Friday, February 17, 2012

Designing the Suburbs

Jeanne Gang in The New York Times. Too bad this nation is allergic to "design" and "planning":

RECENT efforts to fix the housing market — including Thursday’s $26 billion settlement with five of the nation’s biggest banks — have focused purely on the financial aspects of the slump. A permanent solution, however, must go further than money to address issues that have been at the core of the crisis but have been wholly ignored: design and urban planning.

Too often during the bubble, banks and builders shunned thoughtful architecture and urban design in favor of cookie-cutter houses that could be easily repackaged as derivatives to be flipped, while architects snubbed housing to pursue more prestigious projects.

But better design is precisely what suburban America needs, particularly when it comes to rethinking the basic residential categories that define it, but can no longer accommodate the realities of domestic life. Designers and policy makers need to see the single-family house as a design dilemma whose elements — architecture, finance and residents’ desires — are inextricably linked.
****

Here’s where design comes in. Most of Cicero’s housing is detached, single-family homes. But these are too expensive for many immigrants, so five or six families often squeeze into one of Cicero’s brick bungalows. This creates unstable financial situations, neighborhood tensions and falling real estate values.

Too often, we see such mismatches as a purely financial issue. But instead of forcing families to fit into a house, what if we rearranged the house to fit them?

This doesn’t mean bulldozing Cicero’s housing stock. Instead, it means using existing, underused properties that might be renovated to provide a better fit. In Cicero’s case, that might mean turning to the scores of abandoned factories around it.

Such buildings are often no man’s lands thanks to fears of industrial contamination, which have left older suburbs pockmarked by blight while jobs and homes sprawl outward. But new techniques like “phytoremediation” — using plants like poplar and willow trees to absorb toxins — open the door to safer, less-expensive rehabilitation.

What remains is a wealth of steel, masonry and concrete that could be recycled into flexible live/work units. Rather than force Cicero’s residents to contort themselves to fit the bungalows, their homes can expand or shrink to fit them.

There’s one problem with such a plan: it’s illegal under Cicero’s zoning code. The town’s rules are typical of most suburbs, including the segregation of residential, commercial and industrial facilities; prohibitions on expanding and reusing buildings for new homes and businesses; and tight restrictions on mixed-use properties. Cicero’s code also defines “family” in a way that excludes the large, multigenerational groupings now common across the country.

This has been an issue for urban planners for years, but many of the proposed alternatives to suburban zoning merely swap one restrictive code for another. Only by loosening zoning to allow new combinations of home and work will we be able to bring innovative design to bear on the single-family house.

*****

One long-term solution would be a type of co-op in which residents buy and sell shares according to their changing needs and circumstances. Unlike traditional co-ops, residents could purchase shares corresponding only to the units they occupy, not the land beneath, which remains in the hands of a “community land trust.” Such a structure would keep housing costs down while limiting residents’ exposure to the market. It would also provide a backstop for struggling homeowners, since the trust would have the legal right to step in and assist residents in the event of foreclosure.
Design a Fix for the Housing Market (New York Times)

No comments:

Post a Comment