"They're redefining retirement just like they've redefined every market they've ever hit throughout their entire lives," Dunham-Jones notes. "And we don't have much in place for them. Retrofitting a dead suburban mall site—or any other single-use property into something that allows for a more urban, more lively lifestyle—is a way of allowing people to stay in their current communities but enjoy a more engaged kind of lifestyle." (Dunham-Jones recently was a panelist for "Graying Suburbs," part of the National Building Museum's "Sustainable Communities" lecture series. Co-presented by Jeffery W. Anderzhon, FAIA, the program discussed solutions to the many challenges municipalities face in the upcoming demographic shift. Visit www.nbm.org/media/audio/graying-suburbs.html to listen to audio from the program.)

Gen Yers, also known as the Millennial or Echo Boom generation, is by some estimates nearly three times the size of the preceding Generation X population and are nearing the age for household formation. "Gen X doesn't have the numbers to fill all the houses the Boomers will vacate. Gen Y will be able to fill those houses, but will they want to?" Dunham-Jones asks. "They're saying they want to live in urban cores, but their jobs will mostly be out in the suburbs."

Then there are the national and global benefits of urban living: reduced dependence on cars leads to less use of foreign oil, which results in reduced carbon emissions. Reduced carbon footprints, both on the individual and national levels, will help slow climate change.

Retrofitting Suburbia documents solutions to the many dilemmas the nation faces as a result of changing demographics and volatile economic conditions.

how can architects be part of the solution?

In Dunham-Jones' view, the architectural community is ill-prepared to contribute its voice and vision to the redesigning of suburbia. "I think architecture schools in general have tended to ignore the suburbs for decades now," she says. "The schools have done a reasonable job of educating architects to relate architecture to 'The City' or to 'Nature,' but it's very rare to see schools giving projects in suburban contexts. Yet that's where 90 percent of development has been."

What's more, she continues, "Schools have generally ignored how to build suburbia in any way, shape, or form. It's really condemned as an area that needs a lot of help, or is hopelessly flawed, but it should also be seen as an opportunity." She adds that her own generation was taught to demonize developers. "That's not a very healthy way for a profession to train its young to treat half their clients."

To break that cycle, she says, architects should get involved in suburban retrofit projects—both to take advantage of the opportunities they offer and to influence the planning and design of these communities. Though currently there appears to be little room for design expression or innovation in these projects, architects play a key role in creating a vibrant setting that attracts people and encourages them to congregate and socialize.

According to Dunham-Jones, developers frequently have to compromise on design and aesthetics to appease members of surrounding communities who demand that new developments fit into the existing neighborhoods, so the quality of the architecture varies considerably. High-design concepts are foreign and slightly threatening to many existing suburban communities. "I can't wait until we get to the point where communities are more open to contemporary expression, but the reality right now is still that a lot of communities that have been entirely based on single-use zoning are nervous about accepting mixed-use in the first place. And if you're also going to introduce a new stylistic vocabulary, it seems risky to all concerned," she says.

However, once communities are won over by first-generation retrofits, more experimentation and design expression will be allowed, she believes.

go back to school

But before architects can have any influence on suburban redevelopments, they need to educate themselves on the ins and outs of the development process.

"Schools ought to be teaching students how to at least read a pro forma, or even to know what one is," Dunham-Jones argues. "An architect who doesn't understand much about the development process has very little recourse if a developer pencils out something they've proposed [for budgetary reasons]. But if the architect understands the development dynamic, they're in a better position to argue for those parts of the building they think have to be done well, from a design perspective."

During the recession, architects interested in getting involved in suburban redevelopments should be using their downtime to learn about development practices and how to communicate with developers, as well as about code processes, land costs, and the real-world aspects of the business they will be encountering. This will allow them to position themselves for an active role in redesigning suburbia successfully, she says.