1Building broad-based support among community members and stakeholders for denser, transit-oriented development and a greater mix of uses in North American suburbs characterized by fractured governance and a high incidence of socioeconomic and racial segregation is often a great challenge (Frug 2006). The use of speculative design can be a powerful tool in starting a less threatening conversation, especially among current residents prone to NIMBYism, about possibilities and potential for suburban retrofitting in their communities. In this article we discuss the opportunities provided by design research in the form of design competitions to initiate productive public conversations about the potential for change towards new infill development and re-development in suburban locations that might be more socially sustainable and resilient than current configurations, i.e. ‘grayfields’ comprised of cleared land or asphalt-paved parking lots. The work is informed by two decades of established literature in North America on the potential economic, ecological, public health, and social equity benefits of suburban retrofitting and sprawl repair (Calthorpe 1993, Frumkin et al. 2004, Hall 2005, Tachieva 2010, Dunham-Jones and Williamson 2011, Williamson 2013, Talin 2015). The 2013-14 Build a Better Burb: ParkingPLUS design challenge, sponsored by the Long Island Index, a project of the Rauch Foundation, serves as an example.
2The use of architectural competitions has a long history as a methodology to generate knowledge of a potential future for a particular site or project. Competitions present an opportunity for design research using drawings and images as the primary medium for communicating such research (Andersson et al. 2013). Proponents of design competitions often point to the transparent and democratic nature of a competition process as well as the potential for innovation and experiment that competitions can produce. An early example for the latter was the mid-15th century competition for the Florence Cathedral dome won and realized by Filippo Brunelleschi (Chupin et al. 2015).
3Realizing the winning entry however is not the only outcome of design competitions. Potential architectural designs generated through competitions produce new knowledge and ideas that can be transferred to other sites and projects, even if the competition entry itself remains unbuilt. In this process of using competitions to influence a conversation about a potential future, unbuilt architecture and urban design can be as influential as built projects.
4The 1921 competition entry for a skyscraper in Berlin’s Friedrichstraße by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, which did not win but inspired architects all over the world to design curtain glass walls free of load bearing functions, is a prominent example in this category. More recently OMA’s unrealized 1982 design for the Parc de la Villette in Paris can be seen as another example (Moussavi 2013, Chupin et al. 2015). Both have gone on to influence other projects and make a strong case for advancing knowledge through the use of speculative design, that is, design that demonstrates a potential future without the immediate plan to implement it. Speculative design research can take on many formats; the most well-known is the open ideas competition, in which a sponsor – an entity with an interest in advancing the conversation and thinking about a certain site or topic – calls for designers to respond. Typically, in return, designers have the chance to receive a reward and, often, significant publicity. The sponsor or other interested partners can use the resulting designs to advance and inform a separate process of realizing an actual project or even to simply develop a better understanding of needs, feasibility and possibilities for the site or vision in question.
5Here we present the use of design competitions and, in particular, the recent design challenge Build a Better Burb: ParkingPLUS as an example of design research used as a tool to inform conversation about the potential future for North American suburban areas, many of which face similar challenges of demographic shifts, economic decline and increasing competition with inner cities (Hanlon et al. 2010).
6Suburban Long Island, comprised of Nassau and Suffolk Counties, is in many ways a pioneer for suburban development throughout the region and across the nation. Home to the original Levittown, developed by the Levitt brothers from 1947 to 1951, Long Island’s explosive population growth in the second half of the 20th century is emblematic of the transformation of bounded cities with agricultural hinterlands into sprawling metropolitan regions, comprised of one or more large core cities (New York City, Newark) surrounded by a comparatively much lower-density patchwork of residential subdivisions, retail development, and industrial and office parks, filled in along highways and parkways on former agricultural land, forested land, and wetlands (Jackson 1985, Fishman 1987, Hayden 2003, Teaford 2008).
7However, like many other suburban communities in the New York metropolitan region, and across North America, for that matter, Long Island’s period of car-dependent mass suburbanization was preceded by a rich history of towns, hamlets, and villages linked together with mass transit lines. In the case of Long Island, an early railroad and a ferry connection were built to connect New York City to Boston and other cities along the eastern seaboard (Kelly 1990, Krieg and Naylor 2000). The Long Island Rail Road (LIRR), begun in 1832, also connected together the constellation of towns and villages preexisting on Long Island. The rail system, which increasingly focused on commuter service, had essentially reached its present-day extent by 1880 (Figure 1). At that time there was also an extensive network of streetcar and interurban lines that provided additional service and north-south connections, but these have long since been dismantled.
