Posting in Architecture
The sedentary and unsustainable lifestyle of car-dependent suburbs is leading planners to turn dead big box stores into cool libraries, to turn backyard swimming pools into tilapia farms and more.
Imagine a suburban backyard swimming pool as a tilapia farm. Or rail transit on every big city corridor. That could be the future of "retrofitting suburbia," a method of transforming existing suburban developments into sustainable, more urbanized locales. From Austin to Washington, D.C., cities across the country are already converting unused strip malls into libraries and dead suburban malls into college campuses. The future could be even more innovative.
I spoke recently with Ellen Dunham-Jones, professor of architecture and urban design at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the author with June Williamson of Retrofitting Suburbia. Below are excerpts from our interview.
What does it mean to retrofit suburbia?
As the suburbs have been getting older, we've been finding all sorts of unintended consequences of suburbanization. As we're seeing a lot of properties go vacant or become underperforming, especially aging ones, we're seeing an opportunity to retrofit them into more sustainable places. We've been documenting examples of prototypical suburban property types, whether it's vacant commercial strips, dying malls, aging office parks, that are finding that they want to expand. The three basic strategies we categorized were:
- Re-inhabitation with more community-serving uses: There are loads of examples of dead big box stores being turned into cool libraries, churches, gyms.
- Redevelopment: You're scraping most of those existing buildings and, in some cases, building the downtown that suburb never had. Or you're infilling in between existing buildings in an office park to create a more walkable, transit-served place
- Re-greening: In lots of places, where perhaps we shouldn't have built there, there is opportunity for ecological repair or to restore the wetlands. Or, if an area is beginning to urbanize, to create parks.
Retrofitting can look very different in different places. Some of the more ambitious projects are combining all three strategies.
Why do we need to retrofit suburbia? And what's the goal?
A lot of people, rightfully so, will challenge this. They say we should be focused on our downtowns. But we've done a good job, for the most part, on our downtowns. The majority of them have done better over the last 10 to 15 years than before. There are a variety of reasons why we need to be paying attention to our suburban areas. One of them is from the perspective of climate instability or climate change. In general, suburbanites have larger carbon footprints. Because of the development patterns, suburbanites have to drive a lot more. Detached buildings tend to leak a lot more energy than if you're living with units on top of each other or sharing walls. The more we can urbanize the suburbs and get more of our population living more compactly where they don't have to drive so much, we'd see a lot of greenhouse gas emission reduction from that.
Often surprising to people are the issues of public health. For the last half-century, the suburbs have literally been understood to be the healthy, green choice. It's not that cities are necessarily healthier, but the suburbs are not as healthy as we used to think. In most of the 19th century, the big concerns were infectious diseases. But now, bigger concerns are chronic diseases. Obesity has been rising at alarming rates and has very much paralleled our development patterns. As we've been sprawling in terms of our development patterns, we're also seeing a lot of human sprawl. When people live in places that don't have sidewalks, they're spending a lot of time sitting in the car, sitting at work, sitting at home. We're seeing much more correlation with obesity in people leading more sedentary lifestyles. People who live in walkable neighborhoods tend to be more physically fit. Today, the majority of kids are driven or bussed to school. The suburbs aren't promoting quite as healthy lifestyles as the stereotype has projected.
There's the issue of affordability. Suburbia has provided the American dream. Starter homes have tended to be on cheap land that's the furthest out. Generations of leapfrogging out to the cheap land is still true. Our model of affordable housing in this country is basically based on drive until you qualify. But the savings associated by that cheaper house are often negated by the transportation costs. If you're driving more than 10 to 12 miles, chances are you're spending more on your transportation costs than you're saving. Few of us have any idea how much we're spending on transportation. Very few people do the math. If you live in a neighborhood where you have to drive everywhere, chances are you're spending 25 percent of your income on transportation.
Can you give an example of a suburban retrofit?
Austin decommissioned their smaller, older airport. It's being redeveloped as a new urbanist neighborhood. It's walkable and mixed-use. It's a big chunk sitting out in the suburbs. Now Airport Boulevard, the main road leading to the airport, is being considered for a transit line. An old chemical research office park has also been redeveloped. They've also got a mall parcel right along this same road. The mall died and Austin Community College bought the property to re-inhabit it as a college. They're planning to build an entire campus on top of the parking lot. That will be another transit stop on the light rail line.
