Retrofitting suburbia: the state of the art

In today’s difficulty economy, three published new urbanist practitioners look at how to get projects going — in the suburbs or elsewhere.

On June 1, at CNU 19 in Madison, Wisconsin, an in-depth “202” session will feature a discussion of innovative sprawl retrofit solutions by Dan Slone, June Williamson, and Galina Tachieva. The published works of these three include Retrofitting Suburbia, the Sprawl Repair Manual, and A Legal Guide to Urban and Sustainable Development.

They will present key urban design principles, prototypical techniques, in-depth case studies, and regulatory frameworks for implementation, followed by discussion of the frontiers of innovation for suburban retrofits. Below is a sample of their current thinking.

How large is the risk?

Dan Slone:

We all know that money is tight right now. What does this mean for suburban retrofitting?

One of the consequences is a desire for results certainty. When money is readily available, developers and localities are more willing to take risks without complete data or without proven certainty of outcomes. With money now harder to obtain, the situation is different. Increasingly, we are being asked to provide not just examples or case studies showing how a particular approach has been implemented, but also multidimensional data regarding the results of similar prior undertakings.

For example, an urban redevelopment project — one in which mixed use is replacing a brownfield site — has been stalled by the economy, and many holes exist in the development. One way to fill those holes is with street vendors at lunchtime and on weekends as part of farmers’ markets or fun lunch programs. The existing food vendors are struggling, however, and are worried that this approach will take away some of the customers that even now barely enable them to survive.

Consequently, vendors ask for documentation that an increase in the number of lunch choices through a street program will increase the site’s retention of traffic or generation of traffic. This seems like a fair request. There should be literature supporting food courts, street vendors in business districts, etc. If the issue has not been studied, it should be.

In the same project, an expensive connection that would reweave a pedestrian and bicycle connection over a train track is questioned. With many needs, is this the best use of limited funds? Some of the discussion reflects a desire for data supporting a cost/benefit analysis. How much new commerce will come from completing the connection? Even with inclusion of increased property values, in addition to the commercial benefits from a growth in the number of customers, the connection would probably not withstand a reasonable cost/benefit analysis.

My concern is that this may be an inappropriate use of data. By focusing on and analyzing a single connection, instead of analyzing the value of being part of a connected site as a whole, we have inappropriately narrowed the discussion. There may still be lots of legitimate questions, including whether this one expensive connection is vital to connectivity, but breaking out one connection for cost/benefit analysis probably amounts to not asking the right question. Other relevant questions might include the level of empirical support for the assertion that there is a relationship between economic value and connectivity, or that this level of connectivity is necessary for “a connected community.”

To advance arguments for urbanism in response to economic problems during a time of tight money, this supporting data is increasingly necessary.

Ad hoc urbanism and starchitecture

June Williamson:

I too have great fears that the “desire for results certainty” will lead to short-sighted solutions. We need to do a better job of collecting and disseminating data, remembering that successful research is contingent on formulating the right kinds of questions — questions that will lead us to learn about new economic potentials and possibilities for the second-generation of suburban retrofits.

I am heartened by the growing interest in the contingent and ad-hoc urbanisms that have recently been successful in catalyzing change in many places — street vendors, Critical Mass bike rides, Greenstreets, Park(ing) Day. But we do need data to back up the ideas.

Turning to the discipline of architecture, another front-burner question for me concerns the opportunity to better position the benefits of suburban retrofitting within ongoing discussions of sustainable urbanism and the long overdue death of “starchitecture.” I believe we have a strategic opening right now to transcend style questions that have dogged New Urbanism, especially within academia (and which does have consequences for the ability to effect change), by asserting — again — that the challenges are so complex that no one can legitimately afford to continue to frame this as simply a matter of style or taste.

Can suburban retrofitting be taken seriously as architecture? The Build a Better Burb ideas competition that Galina and I were involved in last year on Long Island introduced some provocative new design DNA in response to a compelling greyfield audit of thousands of acres of vacant land and surface parking lots near railroad stations. Can we hold more competitions like this, to open up new visions and engage ever more design minds in our Big Project?

I’m also interested in seeking out creative thinking beyond the now-clichéd “live-work-and-play” mantra for mixed-use. How can we expand our understanding of the “work” piece of the triad, beyond office use? Can we seed suburban landscapes that are truly productive? And what about exploring modes of “play” that are not consumption-oriented? The “live” part also needs a reset. Multi-unit housing developers must be nudged, cajoled, and, if necessary, pushed into implementing options that are affordable, flexible, and responsive to the new demographics: for sharing by unrelated adults, for cottage housing, for accessory dwelling units of all types and sizes, and for age- and income-integrated living wherever and however it can be achieved.

When overabundance becomes a liability

Galina Tachieva:

Dan argues for more supporting data. Yes, such data and research may help win arguments for better connectivity, better urbanism, and even finding investment and financing. However, the current economic condition is so dire, unpredictable, and very different from other times’ that even if we have the research in hand, it may not be relevant. Today’s predicament of our sprawling suburbs requires fast, even risky response, not necessarily rooted in proven data — more of the type of small-scale actions with limited scope that June discusses, since by their very nature these actions often have much quicker and more telling outcomes than do more ambitious approaches and timelines.

Showing how, through history, urbanism has supported economic recovery (or did it?) can be helpful, but many of the techniques and tools we need to employ today to repair and retrofit sprawl will be brave and new, and may have no data to support their use. New Urbanism was built on the basis of past evidence – but evidence clearly available to anyone who looked for it, through their experiences – not through an abstract analysis.

We will be inventing ways to do things and even new markets, similarly to the first steps that New Urbanism took. Our innovations will include: how to deal with failing residential subdivisions with multiple foreclosures and deserted properties; how to implement micro-repairs by introducing small but effective amenity packages; and how to create downtowns of modest proportions without financial backing and big investors.

June asks, can suburban retrofitting be taken seriously, as architecture? I would say that suburban retrofitting will not be about architecture at all; it will be about economic survival. Entering a post-recession decade, obviously without fanfare, we will need not only to repair the physical fabric of sprawl but also to generate a new economic framework.

This will require new types of creativity, discovering niche markets and banking more on uniqueness than on omnipresence. Suburbia is already people-diverse, a collection of “ethno-burbs,” and it can support a new “artisan” economy that already is burgeoning in distressed cities and their inner-ring neighborhoods. This phenomenon of economic uncertainty and transition is similar to Eastern Europe in the early ‘90’s, when scarcity inspired a new informal grassroots economy.

Today’s American suburbs have an overabundance of everything — infrastructure, national chains, big boxes, fast-food drive-throughs — but when overabundance starts to fail, high quantity becomes a liability. Re-using and adapting the existing suburban types to incubate new possibilities will help gradually complete the rest of sprawl’s incomplete fabric and make it more livable and sustainable in the long run.

Daniel K. Slone is a partner at McGuireWoods LLP. Galina Tachieva is a partner at Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company. June Williamson is associate professor of architecture at the City College of the City University of New York.