Figure 1. Map of Long Island Railroad, 1884, in Julian Ralph, Long Island of to-day.: Illustrated
Source: Material provided by the Seymour B. Durst Old York Library, part of the Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University.
8In an early period of development, Long Island communities had well-functioning centers with commercial main streets, town halls, village greens, and market squares at their heart. 20th century development of parkways and Interstate highways as well as homeownership incentives through the U.S. Federal Housing Association (FHA) and the GI Bill changed these patterns, spurring rapid population increases in the 1950s and 1960s (Jackson 1985, Hayden 2003). This profound growth (Figure 2) was enabled by a program of highway construction that served to decentralize the urban populace into mass-market residential subdivisions and to separate commercial activity into new building types of shopping malls and office parks (Longstreth 1997, Mozingo 2011, Smiley 2013). Main street businesses struggled to compete with the convenience of new malls, especially when potential shoppers from the new subdivisions couldn’t easily walk to either destination. Instead of living in a village center and walking to the nearest train station to go to the center city, one drove to the station – or chose to make the entire commute by car.
Figure 2. Long Island population growth, 1900-2010
Source: authors, based US Decennial Census, www.census.gov
9Crucial to these developments were societal values and public policies that privileged private housing, individual mobility and car ownership (Jackson 1985, Baxandall and Ewen 2000, Beauregard 2006, Teaford 2008). And as dependence on private cars for transportation grew, so did the need for storing them, in personal garages, surface parking lots and multi-level parking structures (Jakle and Sculle 2004, McDonald 2007, Ben-Joseph 2012). Downtown areas adjacent to older commuter rail stations suffered a loss in vitality and attractiveness as small businesses, houses and civic structures gave way to what is now more than 1740 hectares (4,300 acres) of surface parking lots, along with 1600 hectares (4,000 acres) of vacant land or unprotected open space, within a 10-minute walking radius of 156 Long Island Rail Road stations and village downtowns (RPA 2010) (see Figure 3).
Figure 3. Map of Rockville Centre with a total of 74 acres of land with high development potential within a 10-minute walking distance from the LIRR station
Source: Long Island Index.
10Increasingly, young people who were born and educated on Long Island leave for more affordable and diverse housing options and amenities found in the boroughs of New York City or the other suburban communities of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut that comprise the New York metropolitan region. The declining number of 25-34 year-olds means fewer new entrants to the labor force and fewer first time homebuyers. Long Island lags significantly behind other suburban parts of the region in supplying rental units, especially in apartments and townhouses. The relative lack of housing choice is judged to impede the attraction of workers and businesses, therefore limiting Long Island’s economic competitiveness with other parts of the metropolitan region (RPA 2013).
11At the same time, the number of immigrants moving to U.S. suburbs has been steadily increasing since the mid-1990s (Singer et al. 2008). Historically, immigrants established ethnic enclaves in cities and moved out to the suburbs only after a significant period of integration into American life. Today, existing social networks and employment opportunities are likely to lead new arrivals directly to the suburbs often skipping over the city altogether. In the New York metropolitan region, two thirds of all new foreign-born arrivals moved directly to suburbs (Wilson and Svajlenka 2014). Immigrant communities often play a key role in the revitalization of suburban downtowns, opening businesses and injecting cultural activities (Behrens and Kühl 2011). However, newly arrived immigrants too often are more likely in need of rental housing options and access to public services, public transportation and retail in walking distance. These demographic shifts occurring in many inner-ring suburbs together with the limited available land for further expansion suggests a need to revisit the land available at the center of many towns and villages: i.e. surface parking lots near commuter rail stations.
