Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sprawl Repair Kit

I was not terribly impressed by the collective productivity of last years Reburbia competition. There were highlights, but one was left wondering what all the fuss was about - and if these short, open-ended festivities were worth the attention. One exception in terms of ideas is the Urban Sprawl Repair Kit (via Inhabitat) by Galina Tahchieva offers a toolbox for transformation of ubiquitous fast-food restaurants, strip developments and big boxes that dot the suburban landscape.

:: image via Inhabitat

The proposal "...offers a simple set of infill techniques that are every bit as practical as they are effective at eliminating suburban sprawl. Using renewable technologies and energy-efficient practices, strip centers and big-box stores can be converted into solar-powered recycling centers, restaurant parking lots become mixed-use commercial centers, and McMansions are transformed into multi-resident senior housing."

While some of the visions are less convincing (such as the gas station infill), many are brilliant in their simplicity, such as the big box strip store, which drops new building forms along the street frontage to create a more inviting storefront and a central plaza, which is a lot more appealing within and from outside than it's predecessor. It also incorporates a significant densification of suburbia by layering additional GSF into the existing footprint.

:: image via Inhabitat

Another worthy example is the fast food restaurant, which is often non-descript and surrounded by a sea of parking. The addition of a street frontage (that is double-loaded) around the perimeters provides the ability for the larger building to 'anchor' a more mixed use of buildings and provide a more desirable face to the adjacent street.

:: image via Inhabitat

While the idea of how to transform these spaces is worthy of attention, there are some more broad-based urbanist questions that need to be addressed. As a site scale, there are options, but do the larger land-use, zoning, transportation, economic, and (sub)urban forces provide the context for these to be viable solutions? As the automobile becomes less prominent, we will need these tools... the next stage is to envision the larger, and much more difficult prospect of putting into motion the underlying mechanisms to make these realistic opportunities.


  1. I've commented on this topic before, but I'd like to reiterate again just how much of a skeptic I am, and the winning competition shows why.

    The second image shows a ring of infill of multi-story homes fronting a fast food restaurant and drive through. I'm not entirely privy of people's living preferences, but most would not like to live so close to such a business as a Wendy's or McDonald's -- but that's just my personal preference. Too many of these projects simply aren't practical or will probably fail once reality sets in.

    The entire idea of "reforming suburbia" is based on the wrong merits. The movement shouldn't be based on vastly changing an already existing environment such as suburbia; it should be about enhancing an already built-up but readily malleable environment in our cities.

    Suburbia is completely wasteful regarding resources. Are we to waste even more resources trying to alter suburbia to make it somewhat "better", or would those resources (and talent) best be applied to our urban areas where real environmental issued will actually be tackled and quantified.

    Something like 15% of land in American cities is vacant space waiting to be developed. That's where we need to concentrate our focus.

    And I don't disagree that this doesn't have some merit regarding existing suburban town centers. I think it does have some good applications, but I am negative towards a mass movement that would try and put resources towards redesigning, say, 82nd ave. because it's an auto dependent suburbia wasteland versus putting that money into more financially sustainable and market tested areas of Portland.

    I get the notion that people think that we cans simply apply these ideas easily in every suburban town in America without any problems or conflicts.

    I'd rather tackle the downfall of our cities rather than "force" change in areas that are probably going to be resistant to such grand alterations to the landscape.

    Make the urban environment the best place for people to live and work, and we won't have to worry too much about sprawl.

  2. Wes, While I agree with you, converting these spaces is a much harder task than building correctly on vacant land, I would hightlight that the same laws that need to be repealed to allow landowners to build more mixed used developments are the same ones that will allow for these retrofits.

    I think that simply allowing it to happen will cause for the gradual albeit very gradual, conversion of these properties.

  3. wow, look at that, very creative and inspiring, I wish I could design something like that


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