Suburbs Are Altering, Like It or Not

Suburbs Are Changing, Like It or Not

Many New Yorkers are thinking of leaving the city for the suburbs this year as remote working allows some to live almost anywhere. But the bidding wars and soaring property prices that have resulted from migration aren't the only ways the suburbs are changing. According to June Williamson and Ellen Dunham-Jones, architects and co-authors of a new book due out in December, more and more design and planning plans are helping to make suburbs more walkable, sociable, healthier and more equitable.

Case studies on retrofitting suburbs: urban planning strategies for urgent challenges (Wiley) comprises 32 projects from the perspective of ambitions or six ambitions: reducing dependence on cars, promoting health, supporting the elderly, promoting diversity and equity, creating Protecting employment opportunities and the environment. The book is a continuation of the authors' 2008 “Retrofitting Suburbia” (and its 2011 update), which has made a name for itself as hopeful chroniclers of large boxes, dead shopping malls and sunset streaks.

The authors recently discussed this last chapter in their collaboration in an interview. The conversation was edited and condensed.

Recognition…June Williamson

Mrs. Williamson: Our goal was to face a greater number of challenges since the suburbs are the United States. We are suburbs. They are where the majority of people work, where they live.

Ms. Dunham-Jones: Remarkably little is really written about the suburbs, and the literature seems distant from what the suburbs actually are: they deal with that old trump card between the suburbs and the city when it really isn't about whether or not suburbs stay the same or not will be turned into something else. Changes take place anyway.

Mrs. Williamson: Whether you want the old mall back or not, it's gone. Or if you prefer the way the office park was structured and the property tax revenue that resulted from it, then the company is gone or dissolved. The rethinking of these properties has to happen.

One thing in common that seems to be emerging is the desire for accessibility and a mixed-use public space.

Ms. Dunham-Jones: What is really interesting about re-greening is that, although it is usually done for environmental reasons or for flood control reasons, it can create lake or park lots which then cause redevelopment on the edges.

Ms. Williamson: Two of our case studies illustrate the following: One is Meriden Green in central Connecticut. The Meriden Hub Mall was an urban renewal, um, bad idea that was built over a creek that was riddled with holes. The area was then devastated by floods. The shopping center was then demolished and the land was converted into a rainwater park, shaped like a bathtub and now able to hold rainwater for most of the city. There are a mile and a half of hiking trails along the creek, as well as footbridges and an amphitheater. The entire area has been converted into a walk-through neighborhood and new apartments have been built. In a small town with a decent number of lower-income people, improved, cheaper rail transport has provided access to jobs.

A similar story is in Wyandanch, a hamlet in the city of Babylon in Suffolk County. In the postwar period, when Levittown was being built, Wyandanch was one of the places developers built similar homes for black Americans. Black G.I.s were able to buy houses there, but the property did not appreciate it over time. And other types of investments have not been made in the community for decades. Over 20 years, with the support of the city and now the county, and with the rebuilding of a station through the Long Island Rail Road and the establishment of a park structure, the area has been recovering. The water and sewage infrastructure, which had not made it into this community since the 1940s, was expanded, and mixed-use buildings were erected on the many above-ground parking lots. They also added a nice little square and park in the center that has a seasonal ice rink.

Ms. Dunham-Jones: In the suburbs, many people have access to green lawns, but what they don't have is really community-oriented spaces – the little urban green programmed with activities. Re-greening has many different benefits that are too often overlooked.

Ms. Williamson: This is a good transition to one of our greatest challenges: retrofitting to improve public health. And that's what we've learned more about since the first book – all of the interesting research linking the built environment to the chronic levels of obesity and diabetes in North America and their lack of physical activity. These are some of the complicating conditions that make this pandemic so much more risky and deadly.

By rethinking the built environment and retrofitting, we can achieve significant public health results that could save a lot of money. Just motivating people to go outside and take short walks could have significant health benefits.

Ms. Dunham-Jones: In terms of walkability, one of our case studies is Mueller, a former East Austin, Texas airport that has undergone significant redevelopment on 700 acres. The community was designed for 13,000 residents and 13,000 workers. It's not 100 percent complete, but studies already show that residents walk and bike more, which is encouraged by the small block sizes, narrow streets that slow vehicle speeds, and green infrastructure.

Ms. Williamson: By 2050, 20 percent of the US population will be over 65 years of age. This group is not old; You're just older. But they have special needs. Consideration is being given to designing communities that provide lifelong support in suburbs where these people may already live and have raised families and want to stay. There are ideas for living together, admitting residential units, or filling with cottage dishes or small apartment buildings that would complement the predominance of detached single family homes. Some of the empty shopping malls can be converted into wellness and fitness centers as well as health clinics.

Cottages on Greene in East Greenwich, R.I. is an example of a type of apartment that allows older people to downsize within their community. The development was built on the site of a car repair company that had a mini-strip center on one side and single-family homes on the other. The property is only about one hectare in size, but has 15 small units that are artfully arranged around a green area. If you drive down the main street it looks like two houses. But then you turn left and there are more units behind and the common green manages the rainwater. Four are subsidized apartments.

Ms. Dunham-Jones: Cottages on Greene is a great example of how design can help overcome Nimby's resistance to affordable housing. And it hits the market for much smaller houses. The suburbs were built on the assumption that the first new home buyers will be a young family with children. We're seeing a resurgence in many places, but two-thirds of suburban households don't have children.

Ms. Williamson: Many of our examples speak for the high proportion of suburban rental houses and apartments. I think people have this preconceived notion that suburbs are all single family homes and condos. Most of the apartments are located in garden apartment complexes and new rental units have been retrofitted. And of course, there's the lingering effects of the recession a decade ago that turned many single-family homes that were once owned into rental apartments.

Ms. Dunham-Jones: Since 2005, more Americans have lived in poverty in the suburbs than in cities. There is therefore a great need to improve the opportunities for the poorest and the disadvantaged. Many rentals are aging garden apartment complexes that are the last resort. And they are often demolished and replaced with brand new, higher density, triple rent complexes. There is no way the same population can afford it. We're really encouraging more churches to insist on replacement equipment.

Ms. Dunham-Jones: Currently, 46 percent of trips from suburbs, predominantly from single-family houses, are no longer than five kilometers. That would be perfectly fine for a bike ride, scooter ride, or stroll on many of these trips if there was adequate infrastructure to make it a safe choice. That would have a huge impact.

Ms. Williamson: Something that is very easy and almost free to do is change the zoning. Several jurisdictions have abolished R1 zones and allowed additional residential units in neighborhoods. It doesn't change everything overnight, but you can see the effects over time.

Investing in planning, design and community processes at an early stage cost little and can have significant benefits later. Going back to Wyandanch on Long Island for example, from 2000 to 2016 they calculated a return on investment ratio of 75 to 1 from the public sector investment to the new investment that came into that location. That's pretty important.

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