Can we fix our broken suburbs?

Action Speaks!
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  October 21, 2009

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Action Speaks!, the panel discussion series at Providence art space AS220, wraps up its fall run with a look at the American adventure in suburbia.

Participants will consider the effect of suburban growth on our economy and culture and address some pressing questions: Can the suburbs, built on what once seemed an end-less supply of oil, turn green? Can bastions of “white flight” reflect the nation’s growing diversity?

Action Speaks! discussions, produced by Cheryl Kaminsky and moderated by Marc Levitt, use an underappreciated date in history as a springboard for chatter on contemporary affairs. This time it’s 1951 and the completion of Levittown (in photo), a Long Island community widely considered the nation’s first true suburb.

The event, scheduled for October 28 at 5 pm at AS220, 115 Empire Street, is free and open to the public.

Panelists will include V. Elaine Gross, president of ERASE Racism, a Long Island-based non-profit that promotes racial equity through research, policy advocacy and education; Alyssa Katz, a freelance journalist who teaches at New York University and author of Our Lot: How Real Estate Came to Own Us; and Paul Lukez, a Boston-based architect and author of Suburban Transfor-mations.

We caught up with Lukez for a Q&A via e-mail. Answers are edited and condensed for length.

YOU SUGGEST, IN SUBURBAN TRANSFORMATIONS, THAT WE SHOULD BUILD ON WHAT WE HAVE IN SUBURBIA RATHER THAN START ANEW — AND ERASE HISTORY — WITH EACH SUCCESSIVE DEVELOPMENT. WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?
There are several reasons for selectively and intelligently transforming suburbs instead of erasing them completely.

First, it is often more sustainable to reuse or transform existing buildings (their materials and systems) than to send them to the landfill. In fact, we should be building struc-tures that will last for 100 years-plus, but are designed to accommodate changing users’ needs over time. There are many examples of such structures. Boston’s Quincy Market is a great example of a building that has survived for two hundred years because of its adaptable design. Its façade and floor plans were continually changed over its life before being “historically restored” in 1976.

Secondly, we don’t have to tear all the buildings in the suburbs down to improve the quality of spaces and environment. Many mistakes were made in the original design of suburbs. Buildings were often placed in the wrong place relative to the street and adjacent buildings. By reconstituting the scarred landscape, improving the roads/infrastructure and thoughtfully adding new structures, a denser suburb integrated with nature can evolve over time, repairing many of the mistakes of the past.

Thirdly, leaving traces of past buildings and urban interventions adds a unique quality to a community that cannot be replicated by other communities. Because the way in which each community is transformed will be the result of time and circumstance. If each community erases all traces of its past, each community will tend to look the same. At the end of his life, psychiatrist Carl Jung looked at his house on Lake Zurich which he had built over his adult life, transforming its original tower-like structure over time through multiple additions and transformations. He recognized in the idiosyncratic transformations the structure of his life, one that could not be replicated. Embracing idiosyncrasy and circumstance can contribute to creating a unique identity for each community.

And finally, we can’t afford to tear down our suburbs and start over. We need to make the most of what we have, which in turn can yield surprising and inventive results.

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  Topics: This Just In , Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Urban Planning, New York University,  More more >
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