Look at many large North American cities and you see a sea of suburban houses. Sprawl has become the norm. But it is costly, damages the environment and affects quality of life. A new generation of planners and architects is beginning to look at sustainable, human-centered solutions to the creeping suburbs.
There are several reasons for the rise of the suburbs. The planning structures put in place after World War II encouraged the construction of low-density neighborhoods. Low gas prices created a car-dependent culture. And most developers are resistant to changing the paradigm of the suburbs because it has worked for them.
The four architects profiled in this series offer their own analyses of how North America has come to face this situation, and how it might be solved. To see the first article in this series, click here. For part two, click here, and for part three, click here.
Tai Ziola is a young architect with ziola newstudio architecture in Edmonton. Her approach to the issue of suburban sprawl encompasses LEED compliant housing, renewing urban areas and creating a denser social fabric for inner-city neighborhoods. Ziola points out that the current suburban car-dependent model forces a host of issues on the design of communities.
“There are definitely more sustainable ways to set up individual buildings for energy saving that the current suburban model doesn’t let us do,” she says. “For instance, orienting everything efficiently in a land area to take advantage of passive solar heating or siting a lot in a way that means you can build a more energy-efficient building.”
Suburban sprawl has implications for other facets of our lives, Ziola says. “It really does feed into the big-box model. You only get the larger multinationals in places you can drive to. All of your products are coming from China or coming from elsewhere.”
The solution for Ziola lies in more than just simple architecture and planning. For her there are considerations about the social fabric of neighborhoods. “Some people want to ride their bikes but not everyone does,” she says. “Some people want to walk but not everybody’s going to be able to walk a great distance. On a social level it has to include the diversity that allows for a real richness of community that comes from a little more interaction.”
Ziola also mentions a project that her firm is involved in consisting of a fourplex on a corner lot. “We had to fight the mature neighborhood overlay regulations that wanted us to have a huge backyard,” she says, but by putting the parking for this fourplex underground, her firm created “a really nice walkable streetscape.”
This model is what Ziola believes is more effective than “building a 30 unit, four story condo building” that is dense and represents infill development but doesn’t “respect the scale or feel of the older neighborhoods,” she says.
Another issue that Ziola finds questionable when it comes to the construction of new suburbs is the issue of inner city taxpayers subsidizing the cost of new exurban neighborhoods. “To me it doesn’t make a great deal of sense at all that taxpayers living in the core of the city are funding all of the infrastructure associated with sprawl,” she says. The challenge, she says, is to find ways for municipal governments to provide incentives for people to live in the inner city. She says there are many more options such as tax breaks and defraying infrastructure costs by making suburban areas bear the cost of development.
In areas like Alberta some developers are blocking progress on more innovative development projects, Ziola says. “[They are] reticent to take risks stylistically or with materials,” she says, because the market for new developments is relatively slow. This leads to less demand from consumers for more innovative housing choices.
While suburbs may still persist as the norm in North America, the four architects profiled in this series are working towards solutions that may eventually alter the urban landscape and provide sustainable, human scale solutions to the blight of ever growing neighborhoods and increasing traffic, social and environmental problems.