12More efficient parking schemes to better serve existing and future populations of these changing suburbs are a vital key to unlocking the land necessary to realize the potential of “incremental metropolitanism” (Dunham-Jones and Williamson 2011), that is, the gradual retrofitting via redevelopment and re-inhabitation of a network of urban nodes and corridors within the suburbanized region, while re-greening or conserving open space in between. While the desire for cars and private car ownership in suburban environments will likely persist for some time, there has been cautious interest by some local leaders and planners in revitalizing Long Island’s older downtowns, fueled by the recognition that the two water-locked counties of Nassau and Suffolk (current pop. 2.9 million) are otherwise built out, with no more room for new residential subdivisions and strip mall developments. Instead, the only room to grow – for more housing, economic development and lifestyle improvements (walking, biking, street life, culture, historic preservation) – is inward, in the existing downtowns.
13A more efficient use of existing commuter parking lots would create capacity next to train stations for introducing space for new transit modes (biking, bus, car share), higher residential density, mixed with new commercial uses, and a greater range of housing types to choose from beyond the detached single-family house, all of which can change suburban residents’ habits and reduce vehicle miles traveled (Arrington and Cervero 2008). Research into changing suburban demographics and housing market preferences suggests significant unmet demand in the U.S. for “urban walkable” rather than “suburban drivable” development (Leinberger 2007, Nelson 2013). One obvious solution to land inefficiency in transit-adjacent locations is to build structured parking, where the same number of cars (or more) use less surface land area, leaving other parcels open for development of new uses. Parking garages, however, do not carry a favorable reputation; projects like 1111 Lincoln Road project in Miami Beach, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, are considered the exception, although there are many documented examples of parking structures of architectural significance (Henley 2007, Irmscher 2013). Too often, however, parking garages are built as utilitarian structures, often badly lit, prone to vandalism and perceived as unsafe, and introducing building heights that are uncommon for low-rise suburban environments (McDonald 2007). A further challenge in the case of commuter parking facilities is that they are used most intensively on weekdays, and are largely vacant on weekends and evenings.
14We argue that speculative design research in the form of a design competition could help change negative perceptions, while also suggesting creative solutions to the utilization problem.
15To generate knowledge that can enable a productive conversation among local politicians, community members, media, and the design community about the use of centrally located, but underutilized parcels in Long Island suburbs, the Long Island Index, a project of the Rauch Foundation, initiated the ParkingPLUS Design Challenge, engaging this article’s authors as primary consultants. Since 2004 the Long Island Index has commissioned research on trends in economy, population, housing, education, environment, open space, governance and health, issuing annual reports and presenting the research through text and infographics on its website (www.longislandindex.org). The Index does not advocate specific policy; its mission is to catalyze action by gathering and publishing un-biased data on Nassau and Suffolk counties. The intent is to work outside the fray of the divisive, highly local politics characteristic of regions encumbered by fractured governance (Long Island Index 2014). The political discourse on Long Island, as in many suburbs, is dominated by an ethos of home rule which dictates that zoning, property taxes, and school jurisdictions are managed at the most local levels, complicating attempts to improve efficiency or equity. The legal implications of the home rule tradition can thwart planning in many ways, especially when the agendas of bottom-up community initiatives don’t fit in well or might seem to subvert entrenched local power structures or when the absence of appropriately enabled regional bodies prevents region-wide coordination (Frug 2013).
16In 2010 the Index launched an open urban design ideas competition called Build a Better Burb: Be Bold expanding its method of research and communication on trends and issues on Long Island to include speculative design, that is design proposals that speculate and visualize a potential future without immediate plans for implementing such proposals. One of us was invited to conceive that initial competition, on the basis of expertise in urban design and suburban retrofitting. The competition followed the previously mentioned study, commissioned from the Regional Plan Association (RPA) by the Long Island Index, which illustrated the combined 3,340 hectares (8,300 acres) of surface parking lots and vacant land within a 10-minute walking radius of 156 Long Island Rail Road stations and village downtowns.
17Over 300 design teams participated and six winning schemes were selected including a ‘people’s choice’ winner that was chosen by members of the public through an online voting portal. The results of Build a Better Burb: Be Bold are documented on the eponymous website that was established by the Index afterwards and is actively updated with new content sharing transformative design ideas for North American suburbs (http://buildabetterburb.org/).
18For their 2013-14 program, the Index wished to follow up on past findings from the 2010 competition with a new design challenge, this time concentrating specifically on downtown surface parking lots near the LIRR. This became the focus because parking issues – the perceived lack of it and the amount transit-adjacent land it consumes – are considered a significant impediment to implementing proposals to tap downtowns as a regional asset.
