The Future of Urban and Suburban Spaces: Redesigning The Suburbs After the Foreclosure Crisis

6.28.12 | The American Dream is no doubt shifting. Instead of green lawns and single-family homes, researchers at Columbia University’s Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture hypothesize that after the foreclosure crisis and financial meltdown of the past five years, people may be more interested in things like proximity to public transit and mixed income housing than sprawl and McMansions. As they write on their website: “Change the dream and you change the city.”

As they now exist, these researchers speculate, many suburban places are not meeting the needs of the residents who live there.  As we’ve written, the demographics of the suburbs are changing. Suburban cities around the country are home to growing immigrant communities who have been disproportionately affected by the foreclosure crisis. And today the largest share of the American poor live in the suburbs. These cities are increasingly ill equipped to deal with the needs of poor families who need access to things like good public transit and multi-generational housing.

And as designed, suburbs may no longer be how most of us want to live or work.  Many of us want to be less reliant on our cars, especially with rising gas prices. We want to have communal public spaces for living and working, to be closer to stores, social services, and to build wealth for our families in diverse ways, not only through traditional homeownership.

Researchers from the Buell Center have partnered with curators at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) on a new exhibit called “Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream.” MoMA and the Buell Center saw some opportunity amid the stories of growing poverty and foreclosures in the suburbs that have dominated the news.

Barry Bergdoll, MoMA’s chief curator of architecture and design, and Reinhold Martin, director of the Buell Center, invited teams of architects, planners, ecologists, engineers, and landscape designers to envision a new infrastructure for housing and transportation in five regions across the country: The Oranges, NJ, Temple Terrace, FL, Cicero, IL, Keizer, OR, and Rialto, CA. These spaces, also studied in the Buel Center report, were chosen because of representative national characteristics: high foreclosure rates and a significant amount of publicly held land available for development. And all were along existing or proposed high-speed rail lines. These teams came together last year at one of MoMA’s studio spaces and held open houses to discuss their ideas with the public.

The results of the experiment are on display at MoMA and at this interactive online exhibit. The exhibit caused some controversy when it first opened for being “unrealistic” (planners said it would be impossible to change zoning laws to permit denser development patters in inner-ring suburbs, for example). But it’s also been hailed as innovative and visionary. I found it fascinating to read through and to look at the pictures and renderings that envision incredible possibilities for changes in our everyday spaces.

Cicero, IL, for example, an inner-ring suburb known for its history of government scandal and white working-class past, is now home to a large Mexican and Central American immigrant community. The community is suffering from home foreclosures as well as factory foreclosures as manufacturing jobs moved overseas.  For this project, a team lead by Studio Gang Architects (lead by Chicago architect Jeanne Gang, a MacArthur Fellow known for her work on Aqua) focused on reinventing a former factory into a new type of housing they call a “recombinant house” –- a building that “allows for the mixing of families, generations, and spaces for living and working in ways generally not sanctioned by current zoning laws.”

And in Rialto, CA., part of a region between Los Angles and Las Vegas that was once  a center of agribusiness, Zago Architecture designed a new mixed-use development to replace the failed subdivision of Rosena Ranch, which had halted construction with the recession. The team designed a more mixed-use development with varied housing types and living situations—duplexes or row houses, for example—and narrower, diverse street patterns that allow for rivers and wildlife to flow through organically.

Most interesting to me was the variety of new economic models of ownership, from limited equity co-ops, to real estate investment trusts that blur the line between owning and renting (the government would share the income from development of public land with citizens), to new “portable mortgages,” where ownership is “not tied to a particular space.”

The exhibit speaks to the importance of design for those places that are looking to reinvent themselves for the financial markets and human needs of the future. It also reminds that local solutions and visions are crucial and that national leaders need to be looking locally for ideas and to help identify what, if any, silver linings may exist.

The MOMA exhibit closes August 13. If you’ll be in the New York Area this summer, don’t miss it. You can view it online at MoMA.

Plus, For a real life example of suburban redevelopment in the wake of foreclosures read Barbara’s post on the work Habitat for Humanity is doing in Charlotte, where they are rebuilding empty suburban housing as mixed-use development.


Screenshot from “The Garden in the Machine.”

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