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Retrofitting Surburbia: Bringing Life to Vacant Spaces

We can retrofit surburbia into walkable, transit-served boulevards lined with trees and compact, great housing.


This is an excerpt from American Dreamers, a book and website bringing together optimists, mavericks and mad inventors who believe we can create a better world. Here, American Dreamers creators, Sharp Stuff, spoke with Ellen Dunham-Jones, an expert on retrofitting suburban spaces. \n
American Dreamers: Does retrofitting suburbia mean reworking existing structures or tearing them down and starting over?\n
Ellen Dunham-Jones: It depends. We have approximately one billion square feet of vacant retail space in the United States right now, in addition to loads of aging office parks, garden apartment complexes and zombie subdivisions. In some cases, the availability of such “cheap space” is a boon to entrepreneurs, new immigrants, and community-serving uses. Hundreds of “ghostboxes” (dead big box stores) and strip malls have been reinhabited as schools, libraries, theaters, medical clinics, gymnasia, churches and spaces for artists and restaurants.
In other cases, where there’s access to mass transit or a strong market it often makes sense to clear the site, connect a walkable grid of tree-lined streets and parks, and build up with a mix of retail at the ground floor and several floors of housing and offices above. Over forty dead malls have been redeveloped to provide their communities with downtowns, Main Streets, and urban lifestyles they never had before. But, densification won’t work everywhere and sometimes the best strategy is to re-green the site whether by reconstructing the wetlands that may have been displaced when the project was first built or by constructing parks or community gardens. In addition to the ecological benefits, the provision of such green amenities tends to increase property values and attract new investment, providing a double win for the community.
AD: How does retrofitting suburbia change how we live and how we interact with and in our spaces?\n
Dunham-Jones: It minimizes the distinctions between what a city is and what a suburb is. The model most of us carry in our heads of a metropolitan area is of a dense urban downtown core and rings of “bedroom suburbs” extending outward at lower and lower densities. This American model was identified in the 1920s but is really out of date today. We now have more office space, more industry, and more retail outside the downtowns than inside – but they’re separated by zoning such that the amount of time suburbanites spend in their cars vastly outweighs that of city dwellers.
It isn’t only the uses in suburbs that are changing. The demographic shifts are dramatic too. We tend to think of suburbs as family-focused and yet since the year 2000, two-thirds of suburban households have not had kids in them. The baby boomers have become empty nesters (for the most part) while growing chunks of those suburban office jobs are held by childless Gen Y folks. Counter to the Gen X suburbanites raising kids, both of these groups are looking for opportunities to live a more urban lifestyle within suburbia. They are looking for walkable Main Streets, buzzing with activities and opportunities for engagement, nightlife, restaurants that are not just fast food, and a social life that doesn’t just center around a school. Retrofitting is both helping revive the old suburban downtowns and creating new centers. Instead of the old model, the city of the future is a metropolis that has multiple, diverse, mixed-use centers and re-greened and reinhabited corridors.
AD: What cities are doing this right? Who has planned right or is currently changing for the better?\n
Dunham-Jones: The Washington, D.C. area has undergone an amazing transformation. The successful transit-oriented redevelop-ment of five suburbs on the Roslyn-Ballston MetroRail corridor in the early nineties resulted in the highest per capita ridership levels in the country and a high-density mix of uses. Continued extensions of MetroRail further into the suburbs coupled with revised zoning codes that encourage urban development patterns have led to impressive redevelopments and increasingly exciting places. The new planning codes encourage new buildings to be built close to the widened, tree-lined sidewalks with pedestrian friendly frontages. Well-used new town squares and public greens provide civic anchors and green infrastructure to the new density and more sustainable lifestyles.
Denver is also an exciting place to watch. There, the trigger for redevelopment has been reuse of dead mall sites. Eight out of thirteen of their regional malls either have or have announced plans to be retrofitted into something more resembling an actual Main Street and a two to four storied urban neighborhood.
AD: What is your dream for our future?\n
Dunham-Jones: It’s clear to me that the auto-dependent pattern of suburbia is simply not sustainable. Sprawl increases per capita energy use, ecological footprint, chronic disease, and social segregation. It’s also no longer affordable. The cheapest land and consequently, the cheapest housing, tends to be the furthest out. For generations, our country’s default model of affordable housing has been “drive ‘til you qualify.” That worked fine and provided access to the American Dream for the past sixty years. Now, however, the cost of gas has risen to the point where the savings associated with that cheaper house are eaten up by the additional costs of transportation. We do not have an alternative model of affordable, healthy housing and that really worries me. Publicly provided affordable housing is a drop in the bucket compared to the needs of ordinary working households. My dream is to provide affordable housing with affordable transit while retrofitting the abundant underused and underperforming properties lining our aging commercial strip corridors.
If we retrofit commercial strip corridors into walkable, transit-served boulevards lined with trees and compact, great housing, we get the triple affordability of transit, energy-efficiency, and affordable housing while meeting goals of health, sustainability, and affordability. It could also be an enormous jobs program, rebuilding our infrastructure that we desperately need.
Ellen Dunham-Jones is an architect and professor of architecture at Georgia Tech where she coordinates the Master of Science Degree in Urban Design. Her research focuses on redevelopment in suburbia and she co-wrote Retrofitting Suburbia with June Williamson. She is also the chair of the board for the Congress for New Urbanism, an organization that removes the obstacles to designing and building great urbanism. \n
Image courtesy of Ellen Dunham-Jones.\n

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