Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Engaging Suburban Design

Photo by Witold Rybczynski for Slate

Sifting through the small backlog of potential post topics from this past summer, I revisited this wonderful feature in Slate by architect, writer, and educator, Witold Rybczynski:

Forest Hills Gardens
A walkable, transit-oriented, architecturally rich planned community, built 100 years ago.

"The planned community of 142 acres, which introduced the British Garden City movement to the United States, was intended to demonstrate the latest ideas in town planning, housing, open space, and building construction. It's pretty obvious that in the intervening years, Levittown, N.Y.—not Forest Hills—became the prototype for American planned communities... One of the strengths of the Garden City movement was that it dealt with town planning in a comprehensive way, and this 100-year-old piece of New York City remains a model for how the attractions of town and suburbs can be combined."
See the online slideshow and narrative here

This planned community in Queens, New York, was started in 1909 and featured many sought-after innovations today: mixed retail and housing, proximity to major transportation (Forest Hills has its own station, just a 20-minute train ride into Manhattan), individually styled home designs, plenty of trees, pocket parks, and very good walkability.

See more background and related links via Wikipedia.

I agree with Rybczynski about the shame of most suburban design going the way of Levittown, NY (and later, Levittown, PA), recognized as the first of many bland, often sidewalk-less, every-house-looks-the-same subdivisions.

Levittown layout from the air

Now, 100 years later, a new revolution is underway to design more human- (rather than auto) centered communities. Here are a few examples:

When you think of it, neighborhoods and communities are among the designs that most impact our daily lives. Here's to a more enlightened approach.

[Side note: If you're not familiar with him, check out the books of Witold Rybczynski. A few of my favorites include: City Life, One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw‎, and Home: A Short History of an Idea. All are insightful, well-written, and engaging.‎

Also, see the entire collection of pieces he has done as Slate's architecture critic here.]

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