on March 1, 2009
Morningside Heights in Manhattan looked surprisingly suburban at the turn of the century. One of the most striking comparisons in this book shows a photo of Morningside Heights in the late 1800s beside a photo of a modern, suburban apartment complex outside Dallas. The two photos look remarkably similar, even to the point of having cattle in the background. Manhattan's transition from rural to suburban to urban happened surprisingly quickly, and throughout this book it becomes evident that no matter the physical infrastructure of a place, transition is possible.
While having background in urban planning certainly helps understand the context of this book, and there is some planning jargon, any reader interested in the future of suburbs will find this book interesting and approachable. To a large degree this book consists of a series of case studies of various suburban retrofits--how to make such places more walkable, transit friendly and less generic. Effectively, the author is arguing to make these places more unique and relevant to human needs rather than accepting the current status quo of auto-centric design. The photos and diagrams from all over the country are superb and really convey the impact retrofitting can have on communities. The transformations include malls being changed into community town centers (complete with housing and other mixed uses), suburban office buildings being changed into condos, and even strip malls transformed into schools.
To the urban planners who may use these case studies professionally, there is not much discussion or advice on how to handle political or economic battles. While suburban retrofitting may not face opposition from communities, this type of development has not been proven to be economically viable in all cases and zoning laws may quash these design ideas when push comes to shove.
Still, anyone who is interested in architecture, transit, design, and of course, urban studies, will enjoy this book and find the case studies compelling--especially those who think about urban development holistically like the late Jane Jacobs.
on September 21, 2009
I found this book encouraging. The book's author makes a good point by talking about the need to retrofit existing suburbs, as opposed to just making new suburbs less car dependent and more pedestrian-friendly and/or making revitalizing downtown cores. In my opinion, we need to do all of the above: i.e. make all new suburbs pedestrian-friendly and not car-dependent; revitalize downtown cores; and, last but not least, make existing suburbs more pedestrian-friendly and less car-dependent.
While I think that most of what is said in this book makes perfect sense, there is just one thing that I have to question, however. The book's author predicts that in 2050, about 85 percent of American households will not have any children. If that is true, I consider that bad news! I can't see how anybody can expect the American population to still be growing then if only 15 percent of all American households have any children. For a country's population to even stay at the level that it currently is at, the average couple has to have 2.1 children.
on December 8, 2009
Since the 1950's, the United States has demonstrated a rapid pattern of suburban growth. Over the years, it has become evident that this growth pattern of large lots, ample private space and auto dependent development has its downfalls. Environmental concerns, rising gas prices, and the changing needs of society as those who originally bought into the suburban neighborhoods post World War II age and people have less and less children have begun to necessitate a change in the suburban growth pattern. In Retrofitting Suburbia, Ellen Dunham--Jones and June Williamson provide an innovative look into this issue and discuss potential solutions through various case studies from around the country.
The authors begin by discussing five reasons why retrofitting takes place. The first of these is that aging and out of date properties, such as dying malls, retail strips and office parks are beginning to create fears of blight in suburban areas. Also, regional cities are growing into edgeless suburban cities, depending highly on auto transit. Now, however, traffic and air quality concerns have led to communities searching for solutions to transit issues, resulting in public transit options being considered. This type of development encourages the redevelopment of underperforming areas into mixed use and walkable areas around transit stops.
The third reason is the changing locational and economic identity of the suburbs. The "bedroom suburbs" of the fifties that were originally far from the central city are now in central areas due to expansion, and they desire to make themselves destination points. The demographics of the suburbs are changing as well, along with the markets they appeal to. There are increasing percentages of homes without children and suburbs are increasingly more diverse in terms of age, income, race and ethnicity. Because of this, there is a need for a more diverse selection of housing types and destinations. Finally, suburban governments have begun to realize the environmental limits to unchecked growth and are planning for the future. These plans include changes in zoning, the anticipation mass transit, and the encouragement of the construction of affordable housing.
The case studies that are provided subsequently demonstrate potential ways to retrofit suburbs into areas that are denser and provide the needed housing options and retail centers. Some of the examples include the transition from a dead mall into a new lifestyle center in Florida, the retrofitting of a big box store into a library in Texas, and the transformation from a suburban edge city into a mixed use, walkable, transit oriented development through infill development outside of Dallas. These will be extremely useful to any architect, planner or developer that is working in a suburban area. They help to explain ways that communities can retrofit, including the process leading up to the approval of a plan and the results of the retrofit. They also provide cautionary advice as to pitfalls to avoid, such as not integrating the retrofitted area well into the surrounding community.
It is important to understand that while areas of suburbs should be retrofitted, the authors propose that suburban areas will always exist. Certain major shopping malls probably will not fail, and there will always be people who wish to live in gated residential neighborhoods. However, there is still a need to bring jobs and affordable housing along with mixes of uses to suburban areas. Further more, town centers that replace aging strip malls and other commercial properties act as nodes and meet the needs of current residents, providing a sense of place in an otherwise placeless location and facilitate social interaction.
Hopefully, another result that will come from people in the business reading this book is to prevent more Greenfield building. Instead, it should encourage the addition of density to existing suburban areas while also adding a sense of place in a way that promotes walkability and social interaction. This retrofitting will be more sustainable overall, encouraging a reduction in vehicle miles traveled and more local spending. Furthermore, as can be seen from the various case studies, these areas tend to do extremely well over time, whereas Greenfield development may become a thing of the past due to environmental concerns and a new generation of worker's desire to live close to their places of work and play.
There are some other very important lessons to be learned from this book. First, these retrofits cost a lot of money. It is important to come up with innovative financing solutions to make them work. A major one is the public-private partnership, and as more governments become aware of the benefits of retrofitting these should become more prevalent. It will also be very important to involve the community when creating retrofits. Without the community on board, it will be impossible to be successful in passing new policies that encourage density and allow for the necessary actions needed for retrofits. Also, the retrofits should add to the character of the community and provide people with necessary services and amenities. They should provide a place that residents enjoy being in and that allows for social interaction. Otherwise, they may end up just as dead in 20 years as the suburban malls and strip centers are becoming now.