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Why did the Reburbia design competition fail?

I had some fun last week with the Reburbia design competition, a contest seeking to “re-invent the suburbs” via “future-proof spaces and systems” — “the wilder the better!” The judges somehow managed to include a proposal for a perpetual motion machine among the contest’s finalists, suggesting either that suburbia is in need of far more radical reinvention that previously thought, or perhaps that the competition could have used some tighter refereeing.

Somewhat more seriously, I think it’s worth taking a look at what the contest did and didn’t achieve. In science and in life, negative results are often overlooked. This is a shame; a failed experiment can be just as enlightening as a successful one.

There are at least a few things to take away from the contest:

First, the whole notion of the “problem of suburbia” is somewhat misconceived. The problems of suburbia are just the problems of society, writ slightly larger. We all place heavy resource demands on the planet. We all require transportation and electricity and shelter. Some of us, by virtue of either lifestyle or geography, tread a bit more lightly than others. As a society, we need to move both our suburban and urban spaces continually in the direction of greater sustainability. But fundamentally, suburbia isn’t a riddle to be solved by designers through the application of clever technology or aesthetic upgrades. We need constant and steady improvement across the board.

Second, the class of solutions to the problem of resource consumption in our built environment tend to be really slow, dull, and difficult. Take a glance at the actual winners of the Reburbia competition. Top prize went to a presumably daft idea to turn McMansions into wetlands. (Says one judge of the winning entry, “It’s poetic, not practical – and that’s exactly why this project is positive evidence of how we might really rethink suburbia.” OK, then.) Second prize, on the other hand, went to “Entrepreneurbia: Rezoning Suburbia for Self-Sustaining Life.”

> This entry called for reining in sprawl…by changing zoning laws to support small businesses. Of this entry, judge Jill Fehrenbacher, founder of Inhabitat, said, “The idea was one of the few entries in the Reburbia competition that wasn’t really a design proposal at all, but instead a policy proposal — and it was clearly the most practical, cost-effective and energy-efficient proposal submitted to Reburbia, and has great potential to effect real change.”

This is pretty good stuff! No doubt a little simplistic, but the basic concept of altering the policy framework — by either shedding, shaping, or adopting regulations — to encourage denser development is eminently sensible. It’s not, as Fehrenbacher notes, properly speaking a design solution. It’s also quite hard to do right. Urban planning types have been hating on suburbia since long before climate change was on anybody’s radar screen, and yet the “problem” persists. Nevertheless, evidence does suggest that even slightly denser living is greener living, that the existence of neighborhood stores can cut down on car use, and that the “urban village” model developed in places like Portland really do offer a better blueprint.

This stuff is hard and slow, and doesn’t involve turning Wal-Mart parking lots into organic vegetable gardens (the third place winner of the competition). The Reburbia competition may not have unearthed any silver bullets, but at least it helped remind us of the direction we need to go.

Take the first step.

Start small. Be conscious of the impact your actions have on the environment and figure out what you can do to lessen the blow. Calculate, conserve, and offset.

For businesses, our Corporate Sustainability Plans can help you with your emission reduction goals.

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