Retrofitting Suburbia – Ellen Dunham-Jones

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.

Our Notes

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:

  1. Transit on all major rail and road corridors
  2. Thousand-foot buffers along all stream corridors.
  3. 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

Our Response

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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  1. Since Ms. Dunham-Jones has written an entire book about Suburban Retrofit, I’m not sure how concerned we should be about any particular omission in her TED presentation.

    However, I do agree that as much as I understand the need for a suburban retrofit both professionally and from recent personal experience, the potential for gentrification is worrisome. Generally it’s the young and upwardly mobile, or the carefree empty nester, that wants to live near restaurants and clubs so they can go out every night. It’s good for the environment that they can walk to destinations, but it’s not necessarily a sustainable lifestyle for everyone.

    And you’re right, Lars, that the politics of grand-scale urban planning are pretty difficult. I don’t think insurmountable though. It will require steady education of the public about causes and effects, a project that few metro areas seem willing to undertake. But it’s really akin to the decades-long project of convincing people that smoking isn’t cool, but in fact, it’s deadly.

    As I’ve argued elsewhere, a replicate-this approach won’t solve all urban sprawl problems or create enough density and intensity to make suburban areas tenable for the next decade or two. It will take some experimentation, asset-based community development approaches, and creative thinking to identify what might work in a particular environment.

    The fact that it will take a substantial expenditure of brainpower is probably the highest obstacle to successful suburban retrofit on a wide scale. It’s almost as tricky as brownfields and inner-city redevelopment, but probably not as rewarding.

    Let the dialogue continue…

    • Lars Lofgren says:

      Nancy, thanks for the heads up on Dunham-Jones’ book. I’ve updated the post to reference it for anyone that’s interested and I’ve also added it to my own reading list.

      Do you know of any other books/articles/etc that discuss the dynamics between gentrification and suburban retrofitting? Or how it might be addressed in a city-wide retrofit?

      Even though the problem of persuading a public to undertake massive projects of this kind can be difficult, I wonder if market conditions can be leveraged to encourage developers and the public to shift in the direction that Dunham-Jones recommends. With the rising price of gasoline and a few well-placed taxes/subsidies, retrofitting could be encouraged without a top-down approach. Obviously, I’m purely speculating here and I’d have to study the subject far more extensively before I can make any recommendations or stand behind any given policy. Either way, I completely agree that strategies will have to be tailored to each city. Simply replicating policy of any kind and quickly scaling it throughout a region seldom yields beneficial results.