Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Subtopia rising from the ashes

Urban apocalyptos - collapsing suburban strip malls and abandoned regional malls
The phrase urban apocalyptos came to mind this week - those activists who write about collapsing neighborhoods and make their living by hollering Armageddon. Consider those decay-chic writers who feed on the coolness of reporting blight, gang infestations and acres of abandoned houses. Existential nihilism gone amok!

Of course, sometimes they were (and are) right.

Remember those Michael Moore documentaries on corporate corruption, public fear and government inaction? He was probably right on many points especially the gun-ownership mess and the national health-care travesty (it helped Moore trigger an American renaissance in independent social cause films).

My personal favorite was Roger and Me describing the decline of Flint, Michigan. He targets Big Auto and claims they did little to save their cities, especially General Motors. He seeks out GM CEO Roger Smith to ask why. Against that backdrop Detroit's recent bankruptcy, the largest in US history, is a poignant reminder of Moore's message.

Subtopia - the good news

Subtopia was a term originally coined by UK urbanist Ian Nairn, (and later commandeered in eclectic music videos and by European apocalyptos).

The new subtopia arises phoenix-like from the ashes of the Great Recession. It is an idea similar to Capitalism 3.0, a book about a new economics where citizen-owned, market-based commons trusts purchase back their city.

Subtopia offers a way to rethink dying cities, a kind of survival-through-planned-shrinkage. While New Urbanists return to Mayberry, the Subtopians turn abandoned properties and buildings into community land banks. Fed up with slumlords who let empty homes sit and rot for years, they shut down entire neighborhoods of abandoned homes.

The posterchild for subtopian land use experimentation is Flint, Michigan (Moore's hometown). The hope is they will ignite a renaissance to revitalize blight.

Says the New York TimesThe population would be condensed into a few viable areas. So would stores and services. A city built to manufacture cars would be returned in large measure to the forest primeval.

This came to mind as I read a national plan to bulldoze acres of urban rot and decapitate what was once urban life. Subtopia is an interesting twist with all sorts of possibilities like Karen Dybis's story Designing a Better Detroit.

Is it possible that out of this crisis new ideas will emerge for rebirth?

2 Replies so far - Add your comment

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