The Storm, the Strife, and Everyday Life: Sea Change in the Suburbs

For many Long Islanders, the devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy was a wakeup call, adding urgency to a nascent discussion about Long Island\’s vulnerability to storm surge, sea level rise, and heavy rain events that regularly overwhelm an antiquated sewer system. But when Sandy struck, Long Island–like many older suburban regions–had another sea change on its mind. Consider the following:

· In 2011, population growth in urban centers outpaced population growth in suburban areas for the first time in 100 years.
· Between 2000 and 2012, the poor population in suburbs grew by 65 percent—more than twice the rate of growth in large cities.
· In the past decade, minorities have accounted for four fifths of suburban growth.

Statistics like these, plus peak oil predictions, surveys revealing the overwhelmingly urban lifestyle preferences of millennials, and numerous other statistics pointing to a “great inversion” of wealth and opportunity from suburbs to cities, led many leaders on Long Island—host of the world’s earliest and most iconic post-war, mass-produced, “sitcom” suburbs—to the realization that the suburb as we have known it might be reaching the end of its shelf life. Lewis Mumford’s enduring image of “a multitude of uniform, unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly, at uniform distances, on uniform roads, in a treeless communal waste, inhabited by people of the same class, the same income, the same age group . . . conforming in every outward and inward respect to a common mold,” still strikes a chord, but there is little question that suburbs in the U.S. are witnessing a radical formal, demographic, and semantic shift. No longer the exclusive province of well-off, white, car-driving nuclear families, the suburbs are increasingly diverse, increasingly poor, and, in Long Island’s case, increasingly wet.

What can an almost exclusively auto-based, suburban landscape of detached single-family homes, with a dearth of affordable housing and transportation options, a highly balkanized system of governance, and tremendous vulnerability to storm surge do to stay strong the 21st century? This interdisciplinary studio invites students from all departments to imagine a future for Long Island, \”America\’s first suburb.\” Drawing from an analysis of how things like sea level rise, increased immigration, increased poverty, and the aging of the population are transforming everyday life in the suburbs, students will work with community-based organizations to envision futures for Long Island. Students will develop a vision at a regional scale, and then zoom in to articulate the vision on one of a dozen or so contentious development sites selected by the instructor. As the sites represent a variety of scales and types (e.g. entire communities devastated by Sandy, natural landscapes, transit-oriented development projects and other large-scale developments, and individual buildings), studio deliverables are expected to be diverse.

A field trip to Long Island and other shifting suburbs in the United States is tentatively planned. Student work will be compiled into a publication about new visions for the contemporary U.S. suburb.