To fight global climate change, fight global sprawl

The drive-through lifestyle, exported by America and adopted worldwide, is the “operating system for growth” that is a root cause of rising carbon emissions.

Michael Mehaffy explains how the ‘drive-through’ lifestyle, started in America and exported throughout the world, involves a lot of other patterns of consumption that feed off each other, exacerbating problems of sprawl and global degradation.

The point is, this is a global inter-locking system, working as a kind of “operating system for growth.” We call it “sprawl” for shorthand—but as most of us recognize, it’s not just low-density development, but an entire inter-locking, now international system of physical and economic development. It includes all the economic practices, lending rules, engineering standards, zoning codes, and all the other “operating system” elements, at local, national and international scales.

The other important thing to note about this system, as most of us know but tend to forget, is that it didn’t just happen: it was planned. The system of sprawl, the current “operating system for growth,” was not the natural outcome of American consumer tastes or inevitable market evolution, as some mythology still holds. It was created consciously by businesspeople, politicians, architects and planners, for what seemed like good reasons at the time.  It was and is a choice, one that is now being made on a global scale, as the McDonalds examples show. And it was and is immensely profitable. Of course, the problem is that it is fundamentally unsustainable, and it incurs other catastrophic costs—like climate change.

We have the option of a truly more urban model—with more transportation choices, more diversity and mix of uses, more walkable streets and public spaces, and more vitality and “critical mass.”  Those things are all very good for climate change.

Millennials Are Driving the Suburban Resurgence

Bloomberg View columnists Justin Fox, Conor Sen and Noah Smith discuss evidence that suburbs are experiencing a resurgence, in spite of talk of reinventing our cities. Poor economics and limited options may be the cause. 

“More young adults are moving to the land of white picket fences. Is it by choice, or necessity?”

Fox writes:

“The fact that millennials weren’t buying homes or cars a few years ago was more the product of economic hard times than an expression of changing tastes.

The supply of walkable, transit-friendly neighborhoods in the U.S. is limited, and it’s really hard for political reasons to add density to them or build more of them.

I can’t help but see this suburban resurgence as at least partly a policy failure wrought by not-in-my-backyard activists, messed-up zoning rules, freeway-besotted transportation officials and the like.”

Smith writes:

“I definitely think we see some new cities getting in on the “tech city” game… with strong pushes to attract more knowledge-based industries, using their universities as anchors…”

And something interesting about these smaller cities is that it’s not clear whether they’re urban or suburban. We think of “suburbs” as extensions of big metros, but a lot of these smaller, thriving places have a distinctly suburban feel — ranch houses, strip malls, etc., maybe with a few blocks of walkable restaurant/clothing shop areas. But they depend on the clustering of smart people for their productivity, and their populations keep growing. Is that kind of place a city, or a suburb?”

It will be important to grow these areas responsibly through initiatives like Sprawl Repair and Build a Better Burb.

Historic Sprawl: A Future for Post-War Suburbia

Solitary drive-through retail site is retrofitted with liner buildings to incrementally begin the transition to walkable, livable communities.
Image Credit: Sprawl Repair Manual by Galina Tachieva of DPZ CoDesign
Deficiency: Sprawl-type Solitary drive-through retail. Remedial Techniques: Step 1: liner building retrofit. Step 2: Dense redevelopment where viable. Image Credit: Sprawl Repair Manual by Galina Tachieva of DPZ CoDesign

Jonathan Hopkins of Urbanismo makes a compelling case that the NPS’s evaluation criteria for nominating properties to the National Register of Historic Places should be revised to address concerns that preservation funding will become increasingly available for use by sprawling Post-War suburban subdivisions like Levittown, New York as they reach their 50 year eligibility mark.

“It becomes necessary to make clear criteria-based distinctions between sprawl and other development patterns like neighborhoods and small towns in order to prevent the preservation of obesity, social dysfunction, and environmental degradation.”

“By taking a proactive approach sooner rather than later, the prevention of preserving sprawl in its current state can be realized. The preservation movement – in coordination with environmentalists, developers, medical physicians, and others – can encourage law-makers to pass legislation to amend the Secretary of the Interior’s standards to include suburban retrofitting guidelines that outline appropriate initiatives to be funded by tax credits and planning grants at both the State and Federal level. In coordination with land-use, zoning, tax, and development policy reforms that discourage new suburban sprawl developments, historic preservation funding sources can encourage the retrofitting of sprawl into a more sustainable, accessible, affordable, and attractive living arrangement.”

 

 

Brick and Mortar Reborn – The Future of Retail in the Era of Urbanization

The trend toward urbanization is inspiring retailers to focus on the holistic customer
experience.

An August 2016 White Paper by Synchrony Financial in collaboration with Quartz creative services discusses Urbanization and the Consumer, as well as strategies for competing with growing E-commerce.

