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Summit Preview: Retrofitting the Suburbs

At first glance, Ellen Dunham-Jones doesn’t seem to fit the part. A car-free architect. An urban designer with a focus on sustainability. A creative thinker with a passion for problem solving. Even her colleagues, she admits with a laugh, have asked her incredulously: “What are you doing out in the ‘burbs?!”

Dunham-Jones is one of the nation’s leading experts on “Retrofitting Suburbia” — in fact, she wrote the book on the topic. But she thinks outside the (big) box (stores). She’s become a leader in reimagining the auto-centric suburbs, a chronicler of innovative reuses and champion for design solutions that revitalize our postwar communities. This March, she’ll join us as a speaker at the 2015 National Bike Summit, giving the movement a glimpse into the suburban renaissance and help us brainstorm how bicycles can play a part.

“The suburbs were built at a time when we had a military industrial complex mindset — engineering and optimizing every solution to a single variable,” Dunham-Jones says. “Now we’re trying to figure out how to integrate and layer as many solutions as possible. Where bikes can play an interesting role is how the bike path is also part of a storm water plan, part of an affordability or economic development strategy. And the more we start to couple biking with other infrastructure it provides better funding opportunities. It really is about making these systems operate more as an ecology.”

I had the chance to chat with Dunham-Jones earlier this week, getting some insight into her unique perspectives and fascinating work. Here’s a taste of what she’ll discuss at the Summit — register for the event today!

For years, the bike movement has been really focused — and had a lot of success — in major metropolitan areas — but more and more advocates are mobilizing specifically in the suburbs. How did you get interested in the vitality and importance of the suburbs?

Well, I grew up in New Jersey, which is one of the most suburban states, so there was maybe a bit of an Oedipal complex to go back and fix my home state (laugh)!

I’m trained as an architect and have become an urban designer. As an architect, it frustrated me that, even if I designed the most beautiful single building, out in suburbia, zoning requires a big set back and says this is where the parking has to go… Thirty years ago, I was teaching at the University of Virginia, in idyllic little Charlottesville, and the rest of my colleagues were focused on how can students graduate and produce the most beautiful, sustainable, perfect buildings in the world. They were focused on the top of the pyramid. But in Charlottesville you could practically hear the bulldozers coming down from D.C. — sprawl had already started to engulf the town — and I got interested in how do we raise the bottom of the pyramid? How do we rewrite the rules to allow ourselves to build places that we love?

Within academia and among other urbanists there’s a focus on downtowns. But I felt like, there are no more intellectual questions about what to do in downtowns. We’re not always doing it, but we know what we should be doing. We don’t even know what we should be doing out in the burbs. I love cities, I love downtowns but in the suburbs, you have to really use your amazing powers of imagination to rethink what’s possible. In the suburbs, I feel like it’s a greater design challenge.

And many of the problems that we used to associate with cities are almost worse in the suburbs — whether it’s poverty, issues of sustainability, clean air, clean water, health, they’ve all shifted. The burbs are in need of some design imagination and creative problem solving. So I started documenting these projects that weren’t getting a lot of air play in the magazines, because they’re not necessarily beautiful designs, but are changing the fabric of the suburbs.

The name of your book is Retrofitting Suburbia; what does that mean to you?

We try to distinguish between city and suburban form. It’s not about the location necessarily; there are plenty of wonderful small towns that have been engulfed by suburbia that still have urban bones and urban places that are full of surface parking lots and have built strip malls in downtowns. We’re really interested in retrofitting the suburban form and there are three basic strategies depending on the market and opportunities.

The suburbs are aging and there’s an enormous amount of underperforming properties, whether that’s dead malls or strip malls or office parks that were never designed with sustainability in mind. The fact that they’re underperforming and in many cases have failed there’s always a reason. Sometimes they’re just out-of-date and can be redeveloped into new downtowns and urbanized and made into much more vibrant urban places.

Sometimes they’ve died because there’s no market there anymore. The middle class is getting smaller and we’re becoming a much more stratified society. There are far fewer middle class jobs and middle class spending habits are radically changing. So sometimes you can reinhabit that big box with more community-serving uses. There are tons of examples of dead Walmarts being turned into schools or churches or libraries.

