Ellen Dunham-Jones, AIA, is a professor of architecture and urban design at Georgia Tech School of Architecture in Atlanta and the co-author of Retrofitting Suburbia. As part of the Hanley Wood Sustainability Council for 2014, she will lead the Vision 2020 initiative in Sustanable Communities.
A lot of your work focuses on the suburbs. What are the opportunities there?
The opportunity is that we get a do-over. We built so much, but no one was thinking about environmental issues, especially when it came to the immediate postwar buildings. We drained wetlands. We built with excess. Now that so many of those properties are failing or underperforming, we have a great opportunity to redevelop them into more mixed-use, urban places, or to regreen spaces where we never should have built in the first place.
What do you mean by “regreen” them?
In some cases, especially if there is a slow market, it makes the most sense to simply tear a building down and replace it with a park. Sometimes it means reconstructing wetlands or daylighting creeks that had been put into culverts under parking lots, or putting in community gardens. Outside of Minneapolis in the low-income suburb of Phalen, there was a big strip mall built in the 1960s. It was built before the Clean Water Act, when it was perfectly normal to drain wetlands and put a culvert under the parking lot. The site also happened to be on a major migratory route. Well, the strip mall died and so did the culvert. People at the University of Minnesota’s landscape program made a case for reconstructing the wetlands. They built a beautiful lake and created lakefront property that attracted the first new private investment in over 40 years, which also happens to be next to a big public housing development. This helped trigger improvements to the public housing. The dead strip mall was bringing property values down. So ,regreening the space served multiple purposes.
Another thing that’s happening is the daylighting of creeks. One of the most dramatic examples is the Northgate Mall in Seattle. The project has received a lot of press because it features new housing and senior housing on the sides of Thornton Creek, which used to be a culvert under the mall’s parking lot. Now it’s an amenity for housing, the headwaters of a major stream, and can handle the area’s flooding.
Are these developments picking up speed?
It’s hard to say if the momentum has picked up or that since I wrote my book [Retrofitting Suburbia], people tell me about more projects, but when we went to press in 2008, we had 80 case studies. Today, my database has more than 800.
What do you think are the biggest challenges with these projects?
First, there has to be a market because when you’re dealing with a failed property, there is a reason that it failed. In the case of a mall, it is usually that a new mall opened and attracted new shops. If you’re taking the old mall and trying to simply re-create the same amount of retail square footage but also put in residential or office space above it, it needs to be a very different kind of retail. You don’t want to put in the same mix of small stores and have them fail again. Getting the right mix of uses in a development is key, as is figuring out why the first development failed.
Second, financing is tricky. There was a study about five years ago that looked at six mall retrofits and every single one was a custom financing deal. Mixed use is much more difficult to finance than single-use properties. A lot of banks think it is riskier even though more research is showing mixed use is safer and brings a higher return. It is, however, less predictable and I think banks have not yet figured out how to work with the complexity of mixed use in general.
Neighborhood resistance is an issue in the suburbs. Culturally, we expect our cities to be dynamic and think that building cranes show a healthy economy, but in contrast most Americans expect the suburbs to remain frozen. There is super-high resistance to change. However, if the property is truly dead, that opposition tends to evaporate. Then, people want you to do something.
It seems that creating a dialogue with the community is critical to revitalization and adds an interesting dynamic to a project.
Absolutely. The community input and the processes around that are very, very important. What gets especially interesting with most retrofits is that many are happening with retail and industrial properties.
Most of the time, retrofits are happening in neighborhoods that only allow single-family housing so the process is about getting people used to the idea that there is a big market for multifamily housing. But hey, you’re getting older, you may want to stay in your community and not have to mow the lawn. You might find it attractive, and think about where your kids want to live. They’re looking for nightlife and they want a more urban lifestyle. This train of thought develops a lot of market issues that are driving retrofit. These projects provide choices for a more urban lifestyle in a suburban location, but getting the existing neighbors—who all want a suburban lifestyle since that is why they live where they live—to accept the notion needs a different mindset to occur.
In most of the retrofits, it’s not as if single-family homes are being torn down. It’s not taking away existing choices; it’s just adding new choices—and frankly, adding a lot more tax revenue per acre than retail or single-family homes alone. Communities are beginning to pay more attention to that.
In December, NPR reported that suburban housing developments are attracting buyers by offering amenities such as farms instead of the traditional swimming pool or golf course. What do you think this shift means for the future of community design?