“EXPERIENCE-DRIVEN RETAIL: THE RISE OF FLAGSHIPS, CURATED SATELLITES, POP-UPS, AND CONCEPT SHOPS

Urban consumers strongly favor the in-store shopping experience—with an emphasis on the experience. Eighteen percent of urban millennials expect to shop more in stores in the coming year than they did the last. When they do, they expect more than just a transaction. They want a unique experience that differentiates their spending and are willing to pay, on average, 31.6% more for it.

From flagship stores to short-lived, curated experiences, the future of retail involves meeting shoppers on their own terms—in the physical spaces they prefer.

The spread of city culture and denser living means customers are willing to pay more for brands that sell experiences—that sell a lifestyle—as well as provide on-demand convenience.”

These same strategies can be aimed at all ages and populations, and should be applied to Mall Retrofits in suburban settings where the decline of aging malls continues to drive down surrounding property values.

Happy 70th to True American Suburbia – Levittown was once finishing a new house every 16 minutes.

Levittown, N.Y. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Jerry Cianciolo of the Wall Street Journal wrote:

“At one point in the 1940s, a house was completed every 16 minutes in Levittown, N.Y., the first mass-produced suburb in America.

Until William Levitt broke ground on what was formerly a potato patch on Long Island, inefficient small operators dominated the housing sector. Levitt—who had been introduced to the efficiencies of mass production during World War II—knew his competitors couldn’t meet the increasing demand for new housing as more soldiers came home. He wanted to be the one who did.

The entrepreneur analyzed the home-construction process and segmented it into 27 steps. He then adopted an inverse of the assembly-line method popularized by Henry Ford —his workers moved as the objects remained stationary.”

According to Galina Tachieva, “Levittown changed the pattern of building communities in the United States because William Levitt created a normative product, the auto-dependent suburban enclave, which he could repeat easily. So we have to come up with normative step-by-step tools to retrofit suburbia in the way it was built. With the Sprawl Repair Manual, we are developing methods that can duplicate the speed and energy that Levitt used, wth the intent to repair sprawling suburbs and form complete living communities.”

 

Energized by Changes in Demographics and Consumer Demand, U.S. Suburbs are Positioned to Thrive in the Decades Ahead, Says New ULI Report

A December 5, 2016 report, Housing in the Evolving American Suburbprovides a new analytic framework developed by RCLCO for the ULI Terwilliger Center for Housing that describes different kinds of suburbs based on the key factors that define and determine their housing markets. The report classifies and compares suburbs in the 50 largest metro areas in the U.S. – shown in a searchable online map – and assesses the key issues that will shape suburban residential demand and development in the years ahead.

Terwilliger Center Executive Director Stockton Williams says, “The capacity of American suburbs to evolve with the economic and demographic transformations the country is experiencing will be one of the central real estate and land use issues of the 21st century.” 

When overabundance becomes a liability

Dan argues for more supporting data. Yes, such data and research may help win arguments for better connectivity, better urbanism, and even finding investment and financing. However, the current economic condition is so dire, unpredictable, and very different from other times’ that even if we have the research in hand, it may not be relevant. Today’s predicament of our sprawling suburbs requires fast, even risky response, not necessarily rooted in proven data — more of the type of small-scale actions with limited scope that June discusses, since by their very nature these actions often have much quicker and more telling outcomes than do more ambitious approaches and timelines.

Showing how, through history, urbanism has supported economic recovery (or did it?) can be helpful, but many of the techniques and tools we need to employ today to repair and retrofit sprawl will be brave and new, and may have no data to support their use. New Urbanism was built on the basis of past evidence – but evidence clearly available to anyone who looked for it, through their experiences – not through an abstract analysis.

We will be inventing ways to do things and even new markets, similarly to the first steps that New Urbanism took. Our innovations will include: how to deal with failing residential subdivisions with multiple foreclosures and deserted properties; how to implement micro-repairs by introducing small but effective amenity packages; and how to create downtowns of modest proportions without financial backing and big investors.

June asks, can suburban retrofitting be taken seriously, as architecture? I would say that suburban retrofitting will not be about architecture at all; it will be about economic survival. Entering a post-recession decade, obviously without fanfare, we will need not only to repair the physical fabric of sprawl but also to generate a new economic framework.

This will require new types of creativity, discovering niche markets and banking more on uniqueness than on omnipresence. Suburbia is already people-diverse, a collection of “ethno-burbs,” and it can support a new “artisan” economy that already is burgeoning in distressed cities and their inner-ring neighborhoods. This phenomenon of economic uncertainty and transition is similar to Eastern Europe in the early ‘90’s, when scarcity inspired a new informal grassroots economy.

Today’s American suburbs have an overabundance of everything — infrastructure, national chains, big boxes, fast-food drive-throughs — but when overabundance starts to fail, high quantity becomes a liability. Re-using and adapting the existing suburban types to incubate new possibilities will help gradually complete the rest of sprawl’s incomplete fabric and make it more livable and sustainable in the long run.