The third strategy is regreening. We built a lot of suburban commercial property on top of creeks. We put culverts in and drained the wetlands and now, with climate change, we’re seeing more and more severe storms and more development upstream, so flooding in those areas is become more and more extreme. Sometimes if a project has died the best thing to do is to reconstruct the wetlands, turn it into a park or community gardens — regreening places that never should have had things built there in the first place.

How does infrastructure fit into this picture? What are some of the challenges and opportunities you see in that realm?

There’s been tons of attention to corridors. I’ve got about 250 corridors in my database and those are just the ones I’ve come across. A lot of the suburban redevelopment really started to pick up steam in the 90s and early 2000s and it was mostly led by development of single property parcels. When the recession hit, that development pretty much flattened out, but the public sector, which had been bombarded by rezoning requests, had the opportunity to become much more proactive.

So we’ve seen an enormous amount of rezoning along corridors. We’ve seen restriping of the roads, road diets, putting in bike lanes and lot of planning for transit (though there’s not as much funding as planning!). So, there’s been an enormous amount of attention to how to both increase more choices in transportation modes but also, in general, trying to increase connectivity so there’s more distribution of traffic and more ability to use more of those modes in ways that are safer.

What about land-use? For a lot of folks, it’s not even a matter of feeling safe getting from one place to another, but just the lack of density — the distance between where we are and where we need to go. How do we address that — how are folks addressing that? Is there a role for transit?

It’s an infrastructure issue — and it’s really expensive to create a street network where one doesn’t exist. The suburbs have been built out at low density and we’ll never retrofit all of it to be accessible by bike. That’s unreasonable. But there are some studies and projections that argue, if we just built two- to three-story mixed-use buildings on half of the surface parking lots along commercial strips those arterials could meet our housing needs of the next 30 years without cutting down another tree. We have so much fabric already and we could use a lot of it more efficiently. There’s a lot of variation but in most communities it makes a lot of sent to focus on the more dense centers at key intersections and, when you get enough centers, then you can justify and introduce more transit. In other communities there’s more focus on the corridors themselves, in terms of lining this corridor with higher-density development.

We’ve obviously dealt with a lot of push back in the bike movement — and some of it has come from believing that bicycles are inherently good regardless of community context. I wonder if you’ve seen any similar push-back from suburban communities in terms of what some of believe to be the seemingly win-win of mixed-use development?

In this country we assume that downtowns are dynamic places that are always changing — that cranes on the skyline are part of a healthy economy. We expect to see some of the little places we like in a downtown to close or change. The corollary of that is the assumption that the suburbs are completely static and will be forever frozen in whatever form they were initially built.

In the suburbs that were built in the 1920s, they actually have little neighborhood centers and they’re on streetcar lines and most are holding their value very well. The postwar suburbs are not aging very well, especially the commercial stuff. That’s really where most of the tension is. And, to a certain degree, even in the neighborhoods of single-family homes, if there’s a dead strip mall near the entrance to their neighborhood they suddenly say “Do something! Just get rid of that dead thing!” So NIMBYs [Not in My Backyard] can often be converted if there’s a dead or dying property.

I have utter respect for anyone who lives in their neighborhood and is willing to serve on local planning board or commission. Most of the people serving on those committees are retirees, who have the time to do it. A lot of them are of a generation that is older. They’re of a generation that has a mindset of “I want to protect this neighborhood from change; that change is urban, change is bad.”… They want to protect their neighborhoods for new households that look like they did 40 years ago — but those households don’t exist.

Two-third of suburban households have no kids [67% according to 200 Census data]. The majority is now 1 or 2-person households [61% as of 2013].  And even the person on that zoning board who’s demanding only single-family houses on large lots, that person is likely an empty-nester or retiree. There’s a shift. On the one hand, there’s generational change and the younger generation right now they look at cities and they’re much more livable places, that are safer and more vibrant. On the other hand, the suburbs have aged and are boring and people don’t want to live in all-residential areas.

Lots of surveys are seeing the percentage of people who want to live in a single family home, that’s not mixed use, declining rapidly. A recent Marist Poll showed less than 10% of milennials and “active Boomers” want to live in the suburbs where they have to drive everywhere. There’s not as much consensus about what they want, but there’s definitely consensus in what they don’t want. The National Association of Realtors’ surveys show 60% of likely home buyers want to be in walkable, mixed-use places, too. That means 40% don’t want it, but we can’t keep building 80% of our housing to meet the needs of the 40%.

