June Williamson is associate professor of architecture at The City College of New York’s Spitzer School of Architecture. She is coauthor, with Ellen Dunham-Jones, of Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs. Williamson served as the Jury Coordinator for the Long Island Index’s 2010 design competition, Build a Better Burb. Ideas from the competition, which challenged entrants to creatively retrofit Long Island’s existing downtown areas, provide the foundation for her new book, Designing Suburban Futures: New Models from Build a Better Burb. I spoke with her in summer 2013.
Ellen Dunham-Jones (your Retrofitting Suburbia co-author) writes in the Foreword of Designing Suburban Futures, “Today, the suburbs are simply not as suburban as we thought they were.” Can you comment on this observation as it relates to Long Island?
June Williamson: Long Island has long defined itself as a region that was not the city—more specifically, an alternative that was not Queens, not Brooklyn, and certainly not Manhattan. So what, exactly, is it? There are acres of subdivisions built along the Levittown model, lots of shopping malls, and a now-dominant car-dependent lifestyle, sure, but also dozens of strong, historic downtowns, vast industrial areas (though in a weakened state), high levels of socio-economic and racial diversity, lots of new immigrants. In short, the suburbs of Long Island are decidedly not stuck in amber and, increasingly, are a reflection of 21st century America.
In the book, you don’t see suburbia as the problem but as the opportunity. What are some of the key problems and opportunities for innovation in suburbia?
Williamson: A key problem is the concept that suburbia is somehow stagnant (in the dystopia narrative) or enduring (in the utopian view) and therefore resistant or immune to change. But it IS changing anyway because of many dynamic urban factors related to energy usage and supply, demographic shifts, new economies, global climate change, aging of buildings and structures, ecological imbalances, etc. And so there is a need to respond: as I write in the book’s Introduction, “Change is not only possible, change is necessary.”
So what to do? The Long Island Index has long recognized that outmoded practices of the past—parking standards, zoning regulations, permitting processes, and financing mechanisms—are big obstacles to building resiliency and need to be transformed.
To help achieve transformation, in the book I focus on describing a series of design opportunities or “tactics,” derived from careful analysis of the competition schemes. I’ve organized these tactics by three scales: lot scale (reusing big boxes, bottom-up financing mechanisms); downtown or neighborhood scale (walkable block size, local transit, suburban agriculture); and regional scale (carbon and water systems, efficient governance, new codes and policies).
In the Introduction to Designing Suburban Futures, you conclude by expressing hope that the book will be a resource and an inspiration for many other places across the continent and the globe, facing parallel challenges to Long Island. Can you elaborate on why the challenge of retrofitting suburbia on Long Island is relevant to so many other places?
Williamson: Long Island is a prototypical North American suburban region that styles itself as America’s “first suburb,” making it an appropriate locus for an international ideas/design competition. In many ways, Long Island is a bellwether for the types of challenges that other North American suburban regions may face in coming years, challenges that good design should have a role in redressing, including sea-level rise, race and class inequalities, and designing beyond the car.
To that end, the book includes a useful copy of the original competition design “brief,” a model for other communities that might like to sponsor a competition.
Globally, an urbanizing “planet of cities” actually seems to include a lot more rural-to-suburban migration (i.e. low urban density) than popular descriptions suggest. These regions, depending on how closely they follow the North American trajectory of the 20th century, will soon confront similar challenges, perhaps on an accelerated schedule. Close study of the past, present, and future potential of suburban forms in already hyperurbanized regions offers valuable cautionary tales and illuminating lessons.
Why do you think your last book, Retrofitting Suburbia, resonated so strongly with readers? How does Designing Suburban Futures extend the conversation?
Williamson: I think Retrofitting Suburbia resonated because we moved beyond the common “suburbs as dystopia” narrative by presenting numerous case studies of actual changes to suburban land use and form, demonstrating definitively that it can be done. In this way the book and its message is constructive, proactive, and inspiring rather than divisive. Designing Suburban Futures extends the conversation by:
- Tackling the resiliency/sustainability question more squarely and communicating a greater sense of urgency about the environmental arguments for suburban change.
- Seeking to move beyond case studies of actually achieved (or achievable) projects to inspire further design research and speculation about second, third, and fourth generation retrofits.
- Inviting designers to participate more fully in the project of designing better suburban futures. The message is that the design solutions have not all already been conceived (though there are many good ones out there – as documented in Retrofitting Suburbia). There is ample room for further design research and innovation!
- Providing easily digestible historical and discursive context that is presented in a not overtly polemical way.
