The Hope for Suburbia.

13 Jan

I’ve always been a fan of Ellen Dunham-Jones’ concept of retrofitting suburbia and I’ve often thumbed through her book with absolute excitement. After writing about urban sprawl and our unfortunate dependency on the automobile, I thought I’d return to Retrofitting Suburbia to regain my faith again in our urban planning and urban design future. Often times, I, like many others I am sure, feel a slave to the economy, the market, and years of poor development precedents. I think its important that we remember that the miles of suburban wasteland all over this country, isn’t that at all. It is an opportunity to halt greenfield development, re-green our cities, and redevelop parking lots, or “under performing asphalt,” to be the mixed-use and walkable places that we so badly need.

I came across this lecture about Retrofitting Suburbia by Ellen Dunham-Jones that is a nice summary of her work and the possible future we have in front of us as urban designers, planners, developers, and architects.

The hope lies for me in statistics. Because after all, the proof is in the pudding. And our pudding is market drivers. Here is a list of some of Dunham-Jones research and some observations of my own:

The Movement Has Begun

It’s much harder to get an idea off the ground than encourage one that already exists. There were 80 examples of suburban retrofitting in 2010, and probably a few more since then. A majority of these projects have shown that the movement is a success with an increase in land prices, local investment in the area, and celebration by the surrounding community. They range on scale from a small strip center that was re-branded as an organic food hub, to a large shopping mall that has been leveled and redeveloped. The point is, that where retrofitting suburbia is happening it is successful, which will encourage the further spreading of the movement.

Changing Identity

Suburbia, which used to be where you moved as soon as you had kids, has diversified its demographics. Surprisingly, especially to me, 2/3 of households do not have children living there. The baby boomers are retiring and by 2025 the majority of new households will not have children. Generation Y prefer an urban lifestyle within a the city or a suburban setting. This has already been demonstrated by the market success of more dense, multi-family, and multi-use living. Perhaps as families become less traditional with more adults in the workplace, the value of walking to a restaurant or food market for dinner is becoming more attractive. As Dunham-Jones says, “don’t underestimate the power of food.” Also, because many households are retired or young couples without children, there is a growing hunger for a “third place,” which is a place (neither home or work) where people go to build community. It can be a church, or community center, and probably more popular: retail environments. More market drive for development.

Housing Market

There was an article the other day that demonstrates that suburbia is economically unsustainable. Along with the general climb of poverty in the suburbs, comes the drop is property value. This of course is only worsened by the housing bubble that popped with the recession. The once glorified suburban house is not as a good of an investment as it used to be, which means they will stop being bought by a large part of the population, namely the part that has a choice. Once it can be established that this housing type is not sought after anymore, more sustainable and dense dwellings, which are often part of suburban retrofitting, will become more in demand.

Surburbia McMansions

The once popular “McMansions” are forming the next slums

“Underperforming Asphalt”

All the many parking lots that have been left fallow in suburbia, as greenfield development leapfrogged over it, are owned by someone. In many cases these are now in a central location within the city, which means the land is becoming too valuable not to develop. Lucky for us urban designers, a parking lot with no activity around it doesn’t make any money. Many of these lots are becoming the perfect sites for rehabilitation.

Incremental Changes

When thinking about how much suburban landscape there is in this country it can become a little overwhelming. This change will not all happen at once – and this is ok. Actually, it’s better than ok, it’s a positive. So much poor development has occurred because it has happened quickly, instead of organically over time in response to the needs of the city, the neighborhood, and the community. This will only lead to more environmental, social, and economically sustainable places.

Of course we attribute a lot of change to the market, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for municipal planners and politicians. Actually, they are responsible for the most important aspect of retrofitting suburbia. For these large changes to the built environment to be the most sustainable over time, they must be part of a larger environmental, social, and economic masterplan. Policy must be a driving force, especially in introducing public transportation and transforming roads into boulevards. These are often the greatest driver of retrofits. We have a greater need for visionary masterplanners than ever.

Ellen Dunham Jones has a goal for the next 100 years: 1,000 feet buffers on stream corridors, public transportation on all major street and boulevards, and improve the architecture quality of suburbia. How can we help? Start demanding more sustainable surburban places and support the changes we see for good in our community. How can I do this? Walk a half of a mile and sit at my local coffee shop instead of drive to Starbucks. Remember, change starts small with every one of us.

4 Responses to “The Hope for Suburbia.”

  1. Jesse January 13, 2012 at 7:28 PM #

    It’s interesting to think about *suburban* revitalization. I’m a city dweller, and constantly see messages about urban renewal, and repurposing, but I never thought about it in another context. How does this idea mesh with the fact that the suburban population is dwindling? Is the idea that, as people move back to cities, there can be recreational and cultural outposts that they can travel *out* to as opposed to the opposite, or is it more that the remaining suburban population will have renewed access to post-project sites?

    • Erin Chantry January 14, 2012 at 1:43 AM #

      Depending on the city, the suburban population is much larger than the city population. This is particularly the case in mega-cities that have developed around the automobile (like Atlanta or Houston.) Many once suburban locations are actually considered part of the city as growth continues. Retrofitting suburbia is more about the remaining population being able to live a sustainable and healthy lifestyle. Once these sites are redeveloped in a more “urban” way, it will allow the city to grow and the suburbs to shrink. Thanks for the comment and question!

  2. Will July 10, 2012 at 8:00 PM #

    I have read EDJ’s book and watched a few of her lectures online. Her goal of “1,000 feet buffers on stream corridors, public transportation on all major street and boulevards” was unfamiliar to me. Do you mind expanding on this/providing additional resources?

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