“The time for thinking cautiously is over,” exclaimed the call for entries in the recent Build a Better Burb competition. Ryan H.B. Lovett, John B. Simons, and Patrick Cobb’s student entry, Upcycling 2.0, responds with multidimensional intelligence to the brief, which requests that participants be “bold” in developing ideas to retrofit the downtowns of New York’s Long Island. Organized by the Long Island Index, part of the Rauch Foundation, the competition clearly resonated with the design community, attracting 212 submissions. The jury chose 23 finalists and five primary winners, one people’s choice winner, and the student winner, Upcycling 2.0.
Long Island Index director Ann Golob succinctly explains the impetus behind the competition: Long Island is having a hard time getting its young people to stay. Low-paying jobs for younger adults and the lure of edgier New York City are resulting in an aging population. “We need to reinvent ourselves,” Golob says.
In developing Upcycling 2.0, arguably the most innovative of the competition-winning designs, Lovett, Simons, and Cobb—all enrolled at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation—tapped into their training as architects and urban planners. They also applied innovative practices from economics, community organizing, and other disciplines. And as members of the competition’s target demographic, they know their audience.
Competition juror Daniel D’Oca, a partner at Brooklyn, N.Y.–based Interboro Partners, called the plan “a creative, optimistic reading of the suburb and its building blocks, which it proposes to combine in interesting ways.”
At the largest scale, the scheme accepts as a given the existing regional configuration of towns and mass transit that connect Long Island to New York. But it is at the local level—namely, Hicksville, N.Y., a bedroom community of more than 41,000—that the students turn traditional suburbia on its head.
Upcycling 2.0 posits that in order to encourage community participation, individuals and organizations should combine revenue streams—such as a portion of rental and lease income and membership dues—and then use the funds for public development. This overarching idea intrigued jurors: “It’s not just about design—it’s about how these people can pool their money,” Golob says.
Lovett, Simons, and Cobb would administer the funds and the projects through a nonprofit community-improvement group. “The project title is misleading. This is less upcycling than a homeowners association with a conscience,” says juror Allison Arieff. The group would encompass local residents, volunteering time in exchange for incentives; banks providing low-interest loans for a stake in investments; government streamlining zoning and tax incentives; and developers handling leases and rent collection. All funds would be used for development, including renovating existing and dilapidated properties, and all initiatives would be determined by democratic vote.
Proposals for development are based around the concept of creating “vertically integrated networked neighborhoods,” as the students term them. These neighborhoods would not separate housing, manufacturing, commercial, and agricultural uses into separate zones, but knit them into a unified fabric.
Specific ideas for housing include converting single-family houses into multiunit, multientrance properties, preserving the suburban ideal of a lawn but increasing density. Some lots would include retail on the ground floor, housing above, and a multiuse space in what would normally be a detached garage. In other words, traditional zoning is out the window.
Upcycling 2.0 gets particularly innovative in identifying sites for new construction. Forget farmland. Single-family houses perch on the roofs of strip malls. The surface parking lots become green space, and cars go in a garage sandwiched between the store and the houses. Another layered model involves placing a high school atop a big box store.
But Lovett, Simons, and Cobb also recognize that you can’t launch a suburban revolution without addressing all of the space necessarily devoted to transportation. “An impressive theme is the attitude toward infrastructure—whether a parking lot or a highway, they are treated as elements of a shared civic environment that need to be rethought and reused,” says juror Galina Tachieva, a partner at Miami-based Duany Plater-Zyberk.
To promote street life and encourage residents to interact with their neighbors, the students designed “suburban furniture” such as a community mail station, a group cooking area, and a water tower that doubles as a lounge. And no parking lot is left untouched: Upcycling 2.0 looks to transform the suburban blight of surface parking into dense, livable green space, stacking multifamily housing on top of a raised greenway spanning the lots.
Not all of the ideas produced in Upcycling 2.0—nor in the other winning designs—are practical or will prove palatable to the typical Long Island resident. “We need to translate the designs for a nondesign audience,” Golob says. Arieff, both juror and design journalist, is working with the foundation to do just that. The Hicksville planning department declined to comment on Upcycling 2.0 for this article.