Can the suburbs be recycled?

New thinking about what to do with old sprawl in the 21st century.

New thinking about what to do with old sprawl in the 21st century.

Allison Arieff of the New York Times has an interesting story about what to do with our new Depression-era 21st century suburbs. What is the future for foreclosed cul-de-sac homes? Is there a future for abandoned Big Box retailers?

There's a lot to this story, which if you check the comments thread, it immediately became a forum for burbs-bashing. Just burn 'em down, some say. But Arieff's pieces asks great questions and suggests the need for planners to think creatively about adaptive reuse not of historic buildings, but of strip malls and residential communities. Retrofitting for greener buildings is a help. Turning McMansions into four-plexes to increase density and create more affordable housing is another. Transforming old Big Boxes into gyms, rec centers, or museums is another. Fortunately, many people on the comments thread contributed their own ideas instead of engaging in knee-jerk hostility.

One of the problems with old-school urban planning is the blank-slate mentality: tear it down and start everything from scratch. One of the problems with suburban and ex-urban development is same mentality: the fields where planned communities would sprout were also seen as blank slates. In America, the era of the blank slate--except as a thought experiment--is over. We now know that natural ecosystems are complicated and so too ecosystems of culture and history; we know the same is true of wildlands and rural landscapes. We're learning it now with settled suburbia: the challenge is to light up the imagination with the possibilities of adapting them to current tastes, trends, economic and environmental necessities.

The suburbs are still evolving. Can they be recycled? Can some parts be reclaimed as park or preserve? Or will we repeat patterns of bulldozing instead of adapting, cultivating, and re-imagining with the resources at hand?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.