Saturday, April 19, 2008

Look out world, here they come!

First McDonalds and now this: A recent article in USA Today announces America’s latest export: SUBURBS. I’ve always wondered how McDonalds could function so well across the globe when the drive-thru was not as exportable as the hamburger in other countries far less car dependent urban centers but I guess they will not have to worry about that much longer (not that they ever really had to worry about it, with the Big Mac index sometimes touted as a far better indicator of a country’s economy than other “more official” price indices).

The article by Haya El Nasser entitled Modern Suburbia not just in America Anymore describes how many countries are sending government officials, urban designers, architects, and developers over to the US to study suburbs and other planned communities in infamous areas such as Phoenix, Atlanta, and the “original” edge city, Tyson’s Corner. The opening paragraphs describe a delegation from Beijing arriving in Phoenix and examining a “a quintessential American residential development in Buckeye…[studying] the streetscape, the golf course, the spa, the cybercafé, the health care amenities and the design of the single-family homes at Sun City Festival, a 3,000-acre, planned community for people over 55. They commented on the cleanliness and orderliness of it all…Their mission: study American suburbia with an eye toward replicating it back home.”

Proposed suburb in China, via

Now, I grew up in the American suburbs and I have fond memories of it all—playing with the neighborhood kids, rummaging through the backyard forests, the Friday Night Lights—all of it good, clean fun. Okay, so maybe it’s not as clean as we thought after all, huh? While the relative merits of the concentrated vs. the dispersed city are constantly being debated, it is mostly agreed upon that “sprawl “, generally defined as suburban style, auto-dominated, zoned-by-use development spread thinly over a large territory, especially in an untidy or irregular way, has produced incredibly negative impacts on the environment. Other arguments against sprawl and unruly suburban development often include aesthetic (god…it’s so…ugly!!), sociological (isolationist tendencies), lifestyle (god…it’s soooo…boring!) and rising issues of health concerns (god..they’re sooo…fat!), but the environmental arguments tend to remain the most compelling and the most marketable (who doesn’t want ot be a little more green these days, right?).

Now, before I run off into pedantry, (oh wait, I just did), let me get to my point. Worldwide suburban development is happening at breakneck speed. The polar ice caps are melting almost as fast. I suggest that before all of our ice caps are but a distant memory of a bygone era, we architects and urban designers put on our thinking caps and start coming up with new ideas for the suburbs. Hopefully with the impending recession in the US there will be some architects with more time on their hands willing to look into this (except there is always another icon to be designed in the middle east I guess). Because at the moment there are too many architects focused on high end luxury condos and not enough on real issues of housing and development—what are the new prototypes of high density, mixed use, (sub)urban development that contend with emerging conditions of the 21st century? Who will be the Victor Gruen's of the 21st Century, developing new typologies that respond to the new social, cultural, and physical contexts of the developing world?

There are of course people doing this—the Smart Growth, Transit Oriented Development, and New Urbanist advocates in the US have been studying these issues for some time. But their efforts tend to be either too retroactive or too focused on the American context. And to be honest, too little too late. There are some interesting explorations in the Netherlands as well, by people like MVRDV, et al. The Integrated Urbanism group at Arup recently designed Dongtan in China to be the world’s first sustainable city. But I think that globally there need to be more people studying the phenomenon in a more nuanced way—focusing on the unique cultural, ecological, and historical characteristics of a given locale to develop sensitive, yet prototypical, responses to these issues.

MVRDV - Hageneiland

To close, here are some key quotations from the USA Today article:

“Across China, entire suburban cities are being built at a dizzying speed to keep up with population growth. Outside Beijing and Shanghai, tract-home developments designed to mimic Spanish or Italian architecture have all-American names: Yosemite and Napa Valley.”

“For many developing nations, however, the suburban ideal is stuck in circa 1980: a sea of lookalike single-family homes and shopping malls on the edge of the city. It's a model that many Americans increasingly are rejecting.”

" ‘Most of the developers (worldwide) are not doing it the right way. … We have a professional responsibility. Future generations will not forgive us if we don't do it right.’ " - Saeed Ahmed Saeed

China, where major cities are choking on stifling pollution, is striving to build the world's first sustainable city — Dongtan, which broke ground last summer. Designed by a London-based global consulting company and built on an island outside Shanghai, Dongtan, ultimately to house 50,000, will ban cars that pollute (even hybrids), grow its own food, recycle almost everything — including wastewater — and create its own energy from wind, the sun and human and animal waste.

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