LIRR: Long Island Radically Rezoned, which is among the Build a Better Burb competition schemes and examples documented in Designing Suburban Futures, was selected as the People’s Choice winner. In your view, what made this entry so popular?
Williamson: I think the scheme was popular both because the vision was so sweepingly comprehensive and because there is a constituency, most probably young and relatively silent, that really is interested in doing more than fiddling around the edges of the region’s challenges. The scheme, interestingly, takes a number of reasonable planning and design propositions and plays them out to an extreme. Also, the scheme’s team leader, Tobias Holler, is a NYIT architecture professor and so perhaps had a local advantage!
Currently, HOLLER Architecture and collaborators have two much more modest demonstration projects in development on Long Island: “BuckyFarm,” a novel, high-efficiency farming structure; and “Attain This!” the first house in the area designed to passivhaus standards.
Another entry that really stirred up conversation during and after the competition was Sited in the Setback, the design for accessory housing units in Levittown. Why do you think this idea resonated so much with Long Islanders?
Williamson: It’s an eminently practical proposition for incremental change that gives homeowners and municipalities much-needed new flexibility in meeting various housing needs. It should be adopted everywhere, immediately!
Can you comment on the possibilities for micro-units (housing units of 300 square feet or less) in the suburbs and on Long Island?
Williamson: Debates about legalizing and incentivizing micro-units to provide new options for one- and two-person households, such as those explored for retrofitting Westbury’s Mall at the Source in the Build a Better Burb scheme Re:Define the Good Life (p. 111), are taking hold across the country. The historic Westminster Arcade, an 1828 shopping mall in Providence, Rhode Island, has recently been rehabbed with micro-units, and New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) is building a demonstration project with modular units; the architect and developer were selected through the adAPT competition in 2012.
What were some of the most surprising ideas that came out of the competition?
Williamson: I was very taken with the innovation of the concepts in SUBHUB Transit System, which proposed to harness the transit potential (for both freight and passengers) in the already-existing network of public elementary schools and yellow buses. The thoroughness of the ecological concepts in Building C-Burbia was also inspiring. A change in policy and viewpoint about planted land in suburbia—highway verges, medians, tree lawns, public parks, vacant lots—as a soft infrastructural system for carbon sequestration could be transformative.
The Build a Better Burb competition had many student entries, and included a student winner. How can students effectively play a role in shaping the future of the suburbs? (This seems especially critical to Long Island, where we have some of the most well educated young people in the country—many of whom move away from the Island after graduating.)
Williamson: It is crucial to engage students and youth; it is their future that is most at stake. Design students in particular fit into the “creative class” cohort that places desiring revitalization seek to attract. Competitions of various kinds are wonderful for engaging younger people; and frankly, they really don’t mind staying up all night working on their proposals! Especially if they feel they have a good shot at having their voices heard.
On page 38 of Designing Suburban Futures, you write, “We urgently need design professionals and their allies to work in a proactive mode for better, more resilient suburban futures.” How serious do you think design professionals are about engaging with the challenges of suburbia?
Williamson: Perhaps not serious enough, yet. There are disciplinary divides to bridge – planners have little regard for the iterative and exploratory process that guides architectural design discourse, while architects resent planning “control” yet seem to prefer to work in center cities where the conditions for new building are most complex. Mark C. Childs, in the useful little book Urban Composition: Developing Community through Design, writes about how different design professionals work at different levels (nested by size, from interiors, to buildings, to streets and districts, to whole cities and regions) and must learn to negotiate productively with the professionals engaged at the levels above and below them. This is necessary to get to the proactive mode that I think is urgently needed. Disregard for one another’s disciplinary limits is not helpful to each doing his or her part in moving the ball forward, towards greater resiliency.
To the criticism that the Build a Better Burb competition schemes don’t seem practical or readily implementable, I answer that each adds valuable and productive “new design DNA” to the mix. In a review, John Hill writes, “I could see any future implementation of these ideas drawing equally from the different schemes, particularly since they tend to focus on either buildings, landscape, or transportation—one scheme’s strengths can be combined with another to address the myriad considerations.”
What’s at stake if architects, developers and planners don’t figure out a plan for redesigning suburbia?
Williamson: As I emphasize in both the book’s introduction and its epilogue, suburbia represents an opportunity we can’t afford to squander. It may be that the greatest gains in urban resiliency are to be made in suburbs.
In a conversation with me in the book’s epilogue, Kazys Varnelis, Director of the Network Architecture Lab at Columbia University and one of the Build a Better Burb competition winners, makes the point that “Architects of all stripes need to tackle these questions [of redesigning suburbs, along with center cities] or risk increasing irrelevance at an urban level.”
I heartily agree.