Improve your existing building, your lot, your residential area, or what else

The Reburbia Project directed by Inhabitat, and Dwell Magazine, gives me the opportunity to discuss on different points that these proposals deal with. First, let me vote (I've already voted via Reburbia website, but I want to revote just for this blog) again: my favorite, and I assume that it seems not be the favorite of others, is Brian Alessi's project. I will attempt to explain the reasons of my choice. I confess to having hesitated between Entrepreneurbia's and Brian Alessi's proposals, say, respectively "Entrepreneurbia: Rezoning suburbia for sustaining life" and "Regenerative Suburban Median". But I have in fine chosen Brian Alessi's.

Why? Both of these projects address sustainability as key issue: producing city now requires an integration of sustainable issues — housing, infrastructure, sewerage, roads, transport, and so forth. Here this is the question of suburbs that is posed, and in terms of sustainability: sustainable suburbs, sustainable neighborhoods. This project is very interesting as it questions the urban space in its micro-scale: the suburbs, as entity of Metropolis. How to conceive suburbs today, is the question that is currently posed to everyone who works on urban renewal. Reburbia, WAP 2.0 organized by Los Angeles-based City Lab, etc., are among others of projects that function as tool to examine our urban space. Of course, but in a larger scale, 2000s is the decade of urban renewal. Kyoto Protocol has elaborated new issues that will transform cities. Before examining these both proposals, let us list 3 major keys of Cities in the Post-Kyoto context:

  1. Best quality of life
  2. Mixed-use
  3. Density

    > I recommand the reading of Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners/Arup/LSE's report for "Le Grand Pari(s)". But I do not know if a English-version of this report exists.

I will not discuss on Density. I will only focus on the concepts of best quality of life and mixed-use, then I will add another important factor, that of reusing vacant derelict and under utilized lots and existing building.

First, best quality of life and mixed-use now are keys of the Post-Kyoto city. Best quality of life: architecture critique Kira Mariko has noted that physical living condition is an important issue and more significantly, that "people are becoming more conscious of their living environment and are starting to plan their lives accordingly". One, who has the opportunity to have visited suburbs — in France, in America, in United Kingdom or in China —, knows that building and living conditions of these areas, physically as well as socially, are neglected. Both projects, that of Entrepreneurbia and that of Brian Alessi take account of these factors and propose to revitalize these areas. But, this is probably Entrepreneurbia who appears to be the most precise on this issue of best quality of life. Entrepreneurbia calls for abolishing the current zoning that lead to most of the major problems in suburbs — I will add, not only in suburbs but also in Metropolis. I am thinking of Teddy Cruz, one of the most interesting architects of his generation who claims for a revision of zoning. Most of his projects such as Ysidro Pilot Village in collaboration with Casa Familiar, or his research such as Formal/Informal developed with theoretician Mike Davis — they examine the impact the politics of discriminating zoning in San Diego deal with this issue of rezoning. According to Entrepreneurbia, revising zoning laws can permit to improve neighborhoods areas. Most of areas are separated into residential areas and commercial areas, or, residential areas, commercial areas and industrial areas — even though industry tends to disappear, and so are industrial areas. The result of this separation — Entrepreneurbia uses the term "segregation" — is: a lack, if not to say an absence, of build balanced communities, consequently, a major handicap for a residential area dynamic and effective in one hand, and long distance between each activity: living, working, shopping and dining, in the other hand. Entrepreneurbia proposes mixed-use communities as the solution. The issue of mixed-use can be a tool to reduce the environmental footprint of not only suburbs, but also Metropolis. Mixed-use makes suburbs more compact, and, as Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners/Arup/LSE noted, compacity (or this neologism "Compa/city" that I appreciate) appears to be the only sustainable form of development. As the team noticed, mixed-use areas can be a process to attract people who live in crowded metropolis, and still have a negative vision of suburbs due to the long distance between these districts and Metropolis, say, home and workplace, hobbies, etc. Accordingly, it is not surprising that mixed-use is now viewed as THE TOOL to revitalize urban environment. Mixed-use and polyfunctional areas (another tool to promote compact city) promote a better energetic efficiency, and a better social cohesion. Mixed-use creates proximity between home, workplace, hobby, shopping and dining. In this way, mixed-use is now the new spatial factor for best sustainable development — a city such as Tokyo has already integrated this factor but, as urban planning theoretician Andre Sorensen noted, one must be more critical about this tool, particularly in the case of residential and industrial mixed-use areas. The same Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners/Arup/LSE, for Paris, have claimed for rethinking zoning laws but — and this is why I haven't voted for Entrepreneurbia due to the fact they were not precise enough on this point —, by starting with existing zoning.

