Most North Americans live in auto-dependent suburbs requiring high-carbon lifestyles. While cities and the walkable, bikable, compact, low-carbon living they facilitate are seeing a welcome resurgence in popularity, postwar suburbs, in particular, are facing unprecedented challenges. These challenges include increases in poverty, aging populations, more frequent flooding, and the cost of transportation, energy, and infrastructure maintenance, as well as declines in affordability, the number of jobs, social capital, public health, and environmental quality.
The simple fact is that suburbia wasn’t designed with sustainability in mind, but its aging generation of commercial strip corridors, dying shopping centers, and out-of-date office parks are providing us the opportunity for a radical do-over. City College of the City University of New York associate professor of architecture June Williamson and I are tracking more than 900 case studies in our database of sustainable, community-serving reinhabitations, redevelopments, or regreenings of major suburban-form properties.* And as problems mount, the bar keeps rising. We need to scale up both the number and scope of retrofits. Infrastructural, programmatic, and technological changes need to be integrated as we retrofit our least sustainable and most neglected landscapes into low-carbon, affordable, and healthy places.
It’s a daunting prospect, but there are plenty of promising catalysts. There is an abundance of aging suburban properties and underperforming infrastructure ripe for impactful redevelopment. The dramatic growth in one- to two-person households, led by the Millennials and empty nesters, has helped fuel surging demand (and rent premiums) for walkable urbanism, especially in suburban locations.** Federal and state planning grants have assisted hundreds of communities in using the lull of the recession to question sprawl-oriented zoning and economic development policies. Instead they have increasingly removed the obstacles to retrofitting and repairing prior ecological damage. Every market’s opportunities are unique, but the growing number of success stories are inspiring others to envision bold change.
The primary challenge facing suburbia is auto-dependence. It triggers a cascade of negative effects on budgets, health, and the environment. To combat these effects, many communities’ corridors have been put on “road diets” and streetscaped with more sidewalks, bike lanes, and, in the best examples, more public transit. Lancaster, Calif.’s retrofit of its main street into The BLVD is one great example. Even more ambitious, is the White Flint Sector Plan centered on a Washington, D.C. Metro station in suburban Maryland. In addition to converting the six- to eight-lane, sprawl-lined Rockville Pike into a tree-lined and bus rapid transit-served boulevard, the major property owners within the 430-acre area led the plan to construct a walkable and bikable network of public streets on their properties and establish a new property tax to pay for it. In exchange, the owners are receiving either higher-density mixed-use zoning or density bonuses through purchase of agricultural preservation easements in the county’s rural areas. (This is a great win-win: increasing density at transit while protecting greenfields from further sprawl.) But, most of all, the owners recognize the high rental premiums—for retail, residential, and office space—that are associated with well-connected networks of mixed-use, walkable urbanism.
Water risks are another growing challenge in suburban areas, as increases in paved areas exacerbate the problems of too much, too little, and poor-quality water. Prior to the 1972 Clean Water Act, it was common to drain wetlands and to culvert creeks under suburban parking lots. Today, many of those culverts are failing from extreme weather events and runoff from development upstream. Several have been daylit—as at Thornton Place, on the former parking lot of the Northgate Mall in Seattle, designed by SvR Design Co. Others are being removed, as in Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s redevelopment plan for the 152-acre Parkmerced apartment neighborhood in San Francisco, where 60 years of piping stormwater away has reduced water levels in Lake Merced. The plan’s ambitious goals call for 5,665 net new residences with 100 percent aquifer recharge, net-zero increase in greenhouse gases, and a 56 percent reduction in reliance on the grid.
Outside Minneapolis, the Promenade at Wayzata, designed by In Site Architects and Cuningham Group, is a mixed-use town center anchored by senior housing. It’s a retrofit of a 15-acre dead mall that drained its wetland site when it was initially constructed and dumped runoff into Lake Minnetonka for decades. To ensure that no further damage is done and to avoid the high water table, the six new urban blocks are being built 4 feet above grade with cisterns under the streets to capture stormwater, while geothermal wells were dug in conjunction with construction of the pilings. Guthrie Green in Tulsa, Okla., a retrofit of a trucking distribution parking lot into a lively, urban park that was designed by SWA, also made use of the opportunity during the retrofit to dig geothermal wells and provide energy-efficient heating and cooling to nearby nonprofits. The nonprofits, in turn, run the park’s very successful programming that has added to the area’s social capital and catalyzed construction of more urban living in the surrounding area.
These examples demonstrate how designers are layering social, environmental, and economic improvements onto suburban systems to address the 21st century challenges facing suburbs. But, the complexity involved makes their performance difficult to measure. Although there are considerable quantifiable impacts of individual projects, we lack consistent performance metrics by which to evaluate just how much more sustainable the retrofits are than what they’ve replaced and how much further we have to go. The progress being made by various groups to measure health impacts may soon set the stage for definitive targets.
The Congress for the New Urbanism and Edward Mazria, AIA, have partnered to develop the 2030 Communities Challenge with some of these goals in mind. They would do well to look at Canada’s community energy planning and innovative district energy systems, especially as applied to suburban retrofits.***** But, we must bear in mind that despite the impulse to see complete energy-efficient, urban redevelopment as the goal of performance standards (as well as community desires), not every dead mall or tired office park has the market capacity to be redeveloped into a thriving town center—nor should they be. Many will—and should—provide cheap space for nonprofits, low-profits, and entrepreneurial startups (while extending their buildings’ lifecycle). Others should simply be regreened because we never should have built there in the first place or the market has faded. There is no silver-bullet solution for retrofitting suburbia. And that’s kind of the point.
* Our focus is not solely on properties located in suburbs. Rather, it is on retrofits of properties with a suburban form (typically a stand-alone building surrounded by lawns or parking lots) as opposed to an urban form (typically properties that sit on the sidewalk, fronting the street, with parking in back). We discussed the first 80 case studies in our book, Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs (Wiley, 2008, updated edition 2010)
** Consumer-demand surveys continue to show rising dissatisfaction with suburbia. Most recently, an April 2014 Harris Poll found that less than 10 percent of Millennials and active boomers want to live in a suburb where they would have to drive everywhere. This reinforces Christopher Leinberger’s research showing 112 percent rental premiums on average for retail, office, and residential uses in walkable urban places.
*** See Alan Berube, Elizabeth Kneebone, Confronting Suburban Poverty in America (Brookings Institution Press, 2013)
**** Peter M. Haas and others, “Transportation Cost Trade-Offs and Burdens of Working Households in 28 Metros” (Center for Neighborhood Technology and Virginia Tech, 2006).
***** See QUEST, Quality Urban Energy Systems of Tomorrow.