19Unlike the previous open ideas competition, this design challenge did not set up designers to compete with each other, but instead asked each of four design teams chosen through a Request for Expression of Interest (RFEI) to engage in a design research project, each for a different location, that would produce site-specific design solutions while at the same time presenting prototypes that could serve a broader, regional conversation.
20The Index engaged us to craft the challenge, develop the design brief and structure the interaction between local partners and the design teams. The four sites chosen for the challenge each presented a unique but typical condition of surface parking lots near the rail station ranging in size from 2.3 hectares (5.8 acres) in Westbury to 12 hectares (30 acres) in Ronkonkoma (Figure 4). Unlike during the first competition, where entrants were free to choose from 156 sites, this time the Index was interested in working in partnership with local elected officials who saw a benefit from the challenge for their own planning processes and were willing to engage with designers during the design phase. The title of the challenge, ParkingPLUS signaled that designers were asked to transcend the program of more efficient parking by suggesting collateral uses and benefits, as suggested in this quote from the design brief:
21“Structured parking facilities are generally thought of as being single-purpose, stand-alone structures that are ugly, unsafe and out of place in our downtowns. Designers are encouraged to expand the concept of ‘parking’ beyond standard practice and to demonstrate how these structures can be architecturally innovative while anchoring creative strategies for downtown parking… The core of this challenge is to demonstrate how such structures, when exceptionally well designed and featuring innovative architectural, technical, operational and financing strategies, and when part of a large strategy for managing downtown parking and mobility could be potentially transformative to their suburban downtown settings”.
Figure 4. The sites for the ParkingPLUS competition, clockwise from upper left: Rockville Centre, Westbury, Patchogue, and Ronkonkoma
22Each site – comprised of networks of downtown parking lots in the villages of Rockville Centre, Westbury, and Patchogue, and on the large, 12-hectare (30-acre) surface commuter lot south of the busy Ronkonkoma LIRR station – was matched with a design team selected from a diverse list of practices that had responded to the initial RFEI. Unlike typical design competitions, where communication between the sponsor of the competition and the design teams is often limited to a Q&A period, the non-competitive nature of this particular approach allowed for open and informative exchange between design teams and local stakeholders and even design teams with each other throughout the six-week design phase. Kick off meetings at the four sites in August 2013 were followed by a ‘mid-review’ in October 2013 where designers presented in a closed session to a panel of invited expert critics, staff and elected officials from each Village, and local planners. The final designs were submitted in late November and presented publicly to a large audience of influential Long Islanders (elected officials, developers, business leaders, academic administrators, planners, journalists) at a launch event in January 2014. The work was then extensively documented online on the Build a Better Burb website, where it was contextualized and highly publicized. The designers were specifically asked to prepare and share their proposals as illustrated narratives; the intention was for the work to be as clear and comprehensible to non-designers as possible, given the complex and multi-scalar nature of the design task.
23Each of the designs demonstrated how more efficient use of these centrally located surface parking lots could not only add additional parking – something that was desired by most local partners – but also add new uses ranging from housing to retail, civic institutions and public open space.
24For the Village of Rockville Centre, Boston-based Utile, Inc. designed a garage prototype with a ground floor of soaring, monumental, concrete arches, that is, both inspiring and economical to construct (Figure 5). If built, three variations of the prototype design would free up more than 1.5 hectares (3.5 acres) of land for small parks and plazas connecting to an existing network of parks that could support biking, while at the same time adding more than 400 parking spaces to Rockville Centre’s supply. The design also demonstrates a plug-and-play concept for a maximum of 15,000 m2 of additional uses, from apartment housing to tennis courts. Most distinctive, however, is the design for the flexible use of the ground floor. It allows for other uses to take over the space on weekends and evenings for markets or festivals, when the need for commuter parking space is less. The prototype is also designed with flat floor plates rather than sloped, removable ramps, and greater than typical floor-to-floor heights to anticipate conversion to other uses, should the demand for parking decline in the future.
Figure 5. ‘Civic Arches’ by Utile, Inc., proposed for Rockville Centre
Source: Utile, Inc. and the Long Island Index.
