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Galina Tachieva: Occupy Wall Street? Occupy the Unoccupied . . . Occupy Sprawl!

Plenty to occupy.

As thousands cram into the winding streets and public spaces of lower Manhattan in a revolt against the “corporate forces of the world,” Galina Tachieva would really prefer protesters take over an abandoned Walmart parking lot instead.

She’d really prefer we occupy sprawl.

One of my personal heroes, Tachieva is a partner at Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, Architects and Town Planners (DPZ), Miami, and author of the Sprawl Repair Manual. She specializes in suburban retrofits—revamping automobile-oriented, sprawling regions into more lively, sustainable, and compact communities.

She was at the Lab this week hosting a workshop with Retrofitting Suburbia co-author and CUNY professor June Williamson on suburban retrofits when she told me about her Occupy Sprawl manifesto, which she posted on her newly launched blog earlier this week.

She wrote:

Inspired by the recent popular discontent expressed so colorfully on Wall Street, I offer this proposal: Occupy Sprawl!

People are not happy with the economy, with politics, with the government. Consider the physical surrounding of the protesters: the streets and squares in lower Manhattan where there are plenty of places to gather. Good urbanism provides good spaces for assembling and protesting. Our sprawling suburbs are devoid of such places. Where can people get together to show frustration (or to celebrate)? Why not revolt against the system of sprawl, which is responsible for some of the most serious environmental, economic, social and health problems in recent history? Sprawl has been central to our economic troubles: the mortgage meltdown, dependence on cars and oil, pollution and waste of resources to mention just a few.

There is so much to occupy in sprawl! People should reclaim the empty, unproductive, wasteful spaces: over-scaled parking lots, empty big boxes, dead malls, vast front lawns, foreclosed McMansions, massive cul-de-sacs, underperforming golf courses, etc. Suburban strip corridors can become main streets and boulevards, malls can incubate much-needed town centers, deserted McMansions can house students and seniors, and parking lots can be transformed into productive community gardens.

While Tachieva’s post was really using the Wall Street occupation as a metaphor for the suburban retrofits for which she has become known, her post struck a particular chord with me that has been ringing in the back of my mind for some time now.

Especially with the Lab’s current focus on sprawl and suburbia, it bears reminding ourselves that so many of America’s environmental and economic burdens that the Occupy Wall Street protesters are standing against have come about due to the sprawling developments that Wall Street banks helped to build—and that we bought into.

When Wall Street put the American dream just that much further away, we chased after it until we could no longer afford to, and the system collapsed.

Read more about this and some of the creative solutions that Tachieva and her colleagues are coming up with to problems plaguing our sprawling suburbs in her post.

And, should you wish to follow her advice: “Get out and occupy sprawl!”

. . .

Photo: used by permission under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) License from straightedge217

  • Irongiant224

    Not all suburbia is created equally. Some shouldn’t be saved, and the market should determine which are and aren’t, not planners. Planners CAN help identify which are being “chosen” by the market, but the market is fluid and changes, and incentives can distort those changes, some of which caused suburbia in the first place..

  • Anonymous

    Occupying sprawl is a good idea, but won’t actually happen until we address our outrageous levels of income inequality.  

    The “collective efficacy” required to address things like environmental damage, global warming, public safety and resource allocation is undermined by inequality to the point where addressing those things is no longer feasible.  

    This is why places like Denmark — where the typical physician makes 3X the average worker salary, versus 5-6X in the USA — are making so much more progress on these societal issues than we are.

  • Gil Lopez

    …When I read the title of this post my mind immediately jumped to people squatting in their own homes in which they can no longer afford the mortgage. Or squatting in the dead, first ring, big box stores after being evicted or foreclosed upon. I understand that some companies hold the title to these big box buildings long after they have moved on in order to keep competition from moving in. Occupying these spaces is different from occupying public spaces. But it is important to call to attention the inequities created by privatized space just as much as it is to draw attention to income disparity.To clarify, I’m glad that firms like DPZ have plenty of work, after all, they are fighting the good fight. But the fact is, new development, even GOOD new development, is not the norm and thus, is probably not going to be enough to save our flailing nation or poorly planned habitation patterns. Good ideas, like retrofitting, are always needed but right now, at this particular point in time, these ideas are not going to fix the real problems. I wonder if we can design our way out of this. As much as I would like that to be, I kinda doubt it. I think a cultural revolution is going to be necessary for any meaningful change to occur. Fortunately (or not) it seems that we are on the verge of just that.

    • Galina Tachieva

      Gil, it was nice meeting you at the lab. You are right to point the difference between occupying Wall Street and occupying sprawl. But I made this parallel as I found an amazing similarity between two dysfunctional systems: the financial system on Wall Street and the sprawl-producing system that has been dominating our physical and natural environment for decades. Even if there are reasons for literal “occupation” of sprawl, as we have so much wasted and underutilized land and resources there, I meant a more metaphorical occupation of sprawl, of the kind, which IS a cultural revolution – understanding the reasons for sprawl (cultural, political, economic, social, and simply human), finding practical solutions (not only big interventions but small, incremental changes; not only design but also zoning and financial tools) and trying to implement them. Flying over Florida, New York, Texas, and Arkansas in the past several days, and seeing the endless, wasteful, unbelievable sprawl stretching for miles and miles, I do believe that dealing with and acting upon this phenomenon WILL be a revolution. 

      As far as design goes, even revolutions need some design, so I would not discard it outright. Design is a powerful tool for broader and sometimes radical transformations, whether in the worlds of science, technology, economics and even social change.              

  • Anonymous

    Great comments so far – all very thoughtful and really bringing into the conversation the complexity and nuance of this issue.

    Whenever I think about the work that firms like DPZ are doing in sprawl repair I think what immense time and resources it takes to undertake retrofit projects on just one or two sites – and how many thousands of other swaths of hollowed out sprawl there are out there still. It always strikes me as daunting.

    With population booms expected all over the world, including America, over the next few decades, though, wouldn’t it be nice if we could focus on densifying, filling in, and fixing some of what we already have? For this to become the norm?

  • Anonymous

    A few more comments from the BGLab’s Facebook page:

    From Megan Aargh: she should get that started! i’m sure the bankers and corporations who made this mess would find that hard to ignore!

    And Angela Martenez: Or in addition! This is an autonomous movement so people should feel empowered to act as they feel is most meaningful!