Despite the gloom-and-doom predictions of its detractors, suburban living continues to appeal to many homeowners. But times are changing, and developers are responding with extensive infrastructure retrofits that encourage new growth in older neighborhoods and smarter growth in newer neighborhoods. Such suburban infill developments and redevelopments are springing up all around the country.
A recently released book explores several of the most interesting and successful of these projects. Co-authored by architect and professor Ellen Dunham-Jones, AIA, director of the Georgia Institute of Technology's College of Architecture, and architect June Williamson, associate professor of architecture at The City College of New York, Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs (John Wiley & Sons, $75) offers case studies of "attractive, viable alternatives to business-as-usual sprawl."
Dunham-Jones and Williamson argue that retrofitting defunct or failing malls, parking lots, commercial strips, office parks, and cul-de-sac subdivisions from single-use, auto-dependent, low-density suburbs into vital and diverse higher-density, mixed-use urban centers is the best and most sustainable solution for accommodating evolving demographics, technological advances, and economic conditions. The projects highlighted were chosen for their real-world application of new trends in planning, development, economics, policy, and design.
benefits on macro and micro scales
Why are suburban retrofits such a good solution? As Dunham-Jones said in a discussion of the book, "There are benefits at several different scales."
At some point, the book contends, we'll have to accept that transportation costs aren't getting any lower. Household budgets would benefit from the reduced transportation costs that urbanized suburban neighborhoods provide through improved walkability and access to mass transit, as well as their ability to reduce the number and length of car trips needed to reach the more-plentiful services and retail allowed by redevelopment. "With good mixed-use development, you can capture between 25 and 45 percent of the trips internally," Dunham-Jones says.
There are benefits at the community scale as well. Interest in urban lifestyles has increased among consumers, and well-executed redevelopments result in more urban lifestyle options for all residents within a greater suburban context. Aging Baby Boomers and up-and-coming Generation Yers both express significant interest in walkable communities that provide more opportunities for social interaction, according to Dunham-Jones.
Changing demographics are affecting the usefulness and success of the existing suburban structure. AARP surveys of its Boomer members have shown that 89 percent want to remain in their suburban communities, not move downtown. And 75 percent of Boomers also want to live in mixed-age, mixed-use places rather than being warehoused in typical retirement subcommunities. They want to be engaged in inclusive communities, not excluded.
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