25For the Village of Westbury, LTL Architects propose two prototypes for integrating commuter parking into mixed-used development. For one site, owned by the Village, parking is sandwiched into a residential building with terraced apartments above ground floor retail. For a second site, owned by the LIRR, parking is mixed with commercial incubator spaces and station uses and includes a public plaza at the level of the elevated rail as an extension of the platform (Figure 6). The designs respond to trends identified by the Long Island Index, namely the need for diverse housing types to accommodate different age and income groups as well as flexible, non-9 to 5 workspaces that can facilitate innovation and entrepreneurship, such as a “maker” space. This design, as did others, confronts the current inefficiencies of “trip-chaining.” On the way from rail station to home a typical suburbanite may stop by their child’s school, the dry-cleaner, the pharmacist, and the grocery store, often logging many vehicle-miles-travelled to do so. What if they could do many or all these things within walkable proximity to the station before getting into the car?
Figure 6. ‘Train Terraces’ by LTL Architects, proposed for Westbury
Credit: LTL Architects and the Long Island Index.
26The Village of Patchogue has recently experienced success in revitalizing its Main Street with a renovated historic theater, bars and restaurants, new apartments, and a burgeoning art scene, expanding the perceived need for parking. The current supply in thirteen municipality-owned surface parking lots is mostly hidden in mid-block locations. Michael Piper and his team at Dub Studios propose both a modestly sized new parking deck and a way-finding system of automated signage, lighting, and landscape improvements that would promote better usage of the current parking supply (Figure 7).
Figure 7. ‘Brackets’ by Dub Studios, proposed for Patchogue
Source: Dub Studios and the Long Island Index.
27Dub Studios calculates that knowing where to find a parking spot can save motorists the equivalent of 240,000 km (150,000 miles) annually driving around searching for a parking spot. The system consists of a parking management system that connects all of Patchogue’s parking lots via digital technology and a signage system guiding the visitor to available spaces. It also makes use of and improves the existing alleys that lead from the parking lot to Main Street. Local businesses would be engaged in the design and maintenance of these alleys and each would therefore be thematically different. The parking deck has a light structure to counter frequent pre-conceived ideas that parking decks are dark and scary places. At its center is the vertical circulation as well as ample green space. Importantly, the deck is conceived not as a stand-alone building, but as part of the larger system.
28Lastly, the 12-hectare parking lot in Ronkonkoma, near MacArthur Airport and serving the busiest LIRR station in the system, is an interesting outlier in this set of ‘typical’ parking lots. Roger Sherman Architecture and Urban Design’s Los Angeles-based team took on the challenge of an open site with a convergence of several different transit modes: rail, air, car, and truck. They propose a super-scaled, family-focused, all-season recreational park in the form of a (tongue-in-cheek) tipped-over Empire State Building, with alternating levels of parking and other uses (Figure 8). The design combines a large amount of commuter parking with other uses that fill the same spaces during off-peak hours as well as 84,000 m2 of leasable space. It also introduces the notion of reduced future need for conventional parking by anticipating the adoption of smaller Non-Emission Vehicles (NEVs), as explored by design team member Kati Rubinyi (2013).
Figure 8. ‘Parks & Rides’ by Roger Sherman Architecture and Urban Design, proposed for Ronkonkoma
Source: RSAUD and the Long Island Index.
29Designers were asked to straddle between site-specificity and thinking in terms of prototype. After the conclusion of the design challenge, participating villages and county planners expressed interest in continuing the conversation. The designs generated by this challenge have helped these public officials articulate needs, weigh pros and cons, and understand costs and benefits. The Long Island Index was particularly interested in supporting a conversation around the latter issue and hired a well-known local parking consultant to investigate long-term economic benefits for each proposal. Parking structures cost money and are certainly more expensive to build and maintain per space than surface parking lots. However, taking a long and multidisciplinary view can help overcome financing obstacles and skepticism (EPA 2013, Litman 2013).
