Suburban Strips.”
Goodwill, Julie. “Building Transit Oriented Development in Established Communities.” Center for Urban Transportation Research.
Krugman, Paul. “Stranded in Suburbia.” The New York Times.