You mentioned in your 2010 TED talk a dead mall in St Louis that was revived as a space for artists and dance troupes. What are some examples from, say, the past year or so that are particularly innovative or exciting to you?

Oh, there are so many! I maintain a database and there are 1,200 entries in there now… There’s a dead mall in Austin that’s been reinhabited by Austin Community College (photo above). They’ve started with classes in what was the JC Penney and they’ve partnered with a developer that’s about to build student housing and green quads on the parking lots. There’s also a light rail station right there, so it’s just one of the redevelopments along that corridor.

There’s some really interesting stuff I’ve been watching in how medical services are coming out to meet all those aging boomers — a couple of malls that have become health centers and partial clinics moving in all over the place. In Seattle there’s a thriving mall that years ago paved over the headwaters of one of the four salmon streams in Seattle. When they wanted to expand, the environmentalists pushed for the mayor to negotiate a land swap. Now instead of the creek being a pipe underground with zero property value, it’s an amenity with senior housing on one side and market housing on the other side where residents get to enjoy this boardwalk around a stream that used to be a portion of the mall parking lot.

At the Summit, we’re looking specifically at Big Ideas. From your perspective, what’s the next step or evolution in this conversation about the suburbs?

Right now, what I’m really interested in and concerned about is the rapid failure of suburban office parks and corporate campuses. Milennials have made it clear that they want to live in cities and a lot of employers that abandoned downtowns in the 70s and 80s are moving back. A lot of suburbs have counted on them as cash cows and are suddenly finding themselves losing a lot of revenue. When a mall dies it’s pretty catastrophic, but a mall is maybe 100 acres, whereas some of these office park sites are 500 or 1,500 acres. So the question becomes, “What do we do with these properties?” There are a lot of plans and projects out there right now, but they’re all pretty recent so there aren’t as many built examples.

We’re seeing a lot more investments in bike trails, trying to attract and retain and sell themselves to 20-somethings. In some cases, office parks are trying to bring in residential — and then the restaurant that’s only open during the day stays open at night and you start to get a town center happening. By increasing mix of uses and density, you also dampen the peak congestion on the road, because instead of everyone leaving at 5 p.m. and getting on the road, some people will get a drink or go to the gym or pick up dry cleaning — or even walk home.

In Hartford, Connecticut, there’s a corporate campus that was one enormous contiguous building. It was old and to attract milennials, they moved into the city, into downtown Hartford. They decided to demolish the building since they had a better chance to sell it as a green field than find someone to reuse it. But here in Atlanta, a large IBM corporate building with 5,000 employees was vacated and now it’s been renovated into North Atlanta High School.

Unlike the malls, office buildings tend to have better construction that lends itself to new uses. It’s just that nobody wants to be Dilbert anymore. Nobody wants that model — it’s so out-of-date at this point.

Over the past several decades, we’ve seen a suburbanization of poverty and certainly a significant proportion of folks on fixed incomes living in the suburbs. How do we learn from some of the displacement we’ve seen in the revitalization of urban core areas as we retrofit the suburbs?

Absolutely! It’s certainly one of the big challenges and part of the challenge is for the past 50 years nonprofits that have focused on assisting people in poverty have been urban-based. Those groups are only just now starting to establish networks in the suburbs. With housing, we see a lot of arguments that if you’re in the lower half of all income brackets chances are you’re spending more income on transportation than housing — but few people know that or do the math. Increasing access to affordable transportation in the suburbs will be really, really key.

There’s also been some work around zombie subdivisions. In a community outside of Atlanta the city took on the controversial role of master developer. They thought that once it went into foreclosure and the banks were trying to shed the properties at half the value it would kill property values for whole community. So what they’ve done is subsidized senior and low-income tax credit housing — finding out how to take a failed property and actually use it as an opportunity to address some real issues. So, yes, there’s a lot of interest in the issues of suburban poverty and using retrofitting to address some of those issues. But just as in downtowns, there’s not enough of it yet, though there are more and more examples.  

Hear more from Dunham-Jones at the Summit — click here to learn more and register!