There’s a huge urban agriculture movement and it manifests in the suburbs as well as in the cities. There’s a wonderful place down here, south of Atlanta, called Serenbe. The amenity is the organic farm. They have neighborhood clusters where there’s an art focus, a health focus, a farm focus. It’s definitely appealing to the notion of a healthy lifestyle.
The subdivision that centers on a mini country club has a health element to it, but farming ties into food security issues, fears that we can’t always trust our foods, interest in organic foods, and the farm-to-table local food movement. It also feeds into Generation Y’s interest in do-it-yourself things.
It has been really interesting to listen to some of the lawyers who draw up the homeowner association agreements where there’s a farm. The stories I hear are that everyone loves the idea of a farm and that they get to be a part of it, especially at harvest time. However, they’re not really interested in participating in the grungier part of the day-to-day operations.
Sometimes the thrill of the farm wears off after not too long so the lawyers have to build recognition into the homeowner agreement that they will pay for a farmer to care for the farm. It’s complicated, but farms can do well. Village Homes has had a farm as part of their community for 30 years and are doing really well.
Another trend I’m seeing is plans in cities or developments to eliminate cars from certain neighborhoods or even an entire city. Hamburg, Germany, wants to do this in the next 20 years. Is this something that will take hold in the U.S.? How would that change the way we look at communities?
I’m assuming that Hamburg is looking at what Freiburg did in the Vauban neighborhood, which is a car-free zone. There is very, very limited parking, but if you really want a car, there are some spaces where you pay extra to have a parking space.
Some of the transportation civil engineers at Georgia Tech have been working on a variety of scenarios and have been asking the question, “What if it gets to the point where gasoline is just too expensive and we haven’t come up with enough of an alternative?” We didn’t get the funding to look into it further, but at least we are asking what cities will look like if people really travel by mass transit and transition to a much smaller electric vehicle. What happens to all your road space?
I think the U.S. is nervous because in the 1970s we converted a lot of main streets to pedestrian malls and only three of 100 or so remain today. They didn’t work, but it is clearly working Europe. We may only get there in our most dense cities, but it is certainly interesting to watch. We’re getting more communities to put their main streets on road diets, where five lanes are reduced to two and bike lanes and wider sidewalks are added. And we’re seeing business and property values improve. So, we’re definitely reducing space for cars, but I doubt we will get rid of them.
What do you see happening to community development by 2020?
At a regional scale, we’re going to become much more polycentric. We’re already seeing more development along corridors. We’re going to see more nodes in the suburbs, with suburbs that are more city-like. We’re going to see regions with multiple nodes.
Paying for the reconfiguration of our infrastructure is an enormous challenge and is certainly the road to how we introduce a more-walkable framework into the suburbs. However, we built all of our power, water, and sewer plants in the 1960s, oversized them, and have been coasting on capacity. But we have now reached the limit in many places with the inefficiencies of centralized systems. We increasingly know how to create microgrids and introduce peak savings to put less stress on the central systems. We have the smarts to make a more smooth transition to a sustainable future. The real question is whether we have the money or are willing to tax ourselves to do it.
Given that, what do you think is the role that the architecture, design, and builder community can play here?
The big role, especially for designers, is producing the compelling visions that can help convince a very skeptical public that change can be a positive thing and can be welcome.[We must] convince them that this type of change has benefits and that we have real numbers behind it. One of the sad things about our industry in general is how little real data we have on performance metrics. That’s the other thing we desperately need.
Is your mixed-use development really reducing vehicle miles traveled? Is it really reducing energy use per capita? Is it increasing social capital and happiness? Are people losing weight by moving to this mixed-use place? We often don’t know. There’s so much stuff that we would love to gather data on to see how individual buildings are contributing, as well as the larger communal effects. There’s still so much we don’t really know about how these projects are performing.
Since 2012, Hanley Wood has conferred with building industry experts to establish a timeline of critical goals and metrics that building professionals must establish and meet by the year 2020 in order to preserve our environment and meet large-scale goals such as those of the 2030 Challenge. Scroll over points in our on-going timeline to learn more about the path ahead in green building. Track our progress all year as the Hanley Wood Sustainability Council shares their perspectives on initiating, tracking, and ensuring progress toward these sustainable priorities and goals. This year's program will culminate in an exclusive Vision 2020 Sustainability Summit in conjunction with Greenbuild in New Orleans, and with a special Fall edition of ECOBUILDING REVIEW.