Entrepreuneurbia: Rezoning the suburbs for a sustanaible future, image © Entrepreneurbia/Reburbia, 2009

The issue of recycling constitutes the other side of Post-Kyoto cities and suburbs. Brian Alessi considers this aspect as one of many keys for a sustainable development of suburbs. I will convoke Interboro Partners' project Improvement Your Lot! to complete this analysis.

> See Interboro Partners' essay, case studies and interview for Verb Boogazine "Crisis", 2008

I was deeply interested in Brian Alessi's concept of "recycling" existing lot, say, these under utilized space, as he wrote. Once again, I will turn to Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners/Arup/LSE's research, that I consider as one of the most powerful tool for regenerating 21st century urban space. Recycling vacant, derelict lot necessitate the elaboration of management tool. Unfortunately, he has not precise this point. But, recycling these lots permit to maximise their potential. By reusing them, these lots will be unvaluable in the future.

Regenerative suburban median, image © Brian Alessi/Reburbia, 2009

This concept of "recycling" vacant, derelict lots as well as existing building in order to improve urban fabrics pose the question of 1. the state of suburbs; 2. the state of top-down urban planning. I will use the concept of "New Suburbanism" that Interboro Partners have developed for their study on Detroit suburbanization to qualify Reburbia. What is it? The New Suburbanism, according to them, is the process of 'bottom-up' suburbanization that "happens when vacant lots having been abandoned by their owners, taken by the city (or state) [here, I add, suburbs] and generally neglected, are taken, borrowed, or bought by entrepreneurial landowners nearby. What results — a de-densification, but also a "replatting" that undermines official property boundaries." My use of "New Suburbanism" is limited to the will of reusing vacant, derelict lot and existing but under utilized building and space. I do not know if Alessi will consider that inhabitants will contribute to this process, but, I found his idea of re-suburbanization as closed to that of Interboro Partners.

Whatever, what I noticed here, and this is the same reflection I had after reading Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners/Arup/LSE's report, and various research such as Tsukamoto Lab, among others, we are shifting from a top-down urban planning to a bottom-up urban planning, say, to a participation — real or not, I still don't know — of inhabitants in the process of revitalization of the community (Even through, Interboro is more critical concerning this opposition of top-down planning and bottom-up planning). Interboro Partners proposed for their project Improve Your Lot! that the planner's role is no longer to create visions of what should be, but rather help a city to improve what is already is.

To conclude, I will add a last but important point: even though I have not voted for Entrepreneurbia, after examining the whole projects, that of Entrepreneurbia, that of Alessi and that of other participants, it seems that Entrepreneurbia and Alessi are the only participants who have taken into account that as societies and cultures change, use of space changes.

Clichy-sous-Bois: Create a mixed neighborhood, image © Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners, 2009


Ruburbia, Inhabitat, Dwell, Rogers, Stirk, Harbour & Partners, Arup and LSE, Interboro Partners, mentioned above, apart:

Kira Mariko (eds.), Toward Totalscape Tokyo, NAI Publishers, 2002

Interboro Partners, "Improve Your Lot! The New Suburbanism", in Verb Crisis, Architecture Boogazine, 2008, Actar Publishers

© Pictures are from Reburbia, Le Grand Paris official website


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