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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Review: Suburban Transformations

60 years ago, eastern Massachusetts primarily consisted of an industrial city surrounded by sleepy farming towns. Fast forward to today: eastern Massachusetts is one of the nation’s epicenters for technology and defense. That change is largely due to the growth of the suburbs.

I grew up in those suburbs. Burlington, MA is two towns away from where I grew up. To this day, if you ask me about Burlington, I can tell you about the mall, the movie theater, and the Barnes & Noble. That’s it. Why would I want to know more?

During his seven years at MIT as an assistant professor of architectural design, Somerville-based architect Paul Lukez looked at historical mapping of Burlington, MA, to develop the Adaptive Design Process, “a method that allows for the organic transformation of communities with their own distinct identity and unique character,” which he explores in his new book, Suburban Transformations, published by Princeton Architectural Press. Using the Adaptive Design Process, Lukez delves into how our suburbs came to be, what their current state is, and how they can be changed from here.

The information he presents is startling. I’m not going to reprint all of them, but here’s a good one: The Burlington Mall sits on top of Burlington’s largest watershed. Because of this, the massive parking lot is continually sinking, and needs to be repaved every few years. Sand, salt, and other pollutants fall from the cars of up to 140,000 visitors per day. It’s examples like this that Lukez uses to show how town planners have been willing to allow developers everything for the increase in town revenue.

After showing us the good and bad of current suburban development, Lukez presents six scenarios of different ways Burlington’s infrastructure (including the interchange of routes 128 and 3), buildings, and processes can be changed to make it healthier, more sustainable, and a better place to live, not just shop.

Lukez also offers case studies on the Dedham Mall area, the Revere Beach area, Amsterdam, and Shenzhen, China.

The thing I like about Lukez’s proposals is that they aren’t anti-growth or anti-development. Rather, Lukez expresses that it is through developing these areas that they will become truly unique destinations.

Suburban Transformations, packed with technical information, will surely become required reading in architecture and urban planning programs. That said, it is light enough that any layperson with an interest in architecture, design, or (sub)urban planning will enjoy it, and get something out of it.

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