When Ken Eklund created his alternate reality game World Without Oil, one of the emergent themes of the "historical pre-enactment" was that the suburbs became ghost towns. As populations ballooned and fuel prices surged, the distant burbs no longer made sense. New York Times writer Allison Arieff paints a beautiful image of a suburbia reimagined as a network of intimate, functional communities, and Lloyd Alter adds that those generous backyards could be combined into farmland for sub-urban homesteaders.
In this spirit, ReBurbia challenged designers to re-envision our dysfunctional suburbs. The winner, a concept called Frog Dream, turns oversized McMansions into multi-stage, water-purifying ecosystems, complete with clam beds in the garage and freshwater shrimp in the living room.
You should definitely check out the ReBurbia runners up. Big Box Agriculture looks at ways to turn sprawling retail space into high-tech farmland, and Entrepreneurbia (the most practical of the winners) suggests a deceptively simple rezoning of the burbs to great integrated live/work communities.
Calvin Chiu and his Frog Dream concept took the ReBurbia top prize and will be featured in Dwell and Inhabitat. In Chiu's vision, suburban McMansions become natural water-treatment ecosystems, drinking in and purifying the greywater from our megacities. Polluted water commutes from urban centers to the suburbs through canals running below the existing network of highways. Big box retail stores, now vacant and idle, become distribution centers for the wastewater, which is then sent to repurposed McMansions. The houses, also abandoned, function as "bio-water treatment machines," their roofs torn off for to let in sunlight.
After water goes through settling tanks in the basement, its travels through the various ecosystems of the house: clam beds fill the garage, the lawn becomes a wetland, and aerobic tanks on the ground floor are home to water hyacinth, snails, frogs, fish, bacteria and freshwater shrimp. Water then flows through canals, waterways, and reservoirs that were once a maze of cul-de-sac streets, finally making its way back alongside the highway to the city.
Frog Dream is delightful, if pretty ridiculous. But this is what ReBurbia was looking for--entries that are fanciful and far-fetched. At risk of sounding too rigid and practical, some of the questions that come to mind are: how much energy will it take to pump untold gallons from the cities to the suburbs and back again? Are we talking about stormwater runoff, household greywater, or toilet-grade blackwater? How are these McMansions, already shoddily built, going to tolerate being flooded and de-roofed? Foundations aren't meant to be submerged in water, and houses don't like standing up with their roof joists removed. Crushed in the rubble would be the fancy water management equipment, leaving wastewater to overflow freely.
All Scroogery aside, the salvation of the suburbs is a worthy exercise, no doubt. Calvin Chiu's prize money and Dwell/Inhabitat notoriety may inspire him to design possibly more feasible iterations of natural wastewater remediation.