What does it take to not only slow the spread of sprawl but also fundamentally change how we design and build communities? And how do we “unsprawl” communities that have already been built? A new book from our friends at Planetizen, Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces and Places, by Simmons Buntin, editor of Terrain.org and Ken Pirie, who works for Walker Macy Landscape Architects, proves that there are better ways to build communities. But this isn’t a book about sprawl: It’s a book about built places, “real, human scale communities by people and for people, not cars.”
In the introduction, Galina Tachieva states, “sprawl as a built habitat has been failing for decades.” With the recent economic downturn, the fundamental inadequacies of sprawl have become apparent. The new push to “unsprawl” is a movement towards an urbanism we can all afford — one in which amenities are located centrally and walkable, where the built is balanced with the natural.
While there are clear reasons why we need to unsprawl, this is a focused how-to book. Exploring all aspects of a project from concept to design and through to its execution, there are lots of details about how projects were financed and built. We also learn about the successes and failures along the path to that “particular moment when a project becomes a true place.”
Each case study covered in the book has an accompanying question and answer section with someone who is intimately involved in the design and development of the community. Case studies of various scales are organized into four sections: new communities; in-fill and grayfield development; the redevelopment of downtowns; and examples of “green” development.
The new communities section shows that good urban design is doable in both rural and suburban communities, places that have been historically car-focused. The authors believe we can build “new and distinct places that respect the economy and heritage” of that place. One new community, Prospect New Town, located south of Longmont, Colorado, was built with a mixed-use, eclectic design aesthetic and was voted “America’s Coolest Neighborhood” by Dwell magazine.
In the in-fill and greyfield section, the authors ask: what we do when the existing form and function of our communities cease to serve us? Do we rebuild from scratch or find “innovative ways to adapt to changing social, environmental and economic circumstances?” Built on the site of Rockville, Maryland’s vacant mall, a new town square “created a daytime, evening, and weekend activity center that is easily identifiable, pedestrian-oriented and incorporates a mix of uses and activities.”
Buntin and Pirie acknowledge that wonderful things have been torn down in and around American cities, ranging from “native ecosystems to historic neighborhoods” but believe that replacing what doesn’t work with “dedicated planning, good urban design, and hard work” can turn redeveloped areas into “intentional and integral parts of their respective downtowns.”
For example, RiverPlace in Portland, Oregon, the initial development of which was possible through the city council’s 1976 decision to remove the six-lane freeway that separated the city from the Wilmette River, showcases an “early and ongoing example” of these principles in action.
In the green development section, the authors feature a few projects with especially strong sustainable credentials. The authors state: “successful, sustainable communities are not a goal to be achieved, but a process to be followed and revised: an essential pursuit if we hope to build places that will last on landscapes that will last even longer.” One such example of a green development is Prairie Crossing, in Grayslake, Illinois, north of Chicago. Prairie Crossing is transit-based, energy efficient, and community focused. The project “began as a commitment from conservation-minded investors who sought to preserve and restore native prairie and farmland being lost to suburbanization.”
This guest post is by Heidi Petersen, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and ASLA 2013 summer intern.
Image credits: (1) Unsprawl / Planetizen, (2) Live/work streetscape, Prospect, Colorado / Simmons Buntin, (3) Rockville Town Square / Simmons Buntin, (4) RiverPlace’s South Water Front Park / Walker Macy, (5) Prairie Crossing / Prairie Holdings Corporation