By Lars Lofgren
In a TED presentation, Ellen Dunham-Jones shows how to drastically improve the sustainability of cities by reducing suburban sprawl through “retrofitting,” the redevelopment of underperforming retail and office property. The primary design project over the next few decades will be retrofitting old retail sites into more productive sites. Through retrofitting, growth can be redirected into existing property instead of pursuing further expansion. Economic efficiency, public health, and carbon footprints can all be improved by restraining suburban sprawl and channeling development into deteriorating property.
The average urban dweller has about 1/3 the carbon footprint of the average suburban dweller due to increased driving and detached dwellings which are less energy efficient. In other words, enormous gains can be achieved by “urbanizing” the suburbs. This entails building up condensing instead of building out and spreading.
Suburban areas also correlate with sedentary lifestyles and obesity. Urbanization of suburbia may improve the overall public health of the United States by providing environments that are conducive to activity.
The rising transportation costs have outweighed the benefits of buying cheaper suburban land at the margins of cities.
The demographic shift to the Y Generation has created a demand for more urban lifestyles within suburbia.
Original retail areas with expansive parking areas now have relatively central locations to cities, making the property more profitable for vertical development. This provides opportunities for “re-inhabitation.” This falls short of complete redevelopment. They can be particularly ideal as a “third place,” a location other than work and home that allows individuals to hang out and build community.
Redevelopment projects remove prior buildings and completely redesign the space provided. This can be accomplished incrementally or all at once.
Retrofitting usually builds pockets of “walk-ability” around existing infrastructure and seldom eliminates former buildings and structures.
Corridors are crucial for more systemic retrofitting throughout a given city.
Re-greening and restoring natural areas such as “daylighting creeks” that have been covered by previous development are just as important in retrofitting.
There are three challenges facing retrofitting:
First, retrofitting must be planned at a systemic level to determine which areas should be regreened, redeveloped, or reinhabited. Using Atlanta as a case study, Dunham-Jones recommends reversing suburban sprawl through 3 moves over the next 100 years:
- Transit on all major rail and road corridors
- Thousand-foot buffers along all stream corridors.
- The creation of the eco-acre transfer to encourage development along transit corridors while re-greening former subdivisions for food and energy production.
Second, improving the architectual design quality of retrofits is essential to obtain authenticity among residents.
Third, all of us must demand and support zoning changes, limits to road construction, and infrastructure improvements within our local suburbias
Dunham-Jones, while informative, lacks depth at certain points. For instance, she concludes that there should be thousand-foot buffers between development and stream corridors but she does not elaborate as to why or what it is. Likely, this is a result to meet time constraints imposed by TED. If you’re interested in diving deeper into her recommendations, check out her book Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs.
Additionally, little consideration is given to public opinion or the political constraints that would prevent much of the urban planning from being initiated on such a grand scale. With a stalled economy, an aging population, and a growing deficit, there is little likelihood that the public would support infrastructure investments of this kind. In other words, practical considerations of local and national politics must be incorporated into policy recommendations for retrofitting suburbia. Politics is always a compromise between what is desirable and what is obtainable.
Beyond the lack of consideration for constraints, the policy recommendations deserve more depth as well. The process of retrofitting should be broken down into manageable steps that target different actors. What policies can local officials advocate that would spur retrofitting by the public sector? What are the common pitfalls of retrofitting? How can people encourage their own community to retrofit? Having an ideal picture of making cities more efficient is all well and good but figuring out how to get there is just as important as figuring out where we need to be.
Lastly, Dunham-Jones neglects to discuss how lower-income demographics impact retrofitting. Retrofitting undoubtedly provides more sustainable infrastructure but it also produces gentrification, the process of displacing lower-income residents as rents and property values rise from development. The displacement of the poor should be accounted and planned for before pursuing systemic retrofitting.
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