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03.04.2009
City Limits
Retroffiting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs
An accessory dwelling unit in Seattle, built in 2001, is part of an effort to create affordable granny flatss in aging neighborhoods.
Courtesy Wiley

Strolling among the villas surrounding Regent’s Park, one wouldn’t think of the area as sprawl; it’s obviously urban, and it lies in the heart of London. But when it was built on the Prince Regent’s land in 1818, it was decidedly outside the city. London grew through successive waves of sprawl, long before the arrival of cars and even the Underground, and Regent’s Park was one of many outlying areas to be absorbed into the metropolis over time.

Generally considered an American, postwar phenomenon propelled by the automobile, sprawl actually extends far back into history, past 19th-century London to ancient Rome and even beyond, to Ur and Babylon. On a per-capita basis, suburban life has been attainable by many more Americans in the past 60 years than it was to anyone else before, and sprawl evolved over time due to rail, automobiles, zoning, energy costs, cultural mores, and other factors. But despite the changing nature of sprawl—and of cities—throughout history, it remains, for better or worse, part of the process of urbanization.

Retrofitting Suburbia, by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson, is the latest volume to tackle the complex problems of this urban-suburban flux. The authors rightly explain that the city and suburbia are intimately interrelated rather than oppositional, and that suburbia is constantly evolving, with many older suburbs around the United States today ripe for urbanization. Further, they describe an ongoing evolution of the U.S. into a series of polycentric regions: a more diffuse and decentralized web of smaller, more numerous urban centers than in the past (not a new concept, but worth discussion). They thus put their finger on how suburbs change into cities.

The authors define “urban” and “suburban,” and argue that urbanization is desirable. They suggest that the solution to aging suburbs is simply to redesign them by introducing streets and mixed-use zoning overlays. They present several recently completed and ongoing projects in which suburban areas have been “urbanized,” or made denser and more diverse, in terms of use, than before. Most of the projects are developer-driven and involve large, single properties, and many are not much more than updates of obsolete malls into “lifestyle” centers with fake Main Streets. Yes, some residential units have been added, and perhaps these projects can shift our attitudes about city living. But the authors are not convincing in this regard.

More importantly, Dunham-Jones and Williamson, associate architecture professors at Georgia Tech and the City College of New York, respectively, pay little attention to the market pressures and politics that go into urbanization. Granted, as the book’s title suggests, the authors are primarily interested in design; but to treat suburbia as a design problem is to misunderstand suburbia. They also barely discuss the crucial role of the public sector. Once in a while, there’s a nod to the impact of government action, such as the construction of transit systems, that elicits a positive private-market reaction. The authors thus overlook one of the primary dynamics of urbanization. No one expects a silver bullet for the suburbs—far from it, since the process of urbanization is complex and often inscrutable. But this book purports to provide solutions, and it doesn’t.

Retrofitting does present a useful survey of urban planning literature, covering everything from Levittown to Richard Florida’s “creative class” theory. It also discusses examples of older, suburban areas that are being updated to emphasize public spaces, walkability, and the like. The book lists case studies for several types of suburban developments: strip malls, indoor malls, residential communities, edge cities, and office and industrial parks. The book organizes the case studies by morphology, a term that in itself reduces communities to nothing but shapes. I would argue that organization of the case studies by other characteristics might make more sense. For instance, an office park and an indoor mall might be much more similar in terms of the politics and financing that enabled them than either would be to their morphological sisters. Why not discuss three or four types of economic and political conditions that can lead to retrofits, rather than focusing on their design characteristics?

Elsewhere, the authors include a few winners of design competitions. They devote one page to a Georgia Tech team’s winning entry in an Atlanta Future 2008 competition. The page displays two maps of the Atlanta region: The first shows the region today, and the second shows the team’s vision for Atlanta in one hundred years. The vision is lovely—there’s a lot of green in it—but the maps lack even a key to explain the red, pink, white, and green areas, let alone an explanation that appreciates the complexities of the proposal. All we learn from the caption is that the team (which included Dunham-Jones) apparently proposed urban agriculture, biofuel farm/ power plants, and several other components. All of these ideas sound good, but how real are they? What about the politics inherent

in them? How much would their implementation cost? And who did the team propose to implement its vision?

The case studies themselves are so predominantly single-owner developments that the reader learns little about the impacts—much slower, yes, but also much more powerful—of public-sector investments, especially in transit. The authors recognize the power of such investments, at one point noting that “transit in suburbs is what makes densification feasible,” rather than the other way around, and they discuss the impacts, for example, of the boulevardization of arterials. But they spend comparatively little time on public interventions, and never fully explore the leverage these strategies can provide, nor the challenges they present.

This book is important and well-intentioned, and its subject is certainly deserving. I would love to see a revised edition of Retrofitting Suburbia (a wonderful title, by the way) that is shorter, more coherently organized, and less textbookish, with fewer, more in-depth case studies. But the larger problem remains. The notion that urbanization is merely a design proposition is fundamentally flawed. The changes that are occurring across America result from development pressures and politics. Without these forces, designers aren’t even called into the room—they would therefore do well to understand them better.

Nick Peterson

Nick Peterson is vice-president at Alex Garvin & Associates, an urban planning and consulting firm in New York City.