That the Murphys, the couple recently arrested for spying for the Russians from Montclair, N.J., were described by a flabbergasted neighbor as “suburbia personified” is telling, an observation that perfectly sums up our collective notion that the suburbs are chock full of white, middle-class families, both nuclear and normal.
But that prevailing vision contradicts the reality of suburbia today. There may be white picket fences and home owners associations in common, but beyond that, “suburb” has outlived its usefulness as a descriptive term — and as a model for future planning, at least in its current incarnation. Suburbs continue to be designed for homogeneity even though they’re no longer homogeneous at all, and in fact have become increasingly varied in type, density, infrastructure and demographics. The Long Island- and Maryland-based Rauch Foundation, whose efforts focus on issues relating to children, leadership and the environment, knows this and has dedicated some serious energy to addressing it where they live: on Long Island, a perfect laboratory given that it’s a textbook case of suburban sprawl. Last month, I was a juror for the Build a Better Burb competition organized by the foundation, which asked entrants to consider a series of issues like housing choice and affordability, stemming “brain drain,” enhancing car-free mobility, and equity, access and public space. Here’s one example of a possible design brief proposed by the organizers (though entrants were free to focus on any area of Long Island they chose):
What would you propose for the 69 available acres along Hempstead Turnpike in iconic Levittown, where only 3 percent of the housing units are multi-family, 21 percent of the population is over 55 and virtually no new housing has been built in decades?
Levittown is (or was) the quintessential suburb, and in our collective imaginations we tend to view all suburbs in its image. But the research presented in the Long Island Index, which gathers and publishes data on the region with an eye toward moving policy, demonstrates that today’s suburbia rarely resembles the images we commonly associate with Levittown and similar communities of that era.
According to the 2000 census results, for example, Long Island is the third most segregated suburban region in the country, a statistic developed by the organization Erase Racism and exemplified by the stark contrasts to be found between, say, the neighboring communities of Garden City, with its six-figure median incomes and 92-percent-white population, and the working class community of Hempstead, which has a population that’s more than half black and 32 percent Hispanic, and significantly lower incomes.
An aging population is another issue facing the region. Though Long Island is home to many young families, its population is getting older: those 55 and over comprise the fastest growing segment, while young adults are leaving in significant numbers (69 percent of 18-to-34-year-old people surveyed say they’re apt to leave within five years) largely due to a lack of employment opportunities and affordable housing. Over 20 percent of Long Islanders spend half their income or more on housing, which helps to explain the startling fact that 48 families begin the foreclosure process there each day.
Another challenge? The Long Island Rail Road was designed to bring people into New York City and back. Yet over 77 percent of Long Islanders live and work on Long Island. They may commute, but they’re doing so within the region. And three out of every four Long Island workers drive to work alone; only one in 10 take public transit. The things that once connected Long Island to itself, like cable cars, no longer exist.
So where to start? The aim of Build a Better Burb, says Ann Golob, director of the Long Island Index, was “to help Long Islanders visualize what our region might look like if we boldly reconsidered how we build here.” Here are some of the 212 ideas submitted to the competition. (You can make your voice heard in the debate: the 23 finalists have been posted at Build a Better Burb for the Long Island Index People’s Choice Award, now through September.)
1. DUB Studios’ SUBHUB Transit Systems proposes newly configured transit networks for the region combined with public services and product delivery. Instead of focusing on the direct path from Long Island to New York City, this project envisions a feeder transit system anchored at public school sites, with the goal of reducing commuter car parking downtown while enhancing civic hubs in surrounding neighborhoods. The jurors appreciated the connection to schools — an imperfect but intriguing way to address how few kids walk to school these days — and the attention to seldom-addressed issues like food miles traveled.
2. Also interested in food was the team of Amy Ford-Wagner, Tom Jost, Ebony Sterling, Philip Jonat, Emily Hull, Will Wagenlander, Meg Cederoth, Melanie George, David Greenblatt and Melissa Targett, which, with their project, AgIsland, looked to put the “farm” back in Farmingdale by proposing the replacement of office parks with organic farms.
3. Long Division, concerned about the contamination of Long Island’s aquifers, aims to establish a regional strategy to promote both growth and contraction. Proposing alternatives to conventional single family housing — like a compound that might include apartments and a community garden or another that consists of multifamily housing, communal space and small-scale retail — is an important strategy for developing more sustainable approaches to sprawl.
4. Temporary, small-scale interventions are a perfect vehicle for change in the current economy. While they can’t fix all ills, they can at the very least help create community and influence behavior change, as we’ve seen with the lawn chairs and traffic closures in Times Square, for example. Following that thread, Amir Hossain Zade Zarrabi, Mohammad Pourhasani and Hamidreza Fazlollahi made a simple and executable proposal: provide modular pieces of street furniture that can be rearranged for different uses as a means to bring diverse people together in public space.
5. Economic behavior is key to suburban transformation: people tend to buy more house than they can afford, which helped give rise to the current mortgage crisis. “Innovative financing” has had only negative connotations of late, but with their project UpCycling 2.0, Ryan H. B. Lovett, John B. Simons and Patrick Cobb proposed a new way of thinking about financing: income-pooling to support community improvements, neighborhood amenities and multifamily housing options. The project title is misleading; this is less upcycling than an HOA with a conscience.
Was there one world-changing idea? Probably not. But the broad array of issues addressed — rethinking north-south corridor transit, introducing a MoMA P.S. 2 in Bethpage, repurposing infrastructure, designing more walkable neighborhoods — shows us that there is, of course, no single answer to building a better burb in the future. The range of solutions does point to a systems-thinking approach: one can’t consider housing without considering jobs, and transit, and smart growth, and so forth, and how they influence one another other within a whole.
The admirable Long Island Index has collected a lot of important data. But as Golob says, “These numbers are abstractions. People worry about what it would look like. A lot of denser building that has been erected isn’t very visually pleasing. We thought we could help move the conversation forward if people got excited about a particular image of the future.”
Agreed. And so, a big idea I’d love to see in future competitions? Clarity. Architectural schools often promulgate the notion that an idea can’t be important unless it’s indecipherable. It’s time for this to change. There’s no shortage of good ideas, but communicating them so they make sense to those who stand to benefit is essential. As seductive as the use of multiple upper and lower case letters within a word might be, as intriguing a term as “permeable membrane” is, big ideas can only become reality with a clear — not just compelling — narrative. This is not exclusive to the Build a Better Burb competition by any stretch, but it’s worth noting. People get more excited about ideas they can understand.