Q&A: Ellen Dunham-Jones on retrofitting suburbia

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.
Written by Christina Hernandez Sherwood, Contributing Writer

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

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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