30The Village of Rockville Centre, for instance, is genuinely interested in partnering with the LIRR to build a parking structure in order to expand the capacity for commuter parking at the station. Patchogue has already undertaken measures to optimize its existing parking supply with a modest park signage system as well as metered parking on Main Street. The village is also in conversations to actually build the proposed structure, and applied for a grant from the State of New York to fund design and construction. A planning effort undertaken in parallel to the design competition, generating synergistic results, is a study administered by the Nassau County Planning Department and funded through the New York–Connecticut Sustainable Communities Consortium (a federal planning grantee). The study, also released in 2014, examined 21 LIRR commuter station areas in the county, determining which ones have both the opportunity and the public will to pursue transit-supportive design in the form of infill redevelopment. Three communities, all nearby to Rockville Centre, were identified for pilot studies and efforts to implement the study’s findings are ongoing (Parsons Brinckerhoff 2014).
31Publicity generated by the design challenge garnered widespread media attention, resulting in over 30 articles from the local general press and national publications and blogs specializing in architecture and planning, with titles like “Parking lots of the future look super fun” and “A parking structure that welcomes flowers and trees”. In the widely-read The Atlantic CityLab blog, Anthony Flint argued in “Why It Makes Sense for Long Island to Rethink the Parking Garage” that while urbanists may be in agreement that suburbs need retrofitting and weaning from car dependency, the general public is far from convinced and needs to be carefully led towards taking the crucial incremental “first step” of redesigning parking – while not yet eliminating it (Flint 2014).
32Local media coverage was deemed essential to spreading the design ideas and stimulating conversation beyond the four villages and throughout the dispersed Long Island region. Media coverage also attracted a wide range of online comments from the public, both positive and negative, about the ideas that were presented. Excerpted here is an example of one such exchange:
34“I welcome this. We need business people; not everyone is a cop or a teacher. LI’ers [Long Islanders] complaint [sic] about massive mall/outlets, empty store fronts in the downtown areas, unemployment, and the exodus of our young people. This may be a piece of the puzzle that addresses all/some of our complaints and fears. And yes, they should have more “sustainable features”.
36“The artist left out graffiti, the smell of urine and an overflowing dumpster, and the nice look of spalled, chipped concrete, which is inevitable since salt will have to be used in the winter. Oh, and the standpipes and the fire hoses with big grimy valves that the fire code will require, that give it that engine-room-on-the-Titanic look. He also left out the invisible gates and tollbooth, since access to a garage is too easily controlled and therefore irresistible to revenue hungry politicians…”.
37This type of agonistic online exchange in response to the published ParkingPLUS designs is revealing of the cross currents of opinion and strong feelings about change in this suburban region. While freecounty recognizes and appreciates the sustainable features in the designs and recognizes a need to redress the “exodus of our young people” by infilling the downtowns areas, gorangers is focused on the parking garage building type itself and the negative features of the garages he or she is familiar with. The designs were intentionally commissioned to fuel an expanded conversation about suburban downtowns and nitty-gritty details how to use valuable sites near train stations and main streets, a conversation that will consist of many different points of view that should be vetted.
38The desire of many residents to use vehicles to travel the so-called “last mile” to connect from home or workplace to transit in North American suburbs is a persistent and difficult problem for transportation and parking planners (Shoup 2011, Tumlin 2012, Willson 2013). Innovative design that speculates about smart ways to park cars, while creating more attractive, useful, accessible, equitable, sustainable and resilient downtowns around commuter rail stations, will become increasingly important to support the conversation about retrofitting suburbs. In 2015, the New York State chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) honored LTL Architects with a Citation for Urban Planning/Design for the firm’s Train Terraces design for the Village of Westbury. As Nancy Rauch Douzinas, President of the Rauch Foundation, said when the honor was announced, “We hope that this recognition will inspire further creative thinking around parking garages and the extraordinary opportunity that they offer to provide community amenities and compelling design in addition to their fundamental purpose.” In another related speculative design exercise, designer Alfred Twu imagined what Silicon Valley would look like if tech giants replaced the parking around their headquarters with on-site housing, relieving the San Francisco housing market, eliminating the need for long commutes and urbanizing the tech campus at the same time (Xie 2014).
39These and similar imagined futures originating in the design fields contribute useful research, applicable to increasing understanding of the possibilities and feasibility of seeing beyond the immediate need to park cars. These forward-looking insights, facilitated by speculative design, assist policy makers, planners and others with making smarter, more sustainable decisions for suburban environments.