[Holiday Leftovers] Confessions of a Former Sprawl Addict: Speed Humps on the Road to Recovery

[Originally run Sept. 17, 2010] Hi. I’m Hazel and I was a Sprawlaholic.

If you’ve been reading awhile you may recall that, with the loving help of my friends and family, I went cold turkey, dumping life in a Florida subdivision for the intense urban charms of downtown Winnipeg. It was a life-changing move with no regrets. Yet, as good as it’s been, I’m finding that puritanical denial of guilty pleasures is sometimes out of sync with life’s reality.

And by reality, I mean kids.

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Healthy, or Unhealthy, by Design

A few months ago, we talked about how a great city can be like a great running buddy, calling us to venture outdoors into more active, satisfying lifestyles. The photo-essay accompanying that conversation was on the urbanity of Wilmington, North Carolina. Last week, we were in another North Carolina town, Fuquay-Varina, working to create just those sorts of tightly-gridded, walkable streets connecting convivial, complete neighborhoods. Then perhaps the temptation to walk, bike, and run can overcome the lethargy of our modern lifestyle.

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Today’s “Eco-Warriors”: Giving Them Something Worth Fighting For

This week I’d like to share a few thoughts on infill and sustainability that coalesced while preparing this week for another Pecha Kucha presentation on Retrofitting Suburbia.

I’ll begin with a little background. My daughter came home from her International Baccalaureate Elementary School with a new sticker in her daily planner proclaiming her an “Eco-Warrior!” Continue Reading

Retail Redemption: Skivvies Uncovered, then Promptly Covered

A couple months ago I rambled on here about my inability to purchase a particularly critical item of men’s apparel during an extended tour of new urban projects throughout the southeast. Modesty was not my problem. Rather, despite healthy commercial activity most everywhere I went, I could find no walkable stores catering to such day-to-day basics.

Food and drink? Sure. Tchotchkes and novelties? You betcha. Skivvies? Not a chance. Continue Reading

Fat-tastic! Can Small Thinking Solve Our Super-Sized Problems?

According to a new report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — more commonly known for crunching global budget and employment numbers  — the United States is on track to be 75% obese by 2020.

3 out of every 4. And if you check with researchers at Johns Hopkins University, they’ll tell you to expect 86% by 2030. Continue Reading

The Suburbs: Arcade Fire, Childhood Memory, and the Future of Growth

I’m in my 40s. I grew up in the suburbs. It was awesome. And then it wasn’t.

Never before and, perhaps, never again will there be as efficient and reliable a machine for manufacturing idealized childhood memories. The suburbs of the 60s and 70s, maybe even the 80s, were like some sort of paradise. Continue Reading

Back to the Farm (And to the Bunker)

Just when reporters were beginning to buy into the hopefulness of “sprawl repair” and “ag is the new golf,” Andres Duany trips them up with visions of the dark side. Or at least the really hard side, as in the hard work ahead if we’re to reverse the direction of 20th century excesses.

“Our wealth as a nation allowed us to become stupid in planning and we separated everything – residential areas, commercial, industrial,” Duany told an Oregon audience May 12. “Our wealth allowed us to do that for 50 years – but those days are over.” Continue Reading

18th New Urbanist Congress: Best Ever?

What’s constitutes “best ever” depends on the takeaways, right? And when it comes to conferences, we could be talking takeaways that aren’t products of the event itself. Like maybe you got a job or connected with a soul mate. Let’s call that the upside of unintended consequences. Continue Reading

Heaven Help Us: Ambitious Project Both Reaffirms, Tests Faith in Sustainable Future

I was a post-Vatican II, suburban Catholic.

For anyone of shared experience, that typically meant attending a church that was designed and built to serve the rapidly growing, happy motoring suburban leisure class. Equal parts woody earth tones and ample parking, it was a transient testament to our nation’s awkward adolescence: a monolithic UFO of contemporary styling.

But it was also testament to the church’s theological tension at the time, which manifested itself in doctrinal inclinations towards avoiding that which had been done before. To this day, according to architect Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, this unresolved traditional/modern conflict “requires a sorting out of intellectual goals and the emotional or visceral effect that a space can have on a people’s spiritual stance.”

I was just a kid at the time but, even then, the less-than-subtle disconnect between these newfangled buildings and the deep rituals taking place inside of them did not go unnoticed.

Theological considerations aside, that’s just poor branding.

But now that the sheen of the suburban promise has faded and our recent history’s tendency towards folly is increasingly revealed, the timing is perfect for some signs of hope.

One such sign arrived today, with this morning’s Atlanta Journal Constitution. But it’s a mixed blessing.

Mary Our Queen Catholic Church, a growing, 15 year old suburban congregation in Norcross, Georgia, is looking for a permanent home. But rather than build something new, they’re looking to purchase a spectacular, historic Buffalo, New York, basilica and move it nearly a thousand miles south, piece by piece, to be reassembled.

The church calls it “preservation through relocation” and claims new construction of equal quality would cost more than twice as much. The whole project seems like a solid exercise in pragmatic preservation, nicely aligned with what Original Green architect Steve Mouzon describes as the key attributes of truly sustainable buildings: lovability, durability, flexibility and frugality.

Such permanence, history and reinforced cultural identity are touchstones of common sense sustainability. But don’t rejoice just yet. There’s at least one devil in the details.

Take a look at the church in its present location:

           

Now consider this rendering of its future home:

Conspicuous in the new plans is the apparent absence of a surrounding neighborhood. Thus, a structure that once stood as the spiritual heart of a physical community will now be repackaged as the idealized temple on a hill.

Not that I have anything against grandeur or symbolism. Each has their place. But the church suggests this rebirth will add centuries to the building’s life. Assuming that’s true, what are the ramifications when the building is embedded in a physical context that many believe has increasingly diminished prospects?

Or, as Mouzon puts it, “Only after a place has been made sustainable does it make sense to discuss sustainable buildings.”

That’s not outside the parish’s reach. It simply depends on their vision. If their goal is to remain a relevant spiritual hub over decades (if not centuries), they may want to broaden their approach to reflect the fact that their days as an auto-dependent destination may be numbered.

Could the church transcend its sprawl-intensive landscape to once again, as circumstances change, serve as the heart of a vibrant physical community? Maybe yes. Gwinnett County, where the church is located, has been the site of some intriguing suburban mall retrofit proposals and, on an even more related note, Grenfell Architecture has spelled out a great proposal for transitioning a sprawling, suburban lot to a denser, transit-friendly urban neighborhood, developed over time by a church that would sit at its center.

It all goes to show just how fractured the whole conversation is. In no way discounting the church’s efforts, they’re just one more example of how far we’ve yet to go. If only there were some resource that put all the issues – transportation, land use, environmental and historic preservation, energy depletion, community sustainability, cultural identity, agriculture, and more – on the same page so individual efforts could better plug into a more cohesive big picture.

We could call it the Good Book.

–Scott Doyon

What We’re Reading: Retrofitting Suburbia

retrofittingConsiderable attention has been paid to development in urban cores and new neighborhoods on the exurban periphery. But in between, the out-of-date and unsustainable developments in existing suburbs also provide enormous opportunities for regeneration. Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs, by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson, is a comprehensive guidebook that illustrates how existing suburban developments can be redesigned into more urban and more sustainable places. Beyond simply re-skinning buildings or changing use, the best suburban retrofits systemically transform their neighborhoods, increasing connectivity and walkability, while contributing to affordability, transit, and sustainability.

- Hazel Borys