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Green Building Blog

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 footprint 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.


Green Homes: Green Neighborhood in North Carolina Blog: Slums of the Future Blog: Starting a Revolution at NeoCon Blog: Green Neighborhoods and Communities


  1. MS | | #1

    Infilling some info and minor corrections to your notes
    This is great, but just a few minor corrections and additions to fill out the info:
    she says:

    kids born today: 1 in 3 (not 4) chance of developing diabetes.

    by 2025, 75% of new (not all) households will not have kids in them.

    Boomers want to age in place [in suburbia] and the Gen Y would like to live an urban lifestyle, but their jobs are in suburbia. (She doesn't say anything about not being able to afford to live in Manhattan.)

    parking lots ae so valuable now: it now makes sense to build a [parking] deck on them, and build up. (She does not say to build Main Streets.)

    Dead malls and big boxes: In a slow economy "reinhabitation" [non-retail reuse such as art space, universities, nursing homes, offices, schools, churches, libraries, and some retail resue such as gormet grocery and restaurants] is one of the most popular strategies.

    Never understimate the "power of food" to turn a place around. (This leads to the "third place" discussion.)

    With the Third Place discussion she also makes the important point that as suburbia is becoming less centered on the family and family households, suburbanites are becoming more hungry for Third Places.

    Redevelopment: another strategy [for retrofitting suburbia]. During the boom, the most dramatic of these projects scraped the exiting building to the ground and rebuilt all new at significantly greater density as compact, walkable, urban neighborhoods. Some were more incremental, such as Mashpee Commons. Example #2 is outside DC (University Town Center, Hyattsville, MD) when a new Metro station was built nearby: existing office park parking lots were infilled with a new parking deck, a new Main Street, apartments and condos.

    Interesting tidbit she throws in there: the department stores of a mall are generally worth keeping. It is the one-story stuff in between that usually neeeds to be removed.

    Also, now 8 of 13 malls in Denver are also considering being retrofitted.

    There was also the example in Seattle near a new transit stop, of daylighting a creek that was under a parking lot thereby creating an amenity for a new development and improving water and habitat quality.

    Under Plan retrofits systematically, it was: where should we re-green, redevelop, and reinhabit (not regenerate)?

    On architectural quality, her main point were that while retrofits are often accused of being "faux downtowns" or "instant urbanism," this is probably due to their hybrid nature: they are often new places trying to look old; have urban streetscapes with suburban densities; are more diverse than suburbs, but less than cities; have public places managed by private companies; and surface appearances/architecture could be better. The urbanism, however, is doing its job, as exemplified by the protest on the public square.

    "Get people to demand this" was more like "Join the protest." Demand more sustainable places. She said that while people accept that downtowns should be more dynamic, society thinks that suburbs should be frozen in some adolescent form that they were first given birth to. But, it is time to let the suburbs "grow up." So, the challenge to the audience is: support the zoning changes, the road diets, the infrastructure improvements, and the retrofits coming to a neighborhood near you.

    I really appreaciate this post, Daniel. I hope many people view it.

  2. Daniel Morrison | | #2

    Thanks for the corrections,
    Thanks for the corrections, MS. I updated the article.

    The comment about Manhattan came from me -- this presentation was consistent (for the most part) with a couple of reports that I read a little while ago -- Harvard Joint Center for Housing Research's State of the Nation's Housing and the Urban Land Institute's Housing in America: The Next Decade (

    I think it was the ULI report that said Boomers were more likely to NOT move to suburban paradises (like Florida) in favor of urban settings (to be closer to grandchildren, for example). Because Gen X and Y folks wouldn't be able to afford this higher cost of living (as Boomers with retirement funds may), the suburbs offer a rich opportunity for urbanism.

  3. Brian Brainerd | | #3

    Why call it retrofit?
    I've been following this trend in urban planning for years and have never heard the term "Retrofit" in this context.. Real estate professionals and urban planners typically talk about Adaptive Reuse, The New Urbanism, Transit Oriented Development, Town Centers, Main Streets, Mixed Use Development, Lifestyle Centers and Brownfield Redevelopment in discussion of this evolution in the built environment.

    Retrofit is typically applied to a systems upgrade related to energy efficiency. In fact, the energy efficiency community is working hard to come up with better names for energy efficiency upgrades.

    Lawrence Berkeley Lab's Environmental Energy Technologies Division recently published a report titled Driving Demand for Home Energy Improvements. One of the reports findings is that the term Retrofit (and Weatherization and Energy Audit) don't connect with consumers. View the report:

    The real estate industry is expert at motivating consumers with their marketing. Their use of the term Lifestyle Center instead of Mall Retrofit is a fine example of describing a product in terms that appeals to consumers.

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