This post is part of a series covering ULI Toronto’s Fall Symposium which took place November 2nd and 3rd at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. The inaugural symposium, Emerging Trends and City Building, saw hundreds of industry professionals gather to be a part of the ongoing dialogue on the future of urban development.
“[The suburbs] were wonderful places when they were being built and they helped a lot of generations of families achieve terrific quality of life,” Ellen Dunham-Jones told a crowd of hundreds gathered at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.
“But now after 50 years we see an enormous list of unintended consequences.”
Dunham-Jones was speaking in Toronto on November 2nd during the first day of the Emerging Trends and City Building Fall Symposium, held by the Urban Land Institute’s Toronto District Council. Her book, Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs, published in 2008 with co-author June Williamson, became the subject of a TED Talk in 2010 and has continued to resonate across a wide audience within the industry.
At its essence, retrofitting the suburbs — the focus of years of research by the Georgia Tech professor — is about transforming strip malls, sprawling subdivisions, big box stores and all the other spaces that Dunham-Jones calls “prototypical suburban property types” into more livable and sustainable places.
The following are three major themes that revolve around suburban retrofitting that she addressed during her talk at the ULI Toronto symposium.
1. Decreasing car dependency in the age of driverless cars
Dunham-Jones described automobile dependence as the top challenge that she and co-author June Williamson were aiming to address when they published Retrofitting Suburbia in 2008. It’s the “challenge the suburbs were never built for” she told the crowd.
One of the most common strategies is to build urbanism on top of parking lots as was done at Mashpee Commons in Massachusetts, the oldest suburban retrofit that Dunham-Jones and Williamson found in their research. There, over the course of 20 years, a mixed-use, walkable New England village was built on top of a strip shopping center.
An example of a “fine grain” strategy to reduce auto dependency is to introduce a small amount of retail to residential neighborhoods. Dunham-Jones presented an example of a Nashville neighborhood where a residential lot was used to house eight boxes of micro-retail space, each at less than 400 square feet. It’s projects like this that give people a reason to walk around their neighborhoods, she said.
Turning to the future, Dunham-Jones was unsure of how advent of driverless cars — a recurring topic at the ULI Toronto symposium — would impact automobile dependency. “Are driverless cars going to extend sprawl and going to make it easier for people to commute farther and farther away, or is it going to have the opposite effect?” she asked, noting that there is a lot of speculation on both sides.
One PwC analysis she cited made the prediction that the US fleet of cars will contract from 254 million to 2.4 million, a factor of 100. In this scenario, there will be far fewer cars on the road and they won’t be privately owned. “It will essentially be Uber with driverless cars,” she said. 2. Grappling with the unintended consequences of suburbanisation
While reducing automobile reliance remains “job number one”, Dunham-Jones said that there is a desire to use retrofitting as an opportunity to identify solutions to other problems that have manifested as unintended consequences of suburbanisation.
One of the chief challenges is tackling the adverse effects that the suburban lifestyle has had on public health. For years the suburbs had been marketed as a healthy place to raise a family, Dunham-Jones explained. This perception is antiquated. While the major health threat during the 20th century was considered to be infectious diseases thriving in overcrowded cities, the consequence of the low-density, car-dependent suburban lifestyle has been the alarming rise in the prevalence of chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease spurred by obesity.
It’s essential to rebuild physical activity into our daily lives in order to combat this health threat. But the resulting decline in physical activity isn’t the only public health concern that arose as an unintended consequence of suburbanisation. Exposure to harmful auto emissions and dangers to pedestrians in suburban communities are also major health concerns that Dunham-Jones believes can be addressed through retrofitting.
3. Appealing to both Millennials and YEEPIEs
Dunham-Jones explained that a big challenge facing the suburbs today is the loss of jobs to cities. Suburban office parks, which saw their heyday in the 1980s, aren’t so shiny and new anymore and the infrastructure surrounding them has been underinvested in. She described the cities as the “shiny places” now and, more importantly, “it’s where the employers want to hire” because cities are where the always important Millennial generation wants to be.
However, she emphasized that although Millennials generally want an urban lifestyle, many of them are still located in the suburbs. This means there is tremendous demand for walkable urbanism to be further introduced into suburban areas.
“Walkable urbanism is now the amenity that is necessary to be able to support office investment and the employees that the offices really want,” she said, pointing to successful office-oriented retrofits in San Jose and Austin that have Millennial appeal.
But the demand to retrofit suburbs isn’t only coming from younger generations. Baby boomers approaching retirement age are also looking for walkable urbanism in the suburbs. The boomers will not retire quietly, Dunham-Jones said, using the term “YEEPIEs” (Youthful, Energetic, Elderly People Into Everything) as the best encapsulation of how the generation will approach retirement living.
“They’re not necessarily moving into the city. Most of them want to stay in the same community where they raised their kids, but they want a more urban lifestyle,” she said.
What does this look like in practice?
Dunham-Jones pointed to a mixed-use town center developed by Presbyterian Homes in Wayzata, Minnesota. The nonprofit bought land that was home to a shuttered shopping mall. Since then, they’ve built seniors housing, grocery stores, a cinema, retail and an extension of the existing main street.
“It sold out even before construction had started,” she said.