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The suburbs aren’t what they used to be. These 6 strategies can make them even better

A new book explores how suburbs are transforming and offers a blueprint for other cities to follow.

The suburbs aren’t what they used to be. These 6 strategies can make them even better
The Mueller project in Austin, Texas, contains a wide variety of compact housing types and styles in close proximity to each other, including modern row houses that share an alley with traditional triplexes and share frontage on Branch Park with four-story apartments. [Photo: Phillip Jones/courtesy Wiley]
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The suburbs are changing. The homogenous picket-fence bedroom communities of decades past are becoming more economically and demographically diverse, less architecturally homogenous, and, unfortunately, more impoverished. They’re also becoming, well, less suburban.

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Highland Greenway Park, one of three planned parks on former parking lots at the Highland Mall, in Austin, Texas. [Photo: Phillip Jones/courtesy Wiley]
In their new book, Case Studies in Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Strategies for Urgent Challenges, authors Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson show how suburban places across North America are being redesigned and redeveloped to ditch their sprawling roots for a more urban feel. Retrofits can range from improving walkability to making it easier for people to access goods and services without getting in a car. They argue that the suburbs aren’t necessarily a geographical place, but rather a form of development that can exist anywhere—mostly buildings that are surrounded by lawns or parking lots, with street networks that look more like trees than grids. These places can be adapted to changing demands.

The rambla, in Lancaster, California, has many lives. While it is typically used for parking, two blocks are converted weekly into a farmer’s market. [Photo: Ellen Dunham-Jones/courtesy Wiley]
“Plenty of cities have areas in them that we would characterize as suburban and should be retrofitted, and plenty of municipalities that we think of as suburban still have those remnants of a little old main street, a couple of blocks of great urban bones that should be expanded upon,” says Dunham-Jones.

Revitalizing a suburban corridor into the Fiesta District in Mesa, Arizona, involved a road diet with widened sidewalks and stormwater swales that irrigate new trees.  [Photo: Ellen Dunham-Jones/courtesy Wiley]
Williamson is an associate professor at the City College of New York’s school of architecture, and Dunham-Jones is a professor of architecture at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Their new book builds on a previous collaboration, Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs, published in 2009, when suburban transformation was still in its early stages. “If you did anything to reduce automobile dependency, you were in the book. That was pretty much the bar,” says Dunham-Jones.

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The book was trying to “challenge the dominant paradigm that cities were changing places and suburbs weren’t,” says Williamson.

Things have since gotten a lot more sophisticated, and the transformations happening today present a vision of suburbs that are far more reflective of the social and demographic changes they are experiencing. “Now communities are asking, while you’re reducing automobile dependency, what are you doing for public health, for climate change, for the loneliness epidemic, for any number of these other challenges,” Dunham-Jones says.

Using 32 case studies, Dunham-Jones and Williamson show that places with a suburban form can be retrofitted by focusing on six key areas.

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Residents walk, bike, and drive cars and golf carts through Lake Sumter Landing, one of three themed town centers in the Villages of Florida, a massive and fast-growing age-restricted development. [Photo: June Williamson/courtesy Wiley]

Automobile dependence

Suburbia is still the land of cars. But suburban places can begin to chip away at their car-oriented streets and development patterns.

“If you don’t have transit, people still need cars for the time being,” says Dunham-Jones. “New development is going to come in with parking lots, [so] the number one recommendation is to design your parking lots as future building sites.”

The book points to the example of Mueller, a former municipal airport in Austin, where two decades of planning led to a redevelopment that is transforming more than 700 acres of airstrips and empty space into a new community of more than 6,000 homes.

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Public health

If you need a car to get everywhere, you’re probably not walking anywhere. Improving walkability in suburban places can have benefits beyond just changing transportation patterns.

“The potential of suburban retrofitting to transform people’s lives begins at that fundamental level of our bodies and how we move through space,” says Williamson. “The single best thing in terms of public health that would save a lot of money and prolong people’s lives from all different backgrounds is to design physical activity into the environment. At the most basic level, that means opportunities to walk.”

In Normal, Illinois, the city shifted space from drivers to pedestrians in its Uptown Circle project, which transformed an awkward five-street intersection into a traffic-calmed roundabout with a central park. The project also links with a growing network of pedestrian facilities in the surrounding area, creating a new center for the town.

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The atrium at Bell Works is one-quarter mile long and six stories high. [Photo: Belma Fishta/courtesy Wiley]

Aging population

Reconsidering suburban places through the lens of older adults can have benefits for residents of all ages. A growing movement is underway in communities to allow residents to age in place by making neighborhoods safer, more accessible, and more connected to goods and services. “Lifelong communities and the kinds of things we might specifically do with older adults in mind can benefit everybody, including the young who may not have the ability to drive or, increasingly, the desire,” says Williamson.

The book points to Bell Works, a redevelopment of the former Bell Labs building in Holmdel, New Jersey, which includes a 55-plus housing community being built on former parking lots. But it’s not just a community for seniors. The Eero Saarinen-designed Bell Labs building now has offices, retail, and dining, all easily accessible by the seniors living nearby and the broader community as well.

In DeSoto, Texas, a former hardware store was converted into Grow DeSoto Market, and a parking lot became a networking space with food trucks. [Photo: Phillip Jones/courtesy Wiley]

Equity

Efforts are being made to update suburban places to be more reflective of their increasingly diverse communities, and these can take many shapes. One example is the Collinwood Recreation Center, a gym and community center built in a former big-box store in an underserved part of Cleveland, where parks and spaces for healthy recreation were needed more than additional retail establishments. Other big-box stores and strip malls have also been converted into community-centric uses, including new fitness centers made from old stores in towns such as Spearfish, North Dakota, and Princeton, New Jersey.

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The Domain in Austin, Texas, an office district retrofit, where several downtown restaurateurs opened sister locations. [Photo: Phillip Jones/courtesy Wiley]

Jobs

Other former retail spaces are being reconfigured to house new types of business. In dying malls and shopping centers, communities are trying to breathe new life into local economies. One example is the Bon Marche Mall in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The mall went out of business in 2000, but local investors turned the space into a technology center that is now a business incubator and data center. Another former strip mall, in DeSoto, Texas, got a similar retrofit and is now a market and business incubator focused specifically on Black-owned businesses.

Former parking lots in Atlanta were converted into Fourth Ward Park. [Photo: Phillip Jones/courtesy Wiley]

Water and energy resilience

Suburban retrofits can also achieve environmental goals. The book points to the example of Maplewood Mall, a struggling shopping mall in Maplewood, Minnesota. Surrounded by 35 acres of impervious asphalt, the mall was a major contributor to polluted runoff contaminating local lakes. A retrofit project replaced much of the asphalt with rain gardens, tree trenches, and permeable paving, and the site now absorbs two-thirds of the rainwater that falls there.

Williamson and Dunham-Jones note that all of these projects, and every one of the 32 case studies in their book, target more than just one of these focus areas. Retrofitting suburbs, they argue, has to be much more than just shaking off old stereotypes. “The best retrofits integrate solutions to as many challenges as they can,” says Dunham-Jones.