They're also changing the zoning along the corridor from standard land-use zoning. The new code controls how buildings meet the street. Over time, uses will come and go. But if you care about creating an urban space, you care about how the building meets the street. As the smaller parcels get redeveloped, instead of a strip mall surrounded by acres of parking, they'll most likely get more rebuilt in a more urban manner. There might be retail meeting the sidewalk, a walkable street grid. It's providing for people interested in living a more urban lifestyle in a suburban condition. A lot of empty nesters want to stay in the same community, but want to be more active. We're seeing a lot of Generation Y who want some nightlife, but their jobs are in the suburbs. The idea is to link that affordable transit to affordable housing that will line those corridors.
How do you respond to the criticisms of these communities, for instance, that they’re instant urbanism?
Any new development project is often accused of being instant urbanism or faux downtown. There are lots of reasons we feel that way. I think most of us would prefer our urbanism to be incremental. That diversity makes you feel like you belong to something bigger than just yuppie gratification from a place that feels instant. Incremental urbanism works great if you have a walkable infrastructure. If you're in a city with that network of streets and some transit, it's great to continue to evolve. In a suburban condition, if you redevelop one parcel at a time, it's not getting to anything more sustainable. You're not getting the density you need to make the transit work. You're probably not getting affordable housing built in. You're not going to get the public space built in or the environmental protections if you do it one piece at a time. In suburbia, we need to do the big transformation, the instant urbanism. But we as designers and planners need to figure out how to do a better job of it. We are seeing people get much more innovative. We're seeing more forward-looking architecture in places where there is more density. We're seeing the retrofits evolve to become much more authentic and real places.
What experience do you bring to this issue? Have you ever lived in the suburbs?
I grew up in New Jersey. It's the most suburban state in the nation. There's a part of me that wants to fix my state. But my first teaching job was at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. I was teaching architecture. All of the faculty were passionate about trying to get our students to build the perfect individual building. We put so much energy into the theory and design. While I was there in the late 1980s, I was watching Charlottesville get engulfed by big box stores and cookie-cutter garden apartment complexes and subdivisions. Even if one of my students was to design the perfect building, it would still just be adding to that sea of asphalt that is forcing us all to lead less than sustainable lifestyles. I began to get interested in how our development patterns could be changed. I became involved with the Congress for the New Urbanism, a national organization that has had a very effective track record of reforming the regulations and practices that inhibit urbanism.
What’s the future of suburban retrofitting? Do you think one day there will be no more suburbs as we know them today?
I don't see the suburbs as going away. There are simply too many of them. I was asked to lead a team from Georgia Tech to speculate what Atlanta might look like in 100 years. We were just given a week to do this. But it was a great exercise. We decided to try to reverse the sprawl. We said, 'First, transit on every corridor, rail and road.' We called for 1,000-foot buffers on every stream corridor. That's a big buffer. I believe water is the next oil. It's just as finite a resource. We're seeing cities like Atlanta have problems with drought and flooding. And we're fighting water wars with our neighbors. We need to get much more serious about protecting our water. In 100 years, existing subdivisions that are either too far from transit or too close to water will simply no longer be viable. Our third move was the eco-acre transfer, which would allow people in those places to transfer their development rights to the new transit-served corridors. It's a speculative idea. That's certainly where I'd like to think retrofitting will be going in the future.
Photo: Ellen Dunham-Jones
Mar 10, 2013
I work no where near downtown, I do not want to live in a high rise building. Where I live there isn't much space--6-7 ft between houses, 10 ft to the road and 10 ft to the back fence. It is easy to mow, as the yard is small. If I lived downtown, I would have further to drive to work than I do now. We don't even go downtown for much. Shopping we get on th eturnpike bypass and go to the north side where a mall and many restuarants and strip centers are. or the smaller town that our mailing address is out of, to shop at WalMart or Target...or to eat out mostly. We have a grocery store about a mile form the house and several restaurants that we frequent as well. I fill my truck up about two to three times a month, but that includes trips out of town as well. My wife works part time for a small shop in a small town about twenty miles each way. I have had to change jobs and states three times in thirty years, we have been in this city since 1988. (Oklahoma City, Ok.) There is not much downtown to go for except for concerts and professional sports, several restaurants, one would have to drive 10-15 mile to get to a mall or a grocery store to buy essentials. They are trying to bring more to downtown. An old shopping mall was converted to an office building here, the only thing "buldozed" were some outlying buildings, others have replaced them. Another mall may suffer the same fate, don't know yet. Light rail is being considered, but the cost is prohibitive, the city bus lines don't come near my neighborhood either. I drive 11 miles each way to work each day. I work a compressed schedule and take one day off every two weeks. No backyard pool--no room.
