Saturday, January 10th, 2009
What to do about the suburbs? This will be the great urban development challenge in coming decades. As growth radiates out ever further from the central city, older suburban areas lose their allure. They are selling an obsolete version of the same basic auto-oriented development style as newer suburbs, but with higher taxes, more crime, and worse schools. This puts them in a strategic rough spot.
Inner ring suburbs across America are starting to decay. The first sign of trouble seems to be decayed, abandoned strip malls and commercial buildings. One neighborhood group I spoke to was puzzled by this in their neighborhood because the demographics of the area were still strong, with a large percentage of college-degreed professionals. Yet, how long will it stay strong? Many of those well-maintained homes are occupied by long time residents, sometimes the original owners, and there is not a new generation waiting in the wings to move in. Retailers sense this and get out while the getting is good.
What’s more, even today all too many of the boomburgs on the edge are failing to heed the lessons of the past. They are more or less building the same thing as before, only with today’s preferences in floor plans, aesthetics, etc. These new suburbs will have no more staying power than the old. Once they have filled their boundaries and stop growing, and there’s an even newer, shiner suburb on the edge, when those production homes start needing major renovations, when the commercial space is fully depreciated and obsolete, they too will come face to face with decay. We’re storing up an untold harvest of woe for future generations to deal with, just as we deal with the legacy of the decisions of the past. The switch from managing growth to operating what you’ve got is a tough transition. Just look at the many retailers who’ve fallen on hard times when they saturated their market and could no longer rely on new store openings to generate growth. So it is too with cities.
Suburban revitalization will prove to be a much more challenging task than urban redevelopment. Urban living might always appeal to a minority, but because we are not building many new urban areas today, the only places people who want an urban lifestyle can turn to are our old core cities. By contrast, those who prefer suburban living always have a shiny new product on the edge they can turn to.
So this gives us two great challenges: how to redevelop yesterday’s struggling suburbs and how to make sure that new suburbs are built on a more sustainable base.
This neighborhood group I mentioned asked me if I knew of any other groups or places around the country that were in the same boat as them. I wasn’t aware of any off hand. While I certainly knew inner ring suburbs in various places were struggling, I didn’t know of any proven strategies, apart from the Carmel example locally, for revitalizing an area like theirs. I did extensive online research and came up more or less empty handed. The literature on this seemed fairly barren given the magnitude of the problem we’re facing.
That’s why Retrofitting Suburba: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson is so welcome. This is the first book I’ve come across that is specifically targeted at how to redevelop and reposition suburbs for the 21st century world.
Retrofitting Suburbia takes a look at a cross-section of sub-urban forms, principally commercial, and shows how they can be redeveloped. This includes a mixture of both technique and case studies. I think the case studies are particularly relevant. Because the area of suburban redevelopment is so new, it is critical to get feedback from the real world about what is working and what is not. The book provides many examples to study, in areas ranging from enclosed malls to edge cities. The authors are pretty fair in showing both the good and the bad of these.
What’s more the notes section provides a wealth of links and references for further reading. Dunham-Jones and Williamson did the research for us. We can now benefit from that. One thing I’d like to see is someone take this and turn it into an essential reading list.
It is wonderful to have something that is dealing with the challenge at hand, and which can be used to educate and inspire. A few Midwest cities were used as examples in the book, including Carmel, which is great.
The “Urban Design Solutions” portion of the title shows the thinking of the authors. In their view, suburbia as a design form is flawed in its concept. The solution is not to build better suburbs, but rather to figure out how to make our suburbs more urban. In effect, it is a new urbanist tract. They contrast the signature attributes of urban vs. suburban development (single use vs. multi-use, auto-dependent vs. multi-modal, low density vs. high density, etc.) and basically show projects that all are designed to turn the dials in a more urban way.
This is certainly one valid approach and it appears to be popular. In fact, it seems to be the orthodox strategy of the moment. It also appears to be working in some places. However, I think we need to be cautious about promoting one-size-fits-all solutions, as well as rejecting the development patterns of suburbia. As I noted in my recent posting about mid-century modern architecture, we did this once before. The previous generation decided that it was the traditional urban form that was obsolete and “unsustainable”. Their solution was to obliterate that form and replace it with something that they saw as self-evidently better: ie., urban renewal.
