Fairfax Suburbanista

Making growth work in Fairfax

Retrofitting suburbs

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on June 5, 2009

A great new book provides hope as well as urgency that our suburbs can and must be redesigned for a sustainable future. Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs, by architecture scholars Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson, looks at dozens of large-scale retrofit projects of malls and other suburban spaces. These include:

  • Cathedral City, California, where the land uses along the arterial highway have been rezoned and the street has begun to be tamed to allow for safer crossings
  • Mizner Park, Florida, a highly successful pedestrian- and public-space oriented redevelopment of a failed mall in Boca Raton
  • Mashpee Commons in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, another failed mall redevelopment with quirky small lots — also very economically successful

These are first-hand case studies loosely informed by a somewhat vague thesis that “incremental urbanism,” an organic view of how cities should evolve bit by bit — based on how successful cities have evolved in the past — must give way to a more fundamental centralized mode of change characterized by large-scale suburban face-lifts spearheaded by private-public partnerships. That is, Jane Jacobs gives way to Robert Moses-style suburban renewal. Almost all of the case studies are characterized by development partnerships where the redesigned spaces are turned over to either a private property manager or a private-public partnership such as a Business Improvement District. The serendipitous accretion of densely mixed, diverse uses and assets that Jane Jacobs saw in great cities was, as she pointed out, inapplicable to other kinds of settlements such as suburbs. And the authors seem to be arguing in their introduction that suburbs can’t and shouldn’t develop this way — for all our well justified fear of centrally planned monolithic settlements, suburban retrofits need to be large-scale with a “man behind the curtain” to work.

The main virtue of the book, though, is not the thesis but the richly detailed first-hand looks at these redesigned places and intelligent analyses. The case studies have a healthy dose of skepticism about, for example, the trend toward detached “lifestyle centers.” At the same time, the authors recognize that places like lifestyle centers, i.e. faux town centers, have become established real estate products and can, with some adaptation, become functional communities where people can live, do errands and enjoy themselves.


2 Responses to “Retrofitting suburbs”

  1. thanks for the thoughtful review. As an unabashed fan of Jane Jacobs, your argument that we threw her over for Moses touches a nerve – but in a good way! I think we also show examples of more incremental change (the study of the 3 “levittowns”, legislation for accessory dwelling units, the infill rather than demolition at University Town Center, etc.) But yes, we do feel that the fundamental task most needed is the retrofitting of the infrastructure of blocks, streets, and lots back from suburban superblocks into the kind of walkable connected grain that Jane would have recognized as more urban. Who knows whether she would have stood up for the NIMBY suburbanite resisting change in this case, or if she would welcomed the infrastructural change, albeit-Moses-like?

  2. suburbanista said

    It’s a great honor that you considered it worthy of response! I was sort of loading the dice with that comparison, and there’s no question that (non)places like Tysons Corner need fundamental overhaul not incremental change. And as you’ve shown, that can be done sensitively and with love for details. In Fairfax County, as you know, we have a large concentration of suburban shopping centers, many of them marginal — two are within a mile of where we live. Your study was an inspiration that if we can align the stars — with the neighborhoods being the most refractory — I might be able to walk and bicycle for most things before 2020!

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