Atlanta gets 50-inches of rain a year on average. The problem with Atlanta is an insufficient investment in capture and storage. This is what happens when you rely upon the Federal government to handle such problems for you, as Atlanta has. Now they are slaves to how the Army Corps of Engineers manages a single lake.
That's the primary reason for higher rates of violence and crime as the population density increases. It's also a factor that I've never heard any urban planning idealist either deal with, or even acknowledge. There is reason to suspect that there was a change in our genome 10 to 20 thousand years ago that enabled us to begin actually living in groups larger than simple tribes; but like all mutations, it's imperfect.
The fallicy in Dunham-Jones's idea is vehicular traffic will always be a necessity for work. Assuming, today, one person changes jobs 3-5 times in a work career would means moving 3-5 time to be near work. Many jobs also require travel as part of the business (meeting clients, visiting jobsites. For the majority of families, the quality of the neighborhood takes precedence over the proximity to work. The one saving grace regarding technology will be the ability to work from home as some businesses are seeing multiple benefits. These benefits include savings on commercial rental space to flexibility of the homeworker as long as a measure of productivity is possible. The real problem we will be facing is technology increases the pace of change. Markets will be changing at a faster pace. Housing, business, and the way we live will require the ability to make fast, easily adaptable modifications to keep pace with quickly changing market trends. The result will be a society and lifestyle where we must all be able to adjust to a quickly changing norm. If you don't, you will be left behind. We can see it today in the requirement of continuing education for most professions.
So the retro-fit in Austin basically consists of bulldozing the old airport, a failed mall is getting a new college campus built on the car park, and presumable the old buildings bulldozed for the new car park, and an old chemical research plant complex is also being redeveloped. This is not-retro-fitting, it a bulldozer clear and redevelop,.? The only way to get past isolation is to build island's local centre's in the middle of suburbia with stuff people want to go to - unfortunately, that mostly consists of a mini mall - small Food superstore, a few restaurants, a few bars, a children's play area. .. instead of lining highway's with an endless strip-mall, it needs to be in local clusters.
"Few of us have any idea how much weâre spending on transportation. Very few people do the math. If you live in a neighborhood where you have to drive everywhere, chances are youâre spending 25 percent of your income on transportation." Actually, I have done the math, and living in the suburbs and driving is much, much less expensive. I live in a Houston suburb, and drive 36 miles to work. I spend $180/month on fuel if I drive my car, less than half of that if I can ride the motorcycle all month. The difference in the price of a home, about $150K in the suburbs versus $250K near the office, would result in another $600/month on a 15 year loan. Most of the calculations I've seen that purport to show that the long commute is more expensive factor in the price of a new car every 4 years, rather than a reasonably inexpensive used one, and the fail to factor in the fact that, even if you can bike, walk, or take the bus to work, you're still probably going to need that second car. And you still can't walk to the grocery store from most neighborhoods. My son, in Austin, will use a zip car for a second car if he needs it, but that isn't available in Houston. I would actually prefer to spend the extra money to live near the office, but I've done the math, and I know I would be paying extra for the convenience. What would be better, for us, would be to have the convenience store at the edge of our neighborhood to carry more fresh food. They have some fruit, and that's about it. Since it's a 5 minute walk from the house, it could very well change our lives if it were good for more than buying milk. I do like the idea of retrofitting suburbia. If the suburbs could be more like small towns (which many of them used to be) we could cut way back on our driving. Actually, the suburbs need to be more like a collection of villages, with goods and services spread out among the neighborhoods.
I wish the person who did that would tell me exactly where my facts might be wrong. Or were they just offended that I pointed out yet another failure of government, or the folly of becoming dependent upon other entities of which you have little control for your very sustenance?
Most scholars believe that it was not genetics that allowed for the first cities to develop in the fertile crescent some 9500 years ago, rather it was the accumulation of food surpluses that came with the domestication of plants, i.e. the neolithic revolution/advent of agriculture. Even then, the earliest "cities" were generally less than 10,000 people, with cities of more than 50,000 inhabitants not developing until maybe 2-3000BC, probably with the assistance of another cultural innovation, writing and notation. There's no question tho, that as an agressive primate, we humans become more violent as population density increases. Some cultures like many in Asia, have developed cultural practices that keep the violence rates lower than our own, for instance. It seems to me that there is nothing inherently impossible about creating human densities that can live sustainably on this planet at at least suburban densities, if we find more effective ways to adapt to and accept the bioregional carrying capacities of the area where we live. This means something different in Tucscon, Topeka, Toronto and Timbuctu. The more we learn about the diversity of the planet's ecoregions, the more closely we can adapt our local cultures to living sustainably in place, and it's culture, economics and history, not genetics, that will be at the forefront of the success/failure of those attempts.
