Building a Better 'Burb, With Envy

A Long Island group is working to figure out how its village communities can attract and keep more young people

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www.buildabetterburb.org

Long Island was initially built out in the years following World War II, when it helped define for much of the rest of the country the idea of suburbia. As that idea has aged, though, the island has more recently struggled to hold the interest of young professionals not particularly enamored with mass-produced ranch houses and tidy but dull Cape Cods (or the job prospects and affordability issues that have grown up around them).

“We are the original Levittown. So much of the island is just like that: it’s sprawl, sprawl, sprawl, sprawl,” says Ann Golob, director of the Long Island Index, which has been tracking the exodus. Today, the island has roughly 100 distinct towns, which Golob describes this way: “Some of them are beautiful little villages, some of them are really falling-apart little villages, and some of them are just a memory of like, ‘yeah, there used to be a village here.’”

Young people have in recent years been leaving these villages at a much higher rate than New York’s other neighboring suburbs, a problem not helped by the fact that as little as 17 percent of Long Island's residential real estate offerings are rentals. The Index has been studying why people leave, what exactly they’re fleeing, and what might be put in place to keep them here – all while allowing local businesses and communities to grow without up-ending the island’s culture as a distinctly non-urban place.

“We did statistic after report after map,” Golob says. “We thought we were just so cool showing all these different data points about what was going on.”

The group counted 8,300 acres of land on the island ripe for denser, mixed-use redevelopment, all within just half a mile of the village downtowns. Surface parking lots sit on 52 percent of that land, a prime opportunity to try something new. Residents weren’t quite getting what that new thing should be, though, so last week the Index launched a different strategy: buildabetterburb.org.

The project dispenses with all the statistics and reports and maps and goes straight for the suburban eye candy: beautiful photos of actual communities across the country who are redefining a modern suburb where actual 20-somethings might want to live.

“So often on Long Island, the designs people come up with are not very expansive, innovative, exciting – they’re just so sterile,” Golob says. “Our hope is that people now will be able to look at our website and see ideas that are really gorgeous, so they say, ‘Ahhh, why can’t we have something that looks like this? Why aren’t we talking about multi-story garages that don’t have to be hideous? Why can’t we have bungalows?”

Literally, she is talking about inspiring beautiful design – and better places – by making people jealous.

And who wouldn’t be envious of this block:

Or this alternative to the surface parking lot, from Charleston, South Carolina:

The slogan itself – Build a Better Burb – implies that the object isn’t to urbanize Long Island out of the character that made people want to live there in the first place. People there are particularly skeptical of the urbanist’s common prescriptions: build high and dense.

“People are very sensitive to the fact that we moved here for a reason,” Golob says. “We didn’t choose to live in New York City, we chose to live on Long Island, and there’s a certain ambiance, lifestyle and beauty here. Parts of Long Island are just breathtakingly beautiful, being on the ocean, on the bay. People want that, and why shouldn’t they have that?”

Their best shot at keeping it, she says, is to go denser near the downtowns. But who’s to say that can’t look like this?

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.