I think the history of failed conventional wisdom planning solutions should inspire in us a dose of humility. While I’m all for trying out the idea of urbanizing our suburbs, we have to be sure we cast a wide net, try a lots of different things, be ready to abandon our theories when they don’t work in practice, and avoid collapsing to a single “school solution” that is promoted to the exclusion of all others.
It is also clear that Dunham-Jones and Williamson mean something different by sustainability than I do. One thing that has always irked me is how ordinary English words get co-opted as terms of art with a political agenda embedded them. (e.g., “organic” food – as opposed to what, inorganic?). Sustainability is one of those words, though that’s clearly not the author’s fault. The dictionary definition of sustainability is “of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged”. But sustainability as a term of art today refers to a preferred lifestyle and policy set including pedestrian, bike, and transit oriented design; green design, local agriculture, etc. Clearly, this is the definition that Dunham-Jones and Williamson have in mind. As with all definitions, its truth is assumed rather than proven. They take it as a self-evident that these things are what one should strive for.
I’m not going to say those are bad goals or wrong goals by any means. But they miss what I consider the fundamental problem of true suburban sustainability in the long term. That is, how do we keep a suburban town relevant, and economically and demographically successful over the long term? How do we keep suburbs from falling into physical and economic decay, and having them be abandoned by the middle classes? There is a powerful assumption embedded in the book that by changing the development form of the suburb, it is put onto a sustainable base. That could be true, but I’m not sure it is.
Addressing the problem of sustainability in the suburbs involves addressing the fundamental challenges that underlie it. There are probably more than this, but here is my list:
- The strategic dilemma I outlined at the top. When there is always a shinier, newer version of the ‘burbs to be had, the clock starts ticking on your town the minute the ribbon is cut at the grand opening.
- The problem of overdetermined form. That is, the buildings of the suburbs, unlike those of the old city, are built with such a rigid “form follows function” design paradigm that they are difficult and expensive to retrofit for other uses. This isn’t only a problem for the suburbs, but it’s a bigger problem there.
- The 2o year depreciation cycle. Buildings, especially commercial structures, are built on a 20 or so year business case. Once the building hits the end of that useful life, it can be safely abandoned, with any salvage value as gravy. Which brings us to,
- The accumulation of unfunded liabilities. Enormous infrastructure and redevelopment costs, the legacy costs of our traditional cities for example, are created whenever you build a new town, but those liabilities are not funded. What’s more, the liabilities attach to the land, not the people, so when the bill comes due, people can just move out, leaving behind an impoverished, decaying husk. It’s like being able to run up a huge credit card bill in somebody else’s name, then skip town.
- The fact that the vast bulk of suburbs are shadow cities. Many of them take steps to explicitly keep out the types of people and businesses that would produce the economic conditions necessary to be a true city. This renders them highly vulnerable to obsolescence.
Except possibly for point #2, few of the case studies or ideas in the book address these fundamental problems. Absent that, I don’t see them creating truly sustainable suburbs, though they might revitalize a community for a period of time and/or accrue advantages to early adopters. This is probably an unfair criticism, since the authors are architects presenting architectural techniques of redevelopment. I don’t think they’d claim to be solving all the suburbs’ problems. But I want to point out that a more holisitc strategy is required to get our suburbs on a sustainable base. The architecture and planning driven solutions of Retrofitting Suburbia are only a piece of the puzzle.
The majority of the case studies in the book involve converting commercial sites into mixed use “town center” type developments. I like town centers. But when these new town centers are themselves 20 years old, and every suburb has multiple of them, many of which are newer and represent the next generation of design and taste, what then? My money says we’ll be right back where we started.
I could write a book on my suggestions for addressing these problems (if someone wanted to pay me to do so that is), but I’d like to keep the focus on this book, so I won’t share my thoughts on them today. But let’s just say that while the new urbanism solution presented here is a good start, it’s not enough. We’ve got to dig deeper and think harder about the true root of the problem.
Also, I am a bit skeptical of the idea that the suburban form is fundamentally broken. I live in the city. I love cities, obviously. I like to walk to places, take the bus, etc. I like urban grit and urban discovery. Traditional sprawl suburbs with winding roads and cul-de-sacs full of semi-identical houses are close to my personal definition of hell. But that’s the key: it’s my personal definition. Other people have different tastes and desires. Clearly, many people have decided that they love living in the suburbs. There’s clearly something to it that continues to draw people out there.