Perhaps if cities were more pleasant, affordable, and livable, people would not be so prone to flee them for the suburbs. But the measures required to attack the problems of urban deficiency and decay are too often offensive to Progressive ideals, so instead they choose to attack the places that people escape to. Fix the cities, and the suburb problem solves itself.
The way suburbs have been built IS cheaper than urban density living, but the resulting sprawl has externalized expenses that are eating alive our landscapes, our ecosystems, our infrastructures--you name it. I think the goal Dunham-Jones is trying to address is not just to make our cores more sustainable, but to develop the villages idea. Why do you have to commute 36 miles to do your job; why not make the workplace available very close to home and make the information/job commute instead of you? In many ways, a suburban landscape could be made more sustainable easier than an urban one if we created green corridors, local food production, markets, etc. available within a 5 mile radius of your home, which would be a better deal than either your 36 mile commute or higher priced urban price tag.
....at least that's what I do, John. My intentions in posting is to have a dialogue with either the author of the article or fellow commenters, and what other folks think with their thumbs-up or thumbs-down is really not even an afterthought. It's such an easily manipulated icon that it can't be relied upon to be even an accurate reflection of what other readers think of your comment. That aside, I agree with you that everyone needs to take more responsibility for being responsible inhabitants of the watersheds they live in. Rain gardens, climate-adapted lawn vegetation, strategic shading and sunlight access, cisterns for storing water for watering, etc. are all measures that would greatly reduce the amount of both water consumption and excess water runoff; the trick is: how do you get folks to be more responsible by using these reliable measures more often? In addition to personal responsibility, I think the evidence is clear that measures for the public good are good investments as well. In my region, encouraging "buffer strips" along streams and ponds to reduce livestock grazing, pollution and to slow water movement work well, as do "watershed ponds" upstream from larger reservoirs so the reservoirs don't silt in as fast. Large swaths of upstate New York forests are protected so that the water that goes to the city is some of the highest quality in the nation. Do you think that these measures also make sense?
First I have to say your dead wrong - and you don't have a clue. She is not a Utopianist (if there is such a word) she is an Urbanist (some thing that has been around for since the start of civilization itself. Look it up. THE "Utopianists" you are talking about were the planners back in the 1950's who en-enviosioned the world we live in today. THIS HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH AYN RAND political narcsism or PROGRESSIVE ideology. People should get an education so that they can differentiate between reality and their fictional warped world that has been indoctrinated by Fox news and conservative bull crap that has everyone's minds clouded. Give me a break!
All are common sense ideas that should not be expensive to implement or maintain. Some items you mentioned are tough to do when you have states like Utah, Washington, Colorado and others that ban the private collection of rain water. Every drop of rain that falls in the state is state property. What I have always wondered is, if a heavy rain causes flash flooding is the state automatically responsible for the damage done by its rain? Even improving the lands water retention ability through simple means like adding compost to the soil can get you in trouble in some communities.
And I am all for responsible resource management. Unfortunately, one of the problems of being blessed by being able to live in such an affluent and technologically advanced society is that it's very easy to live your existence completely free and ignorant of understanding the infrastructure that makes that existence possible. For most people, the water always comes out of the faucet, the lights always come on when they hit the switch, the home is warm when it's cold out, and cool when it's hot. They have been totally liberated from the complex details that makes these modern marvels possible, and take them for granted. The most they need worry about is paying the bills for it. (And often the government will even do that for them as well) Unfortunately, such complacency has long-term effects, especially in a supposed "democracy". The people they vote for will have other priorities, and will let other people deal with the hum-drum. Such is what happened to Atlanta and its water situation. The 60 years ago, the Federal Government built a lake, and that's the last they thought about it, until the Federal Government decided that there were other priorities for that water than the citizens of Atlanta. Then, it was too late.
Plenty of insults, but not a single refutation of exactly where I was wrong. So again, please answer this: If cities were more livable, would not more people stay in them? Why is it that the leaders of our largest cities cater to the constituencies of some versus others? Why don't we have better economies of scale in cities? New York is so rich, the streets should be paved in gold, and yet they are just filled with potholes. What's the deal with that? You've contributed nothing other than throwing insults. But that's mostly what Progressiveness devolves to, isn't it? Can't win the argument? Scream about how wrong everyone else is and blame it on a single news channel. Yawn. But thanks for playing.