[Note: This item comes from friend David Rosenthal. DLH]
The People the Suburbs Were Built for Are Gone
A new book documents the “retrofitting” of obsolete suburban malls, box stores, office parks, parking lots, motels, and more.
By Shayla Love
Jan 21 2021
Last summer, Donald Trump and Ben Carson, then Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, co-bylined an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal promising to “protect America’s suburbs,” describing how they reversed policies that would allow for the creation of denser living structures in areas zoned only for single-family homes.
“America’s suburbs are a shining example of the American Dream, where people can live in their own homes, in safe, pleasant neighborhoods,” they wrote.
But the suburbs, in the sense of the idyllic American pastoral Trump and Carson referenced, have been changing for some time—not necessarily the physical homes, stores, roads, and offices that populate them, but the people who live there, along with their needs and desires. Previous mainstays of suburban life are now myths: that the majority of people own their homes; that the suburbs are havens for the middle class; or that the bulk of people are young families who value privacy over urban amenities like communal spaces, walkability, and mixed-use properties.
This mismatch has led to a phenomenon called “suburban retrofitting,” as documented by June Williamson, an associate professor of architecture at the City College of New York, and Ellen Dunham-Jones, a professor of architecture at the Georgia Institute of Technology. They have a new book out this week: Case Studies in Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Strategies for Urgent Challenges.
Since the 1990s, Williamson and Dunham-Jones have been watching the suburbs evolve. They have found that much of the suburban sprawl of the 20th century was built to serve a very different population than the one that exists now, and so preserving what the suburbs once were doesn’t make sense.
Their book describes 32 recent instances in which suburban structures have been transformed into something new. Many of the cases in Williamson and Dunham-Jones first book from 2011 on the same topic were focused on underused parking lots being transformed into mixed-use spaces. But in this new book, the retrofitting projects have become more ambitious, as cities and towns turn old box stores, malls, motels, or office parks into places for people to live, work, eat, play, exercise, go to the doctor, or even watch Mexican wrestling.
They have found that when the suburbs are retrofitted, they can take on an astonishing array of modern issues: car dependency, public health, supporting aging people, helping people compete for jobs, creating water and energy resilience, and helping with social equity and justice.
Motherboard talked with Williamson and Dunham-Jones about why and how we should retrofit the suburbs, and whether or not the COVID-19 has made the suburbs appealing again, or instead accelerated the desire to retrofit the burbs.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Motherboard: How do you define the suburbs—a slippery term with no concrete definition? You write in the book that you define something as suburban based on its “suburban form,” not necessarily on location or city lines—what do you mean by that?
June Williamson: We’re architects and urban designers and so we are focused on the built environment. That means that when we’re looking at places, generally, that have been built out in the second half of the 20th century to be car dependent, not walkable, and have comparatively lower density.
Ellen Dunham-Jones: Similarly, you can look at the street networks. If you’ve got a grid, more or less, with small, walkable-sized blocks, that’s urban form. If you have a highway leading off into cul de sacs, that’s suburban form, which is a more treelike kind of pattern.
JW: That kind of development certainly characterizes most of the peripheral areas around the older urban cores in Northern American cities. But it can also be found within municipal boundaries of cities. We advocate for an erosion of oppositional thinking that you’re either in the city or the suburbs. When you look at a larger metropolitan area, suburban form can also be found near the center in need of retrofitting.
You argue that many of these suburban forms are obsolete today because they don’t fit the needs of the people who live there now. Can you walk me through some of the major demographic changes that have led to these suburban forms becoming obsolete?
EDJ: One of the biggest shifts is that the U.S. now is a majority of one to two person households. And yet, the majority of land within regional urban boundaries is zoned for single-family houses. That already is something of a mismatch.
The expectation going forward is that something like 80 percent of new households that will form over the next 15 years will be these one to two person households. A lot of them would prefer an apartment or a condo—smaller units.
Plus you have the aging of the society, that’s the other really big piece. Especially in the suburbs, a lot of elderly people loved their single-family house while they were raising the kids. But now that they’re empty nesters and retiring, it’s kind of lonely. They want to stay in their community with doctors and friends nearby. But a lot of them are looking for, frankly, a more urban lifestyle.
It’s pretty interesting how the desires of both the younger millennials, Gen Z, and a lot of those aging boomers are converging on an interest in more walkable, mixed-use, compact urban places out in the burbs.
JW: Commuting has also been transformed dramatically over the past decade or so, too. The notion that people live in the suburbs and work in the cities just isn’t true anymore.
EDJ: We tend to think that the jobs are downtown. Since the 1980s, the majority of jobs have been more than three miles from the central business district. In places like Atlanta, where I live, it’s closer to 90 percent of jobs are way outside. The central business district often has high rises and so it’s really visible, but we’re really seeing something called job sprawl. I certainly see in Atlanta, we have a lot of reverse commuters in that situation.
So when you talk about retrofitting, you mean finding and altering underused or abandoned suburban buildings to better accommodate the demographics and desires of the people who live there now?
JW: Absolutely. And in most of the cases we’ve studied, this is happening because the built places have failed or are struggling to some degree.