Competition dreams up new ways to harass suburbanites

Written by adam


Dwell magazine and Inhabitat have teamed up to sponsor a “Reburbia” competition in which designers re-envision suburbia in ways that make environmentalists seem as scary and dingbatty as possible.

The finalists include a lot of inspiring ideas, but my favorite by far is the proposal to have menacing 3,000-foot-tall robots stomp into suburban villages, rip the homes out of the ground, and install them in bleak, Matrix-like hives.

“By radically retrofitting suburbs, the old methodology of horizontal sprawl is supplanted with a scheme of vertical-core sprawl freeing the suburbanite from the demands of automotive travel.” Unless, of course, the suburbanite feels like traveling from his prison tower to one of the neighboring prison towers. The project is green because the robots will drill into the earth to tap geothermal power, which is a great idea for suburban villages that happen to be sited on top of active volcanoes.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention Vehiforce: “Generate Energy With Your Parked Car!” This isn’t some pie-eyed scheme to tap into the battery pack on futuristic electric vehicles. No, this is a straightforward idea to put plain old gravity to work by capturing the energy embodied in the weight of your parked car.

I know what you may be thinking: there is no useful energy embodied in the weight of a parked car. And you’re right, but so what! Perpetual motion machines may violate the laws of nature, but they don’t violate the rules of the Reburbia design competition. As one far-sighted commenter says, “I wonder what credentials those ‘physics professors’ possess?” Indeed.

Most of the rest of the entries are variations on the twin themes of slapping lots of windmills all over suburbia and slapping lots of cornfields all over suburbia. (I really like the vision of suburbia as a wine bar/greenhouse in which chefs, pugs, young professionals, and old men with shopping carts meet to admire fresh produce.)

I gather that the purpose of such exercises is to stretch the imagination a bit, not to put forth strictly practical proposals. The problem here is that entries in the Reburbia competition aren’t imaginative. They’re either totally loopy (turn your parked car into a power plant), totally trivial (put median strips to better use), or totally reductive (replace the local Wal-Mart with a biofuel factory).

Fact is, solutions to climate change are mostly boring and don’t require much imagination. That’s a good thing. For example, making more extensive use of our existing natural gas-fired power plants would do a lot to lower carbon emissions. Waste heat capture is proven technology that could greatly reduce fossil fuel use. Both of these really boring solutions to climate change can be deployed at low cost and massive scale in the near term.

Ending deforestation could solve 20% or more of our emissions problem. Forests aren’t exactly boring, but neither are they a hotbed of radical innovation. Maybe we should send the giant robot towers into the Amazon.

Cement manufacture is a huge source of emissions, one that hasn’t been adequately addressed despite lots of exciting research. And by “exciting,” I mean excruciatingly dull to anyone who’s not a material scientist.

Energy efficiency! Building codes! Who wants to talk appliance standards? Anyone? Hello?

The steady progress in electric vehicles and renewable energy sources is pretty interesting, at least if your tastes run that way. Ironically, though, these cleaner versions of existing technologies may help to perpetuate suburbia, not eradicate it. After all, if your car runs on electricity, and your electricity comes from the sun, and your McMansion is built to the Passive House standard, then your suburban lifestyle is suddenly looking a lot more benign.

Fixing our energy problems is not particularly a design challenge. Rather, it’s a deep and long-term problem, one that requires a steady and fundamental transformation of our infrastructure. This is to the good, because we already have many or even most of the tools we need to effect such a change.

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  1. Cherie

    That’s hilarious! You make an excellent point about the most affective solutions being the most mundane. I guess on the bright side, it seems the sci-fi lovers who brought us the likes of Spider-Man and Star Trek are now focusing on (wacky) environmental solutions…at least it’s a popular topic of discussion now. Giant green robots, though ridiculous, are preferable to the silence that used to greet the topic of environmental change.

  2. JZ

    I just read in Newsweek that Americans could save 15 million trees a year, 473 billion gallons of water and 17.3 terrawatts of electricity a year by just switching from wiping their butts to using bidets.
    As per your commentary, not very glamorous…but effective in (humorously) transforming the ‘burbs!

  3. Fred Magyar

    It’s truly a sad commentary on how far our educational system has fallen when most people don’t even understand basic physics and specifically the second law of thermodynamics.
    On the other hand maybe they should read some of the thinking of people like Matt Simmons, Howard Kunstler, Jared Diamond and Richard Heinberg.
    I do like those 3000 ft tall robots powered by fairy dust… “Reburbia” LOL!!

  4. Carl

    I’m not sure if using a bidet will solve too much, they use a lot of water, and either you use paper or something else you’ll have to wash, because the crap has to go somewhere…
    All the same, this is an article I agree with. The simple things are not getting discussed, but people want to imagine something out of OMNI. It’s plain fiction to imagine a robot moving houses – gas lines? electricity? I guess all the homes in suburbia have the same service entrance after the homeowner has been in there for 10+ years?
    Simple ways to lessen your impact? Buy less crap. Use less energy. Build houses to higher standards. Use more renewable energy and stop deforestation. Boring, and it works… like saving money – and nobody does that anymore either.

  5. Sara S

    Loved this one; just one thing….what do you mean there is no energy in a parked car? I remember lots of energy in the back seat of parked cars….guess it depends on where you park them …and when!!LOL

  6. Carl

    This is officially a troublemaker.

