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OPINION: Bright ideas for better suburbs

Frank Mruk is the associate dean at the New York Institute of Technology’s School of Architecture and Design, which is based in Old Westbury and Manhattan.


Trends come and go like the rhythm of the tide hitting the Jones Beach shore. It may seem that the concept of suburbia is currently in outgoing-tide mode: Most of the world's planning expertise is being focused on cities; young people are leaving the suburbs in mini mass migrations; and for the first time ever, more than half of the world's population has repositioned itself in dense urban environments.

We are in the middle of a generational shift in how the places we live are designed and developed. Some see that now is the time for the tide to return to the suburban landscape, bringing with it a renewed focus on the quality-of-life-principles Long Island has ever been known for.

The question is always: How do we start the process of rethinking and reinventing the suburban landscape in a refreshing and innovative way? How do we produce unencumbered visions, respect the fundamental ideological differences between city and suburban lifestyles, and engage the world's best interdisciplinary talent?

Those questions led to the Rauch Foundation's Build a Better Burb Competition, whose tagline is, "The time for thinking cautiously is over." The contest for ideas to overhaul Long Island's downtowns received more than 200 entries, and 23 finalists were announced last week. As I examined the finalist proposals last week, I saw some stunning results. They have the potential to reinvigorate the current discussion on the future of suburbia on Long Island.

Many of the finalists focused on social themes - the concept of connectedness and reorienting neighborhoods to meet daily needs by offering a diversity of building types, interaction spaces and services that facilitate lifelong social interactions. There were proposals specifically designed to attract the coveted young-adult demographic, the creative class and the elderly. One focused on using education as a catalyst, others on the very process of design itself.

Transportation corridors are the backbone of our communities, so transit oriented design themes were well-represented in many of contest's submissions. I saw reinvigorated pedestrian cores around Long Island Rail Road stations, refocusing the station as a revitalized hub of connectivity.

And sustainability was widely referenced - expanding the role of the neighborhood to address its proportionate share of society's social and environmental needs. Visions focused on suburban agriculture, carbon sequestration, renewable energy and water-neutral/zero-waste schemes.

Another noted theme was integrated design, which is all about optimizing the performance of entire neighborhoods. That means more livable neighborhoods and, often, lower taxes through shared resources. Some of these proposals converged on increased density, mixed-use zoning and smart growth. One focused on repurposing inaccessible traffic clovers as connective tissue to link neighborhoods through new pedestrian and bicycle networks. The New Urbanism art of walkable neighborhoods also was evident in many schemes and some focused on traditional neighborhood development using vernacular design.


It will take both small projects and large-scale thinking to truly build a better suburb. Some of the entries took an Islandwide "Bold Vision" perspective. For instance LIRR - which in this case stands for Long Island Radically Rezoned - asked, What if we draw on the natural rhythm of an island to provide processes that restore, renew or revitalize their own sources of energy and materials? What if we push innovation and create synergies between those various sources of energy and materials?

The group's proposed solution applies closed-loop principles on a macro scale: water-, energy- and waste-neutral, and 100-percent local food production via a proximity-to-mass-transit system of "smart cells." It illustrates the potential of efficiently and systemically sharing resources.

Some of the entrants took a micro view. The entry from the Democratic Participation in Design Progress focused on a bottom-up process for a plan to transform Merrick. The scheme consisted of a resident-designed urban farm, forming a network of green spaces giving residents the opportunity to create and benefit directly from the fruits - and vegetables - of their labors.

With any visionary proposal for an already largely developed area like Long Island, implementation is key. Upcycling 2.0 featured an incremental renewal approach for Hicksville, mandating land-use diversity and equity through zoning swaps and building up to develop mixed-use centers created by slowly acquiring privately owned property and then using it to create a pooled income stream for public benefit.


Visions produced by the Build a Better Burb Competition - whether in part or in combination - can fuel the ideas we need to revision Long Island's future. We live in an age where new ideas are the ultimate global currency. But we also live at a time when old ideas infinitely regress at an astounding pace. Learning how to execute strategic systemic change in our towns is of critical importance to the competitive and economic survival of our communities.

Competitions like this one help establish new starting points. Long Islanders have been on the cutting edge of the evolving concept of suburbia, and it is exhilarating to observe Long Islanders artfully extending this legacy - demonstrating to the world that Long Island is still the premier incubator for reinventing this very special obsession called Suburbia.