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Alternatives to Sprawl: The New Suburbs

March 18, 2012

I don’t really need to start this post describing the why suburban sprawl is an ugly thing, visually and environmentally (although I must admit to a strange hypnotic allure that aerial photography of subdivisions have). It’s a phenomena described in almost any enviro-themed literature, and an iconic image of the destructive American lifestyle.  So, we all know what’s going on. And I always feel down and a little depressed when I think about how bad something is, especially when whole-communities and ecological health are at risk.  Let’s skip it, shall we?

Instead, I’d prefer to start talking about the alternatives to suburban sprawl. There’s a key concept here; we don’t have to stop growth, we just need to have a better design for it. Ecological designers aren’t necessarily interested in strict land preservation, or ending population growth. They’d like to integrate human and ecological communities in an intelligent way, so as to promote healthy growth for all individuals.

I think its best to describe this design philosophy through talking about case-studies of what designers and communities have done to replace the car-oriented, cheap, and poorly designed modern suburban communities around the country. First, let’s head to Lexington, KY.

Artist rendering of The Parkland's farmer's market.

The landscape architecture firm, WRT finished the master plan for  The Parklands in the city of Lexington, which is a drastically different form of development than the area has seen in decades. The park is an extensive system of urban trails, waterways, and a park drive connecting different area. It will save the 20-mile corridor that borders the city from conventional suburban development, and instead create a space with waterfalls, wetlands, canoe pond, a ropes course, rock climbing, a dog park, playgrounds, and sports fields.

Although no one will live on the property, it is still a statement about smart development. It also showcases how the urban ecological movement can mean more than land preservation. WRT said this about the project, “The Parklands is not a preservation project – the client’s intent has been to place people in nature, and to proactively use open space as an agent in shaping future regional development on a county-wide scale.”  I like this idea quite a bit, where the integration of human and natural communities are integrated. See my older post on Urban Regeneration. And although there isn’t room for residences, parks such as this lend themselves to adjacent high-density neighborhoods. Those folks won’t need their own lawn or pool, since there is a massive one for free just down the road!

This concept has been termed “new urbanism” by many, including National Geographic in their nifty little interactive new online suburb. And it’s getting quite a bit of attention from landscape architects and communities, as in the case of the Serenbe Community outside of Atlanta, GA.

One of the fields on an organic farm in Serenbe Community, GA.

Serenbe Community is a new urbanism model for sustainable living, as its creators describe it. The master plan includes commercial zones within “Main Street” style pedestrian paths, interconnected hamlets which include space for 2,500 residents, and agricultural zones, with farm-to-table restaurants within the community. It is a response to typical suburban sprawl seen in area surrounding Atlanta, and as their website describes, “Serenbe’s ultimate goal is to demonstrate how development can accommodate the need for housing with minimal impact on nature—Serenbe’s land plan call for a preservation of at least 70% of the acreage, while accommodating as many or more people as traditional subdivision-style development, which would
disturb nearly 80%.”

Artist rendering of Del Mar Transit Village in Southern California.

Lastly, Sierra Club’s Angeles Chapter argues the need for transit villages in Southern California, which is another solution to the seemingly inevitable growth of suburban communities. They said this, “the basic idea is to build shops, housing, and offices together in areas that are well served by public transportation, much like older downtown districts. In the updated transit village version, moderate- to higher-density development is directed to areas within an easy walk of subway and light rail stations as well as areas with quality express and local bus service. Special attention is given to pedestrian comfort and safety in designing streets.”

So, I see that more people are thinking about the suburban lifestyle, and watching the frightful patterns that have developed as a result of growth and poor design. These designs, as alternatives to sprawl, can be region-specific, and address or accommodate the communities that envision them. Thus, they can incorporate the growth and health of the human community, while respecting the ecological communities around them.

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