  7. JZ

    Carl>> my point was a bit in jest, however, as stated above, the article that I reference denotes WATER SAVINGS with a bidet. Newsweek did not reference statistical sources but I have to think it’s plausable. Anything that gets flushed has to be addressed at the water treatment plant. How do you address it? Use more water! It surprises me that you missed this point when you so clearly understand issues of embodied energy with your comments regarding buying less things (Reduce) and making homes/products of higher quality to be maintained (Reuse) rather than torn down (Recycle).

  8. Carl

    My concern mainly is all these articles created by common media sources always say, “This is great for the environment.” There is no stats, no information, no sources. Installing a bidet in an existing home in millions of homes would include creating millions of feet in new ABS pipe, unknown amount of adhesive, ceramic’s, metals and other items. Meanwhile, the current system is known and reasonably controllable. It’s the kind of thing that is used to stimulate the economy and create jobs in the falsehood that it makes things “greener”.
    I think everyone taking a conventionally piped toilet and swapping to dual-flush and using less paper to *ahem* finish their business is about all you can get.
    I’m not personally attacking you JZ, I just get so frustrated with these schemes created by the media and government that aren’t even logical but instead sell a utopian dream without considering or researching all the factors. Rebuilding whole homes to passive standards makes no sense, but building a new home to them, great! I am just getting frustrated with the 237MPG car discussion that is what “trendy” enviromentalism is becoming.

  9. Fred Magyar

    The Unstoppable Delusion Train
    Imagine you are riding comfortably on a sleek train. You look out the window and see that the tracks end abruptly
    not too far ahead … The train will derail if it continues. You suggest the train stop immediately and the
    passengers go forward on foot. This will require a major shift in everyone

  10. michael

    If we follow the law of infinitesmals we must slow the train first.
    My somewhat cheekish response is with respect for your reply…however, human nature responds to baby steps in the best of times…as soon as we introduce another opinion a debate breaks out, progress is stifled or de-railed.

  11. Anonymous

    That’s what the emergency brake is for.
    If you it pull you had better be prepared because you will be coming to a screeching halt.
    It’s time to redefine progress in terms that doesn’t include economic growth as we currently know it. Maybe progress is learning to live better with less stuff and more free time. Though I’m not very optimistic about that happening.

  12. jeremy

    doesn’t a parked car give off a good amount of waste heat? has anyone ever looked into developing a mechanism to harness the heat of a vehicle cooling down in a garage?

  13. Jonathan Chen

    I personally enjoy that kind of trouble.

  14. Oemissions

    Suburbia, originally developed to use the rail system as a link with the main city has relied on automobile use and developed with constant use of the automobile in mind.
    Hence, wall to wall malls.Big garages, and very little public transit service.
    Bringing back cluster housing is good but addressing the awful oer use of the automobile MUST be addressed.

  15. michael

    Transportation has moved from necessity to personl use/freedom. I think it is moving back to necessity but our population has sprawled, by a lot…

  16. jw

    Getting back to the bidets…
    We’ve been keeping 3-4 empty (and rinsed!) gallon milk jugs handy. When we shower, we keep the drain plugged and afterward re-capture the gray water in said jugs.
    When we flush the toilet, we pop the lid off the tank, and after it’s emptied, we ‘help’ it fill with the re-captured water.
    We’re /Reusing/ the plastic milk jugs, and /Reducing/ our water use by as many as 8 gallons per day. Naturally, when the milk jugs become grungy we /Recycle/ them.
    Who said you need perfectly clean water to flush the toilet?!?
    Another thought:
    We live on the second floor, with the water heater in the basement… When we turn on the hot tap, as much as a half-gallon of cold water goes down the drain before the hot water arrives. We keep a pitcher handy and capture the otherwise wasted cold water for our garden (summer) or humidifier (winter).
    Two water-saving ideas that required $0 investment and no retro-fitting!

  17. Anonymous

    Why not just dump the bucket into the toilet? That’s what we do. It takes a little practice to both flush the toilet and replace the water level, but it can be done. I take this a step further – for urine, I use a hankie instead of toilet paper. Rinse my hankie in the shower bucket, then flush with that bucket. The amount of urine and soap getting from one thing to another is negligible, a roll of toilet paper lasts for months, and there is 0 gallons of extra water used for the hankie or the flushing.

  18. Anonymous

    We also catch the shower warming water, and use it for just about anything, even occasionally filling the britta filter. As long as the container it’s flowing into is clean, there’s absolutely no difference between getting your water from the bath tap and the kitchen tap.

  19. Anonymous

    Edit to my prior comment here: we just leave the water in the shower and use a bucket to move it to the toilet bowl. When someone else needs the shower they usually fill the bucket, drain the cold water out of the shower basin and start over.

  20. Carl

    Okay… this is getting a little dumb.
    Nobody really cares if you use a hankie to wipe your privates then keep it around. I just don’t want to visit your house.
    Do whatever you want to put hygine back 100 years. I bet you don’t clean your bathroom weekly to save water too, not my concern.
    Why don’t we just not flush and leave offal in the toilet? Or just put in a pit toilet in the backyard, it doesn’t use ANY water. There is even composting toilets. Rig up a grey water system to filter out the soap and use that to water your plants. I’m running out of hippie ideas here – find some of your own.