Redeveloping Our Neighborhoods: Goodbye Suburbs, Hello NewUrbs
Demographers predict that by 2025, 75% of new households won't have any kids. Ellen Durham-Jones explains why 20th-century suburbs and shopping malls aren't the best use of land anymore and outlines some answers to our community development dilemmas.
I stumbled across an interesting TED talk the other day. TED — an acronym for Technology, Entertainment, Design — began as a conference in 1984. The speakers are limited to 18 minutes, so the talks make great background noise as I cook dinner. I'm sure that my kitchen was not intended to be the final venue of these talks — but, hey, that's what happens when you load all your stuff onto the Web.
Anyway, after reading the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Research's 2009 Remodeling Report and the Urban Land Institute's Housing in America: the Next Decade, I've been watching this topic closely. Both reports discuss the demographic shifts that Ms Durham-Jones explains in her TED Talk.
Some highlights of the talk that I scribbled down as I watched it:
Retrofitting the suburbs is going to be THE BIG design and development project of the 21st century, says Ellen Durham-Jones, a professor of architecture at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Dying malls, big box stores, and parking lots all offer retrofit opportunities. These spaces represent some of the least sustainable landscapes in the built environment. We now have an opportunity to retrofit them into more sustainable landscapes. This will benefit local economies as well as local ecosystems.
Three reasons why it's important to retrofit the suburbs:
1. Climate change — urban dwellers have 1/3 the carbon footprintAmount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that a person, community, industry, or other entity contributes to the atmosphere through energy use, transportation, and other means.
of suburban dwellers
By urbanizing the suburbs, we can dramatically slash our dependence on oil (foreign or otherwise) while cutting our pollution output.
2. Public health — The Centers for Disease Control connects suburbs with sedentary lifestyles, obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Kids born this year will have a 1 in 3 chance of developing diabetes, according to CDC.
3. Affordability — Real estate is expensive. When people can't afford a house in the city, they look in surrounding areas. This “drive till you qualify” model will not work as gas prices shoot through the roof. In the suburbs around Atlanta, people spend 29% of their income on housing and 32% on transportation. If that's not surprising enough, realize that these are 2005 numbers — before $4/gallon gasoline.
Retrofitting the suburbs is practical for a couple of reasons:
Demographers tell us that in 2000, 2/3 of suburban households didn't have kids, and they estimate that by 2025, 75% of new households won't include kids. Why? Because baby boomers and Gen Y are the biggest lumps in the population blob. Gen X members are having kids, but they're a small slice of the pie. Gen Y members aren't having them yet and will likely have fewer of them when they do.
Gen Y and Boomers both want more urban lifestyles, and most of them can't afford Manhattan.
The other dynamic of change: Under-performing asphalt
Postwar suburban parking lots have leapfrogged and leapfrogged each other to the point of being centers in themselves; they're not the outskirts anymore. It makes sense to build a parking deck on top of these parking lots, build up and develop Main Streets around them.
How do you retrofit a dead mall?
The key to retrofitting a dead mall (or big box, or parking lot, or strip mall) is providing the neighborhood with the "Third Place." Home is the first place; work is the second. The third place is a place to hang out and gather. Great restaurants, parks, lakes, etc. Day-lighting a river helps the river ecology, draws attention to the natural world, and makes space to construct a walking path along it — welcome to the third place.
Some dramatic examples:
Mashpee Commons in Massachusetts has been undergoing retrofits for over 20 years; on top of parking lots, they have built an urban center with shopping, dining and living space.
BelMar in Lakewood, Colo. was a mall on a 100 acre super-lot. It is now 22 walkable blocks with public streets, bus lines, and a mix of housing types. This retrofit development includes 1,500 households in an urban atmosphere.
Key suburban retrofit concepts:
1. Develop pockets of walkability on under-performing sites, such as dying malls and big box stores.
2. Retrofit corridors systematically — convert 4- or 6-lane commercial 'strips' into boulevards.
3. Re-Green critical areas: Because densification won't work everywhere, restoring the local ecology is necessary in some places. Durham-Jones cites an example in Minneapolis where a dead shopping center was restored to wetlands, creating lakefront property, which attracted investment/development and spurred the local economy.
Three challenges for future:
1. Plan retrofits systemically at the metropolitan scale — where should we re-green, redevelop, and regenerate?
2. Improve architectural design quality — a town common is a great first step, but she shows a picture of an astroturf town common in Silver Spring Maryland which doesn't really satisfy.
3. Get people to demand this. Astroturf town commons are good for at least one thing: they make people demand actual grass.
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