It is incredibly difficult to separate our personal preferences from what ought to be. And when someone comes along and says that our choices are not just great for us, but represent the greater good, and that other people’s choices aren’t just different but are actively destroying the planet, it is tempting to buy into it. After all, we typically think pretty highly of our own points of view. I think we need to take care to truly be open minded, to truly value diversity, and to figure out how to rise above our own personal desires to see other people’s choices as being as valid as our own and not evil or resulting from malicious, manipulative forces.
Does the suburban form have its problems? Of course. Everything has problems. But the key is do you try to fix the problems or reject the suburbs altogether? Again, previous generations made the choice to reject the urban form, and wrought horrific damage on our cities. Are we that much wiser that they? I don’t think we can categorically make that claim.
As I noted in my mid-century posting, it’s difficult for most us to imagine much of this architecture as inherently valuable. Now mid-century is actually in a good position because it has long had a core of passionate supporters. But where the passionate supporter of the regional mall? Even I have difficulty finding redeeming value in strip centers and such. But there aren’t that many enclosed malls in America. It’s not hard to imagine a day when all of them have been redeveloped and radically changed if not outright destroyed. While we may not mourn them today, this would represent a loss of our heritage. How can we preserve the best parts of our suburban history while updating as well? It’s a challenge. When your town is falling into blight, saving some old, rundown buildings that are functionally obsolete is not at the top of anyone’s list. And that’s exactly how vast swaths of our 19th century buildings got whacked. Retrofiting Suburbia treats destructive redevelopment as good, without significant concern for what is being lost. Now it could be that we’ll never be sorry we lost the mall. After all, we don’t wax nostalgic about the days when soot blackened the skies and front porch swings of our cities. But I think it is a question worth pondering.
Now the nice thing about most of the projects in this book are that they are reaonsably small scale. This makes them useful experiments and they don’t involve wholesale destruction of the existing suburban fabric. A few things I really found useful in reading them was how the authors provided the development history of the towns and the sites for context, insights into not just the results but the process for getting there and the hurdles encountered, and focused on the context of the development, such as how it connected and related to its surroundings. In this regard, it is a useful record of redevelopment experiments. While I would not try to treat this as a “cook book” – in fact, I’d be strongly opposed to that – there are a lot of lessons learned to draw from.
Its primary focus is commercial spaces. Subdivisions themselves and how to recreate them are given less attention. This is another hard and difficult topic. One place the Dunham-Jones and Williamson did cover was the famous Levittown, New York. They noted that thousands of identical homes had been built originally, but almost none remained in their original state. Where there was once monotony, there was now variety as people renovated their homes and personalized them in different styles. This really highlighted to me the huge weapon that older suburbs have in their arsenal over the long haul versus new ones: their lack of restrictive covenants and totalitarian homeowners associations. New suburbs are built to almost literally be frozen in amber. Homeowners are legally restricted from making any significant alteration to their houses. Talk about overdetermined form. Older suburbs don’t have this, which makes them much more adaptable to the future.
The problem with restrictive covenants will likely rear its head down the road as newer suburbs age. I believe they will prove such an impediment to redevelopment that states will likely declare them illegal, much like the old “whites only” deed restrictions.
While Retrofitting Suburbia is a bit of a new urbanist evangelistic tract, it’s also highly useful practically. If you don’t agree with the agenda of the authors, you can safely ignore it. If you do agree, you’ll like it even more. Given the wealth of case studies and reference materials, I think this a book that deserves to be on the shelf of leaders in all suburbs in need of redevelopment. Anyone looking at how to redevelop a suburban commercial site should study it.
Here are some chapter titles to give you a feel:
Instant Architecture, Instant Cities, and Incremental Metropolitanism
Retrofitting Garden Apartments and Residential Subdivisions
Retrofitting Social Life Along Commercial Strips
From Regional Malls to New Downtowns
Edge City Infill
Suburban Office and Industrial Park Retrofits
Again, lots of examples, lots of case studies.
While I like the book, I should warn you it is a bit pricey and also dry and academic. It’s accessible to the layman for sure, but is not written for a popular audience.
Despite its limits, Retrofitting Suburbia is definitely on my recommended list.
Read my in process series on addressing the challenges outlined in this posting, “Building Suburbs That Last”:
Read more on the suburbs: