Offering an alternative to wasteful suburban sprawl, the Greenbelt-Towns Program was a Government-led urban planning approach that began in the late 30’s. Although short-lived, lessons can be drawn from the goals, scope and reaction to the suburban demonstration towns that embodied a mix of housing, walkability, and a traditional downtown.
Developers have identified a desire by suburbanites for ‘experiences’ that provide them with activities and places to interact. Hence the rise of cooking demonstrations, outdoor yoga classes, smaller concert venues, farmers markets, and splashable fountains, among others. The more time spent together, the more likely people will also shop, dine, and hold a positive view of their community.
Alongside unsustainable sprawl, unsightly strip malls are too often a feature of our suburban landscape. This article draws ideas from DeSoto Marketplace in DeSoto, Texas. The approach here was incremental and adaptive, introducing small cost-effective changes that, over time, transformed the underutilized shopping center into a pocket of walkability and a vibrant local business.
Further case studies can be found in a paper prepared by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and the Congress for the New Urbanism, Reclaiming the Strip Mall: A Common Suburban Form, Transformed, by Christopher Kuschel.
In honor of the annual Congress to be held in Savannah May 15-19, the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) developed a “Legacy Project” intended to leave an enduring mark on the host city and region. Retrofits of a suburban college campus and failing mall are key to creating a safer and more lively community.
“Consultants proposed a new town center for Southside Savannah that connects to the Georgia Southern University Armstrong (GSU-Armstrong) campus and transforms a busy, automobile-oriented thoroughfare into a boulevard. A failing mall could also be redeveloped into mixed-use urban blocks on the scale of Savannah’s historic district. Many tenants have left the mall, and broken escalators are signs of poor maintenance.
If the mall fails, the site could begin to redevelop incrementally. The mall site is rectangular, and so the design team applied the scale of blocks and a square that are similar to Savannah’s Oglethorpe grid plan. The redeveloped mall site would connect to the new town center and allow more urban residential development of townhouses and other “missing middle” housing types. If mixed-use development is to take place here, residential and university-related uses will likely prevail, with civic uses and limited retail and restaurants, Swartz says. The university expansion makes that vision feasible.
A large-scale suburban retrofit requires many moving parts—transformation of thoroughfares, new blocks and streets, mixed-use development, re-imagined green spaces, and revised development regulations. The plan covers all those elements, and city officials reacted positively.
Mayor Eddie DeLoach said, “Their approach to the area was dynamic and provides the City new ideas to spur redevelopment opportunities in a traditional suburban setting which would complement our National Landmark Historic District and pristine waterways.”
Authors of the new book Suburban Remix, by Jason Beske and David Dixon, describe the challenges we face as a result of sprawl growth patterns in effect since WWII. The book details examples of unique and successful sprawl repair in several communities through common themes and techniques.
“North America is in the midst of “suburban remix.” A perfect storm of challenges has broken apart a 70-year-old suburban growth model shaped around car-focused, relatively affluent, and dispersed development. But as this model falls apart, another far more resilient model is taking shape: walkable, dense, diverse, compact—and urban.
In a dramatic reversal, more people living in poverty now call suburbs home, while affluent households are relocating to cities. This has slowed tax-base growth, battering local budgets. Demographic and economic trends suggest that these dynamics will grow more disruptive over the next two decades.
[Several suburban case studies offer unique lessons, while utilizing common] process, policies, and placemaking. Each started with civic leadership—a local official, advocate, or organization that stepped forward and made the case for change. Each community launched a transformative planning process built around inclusive engagement that used education to build strong local support in places where terms like “dense” and “urban” had long been anathema. All market-driven, these initiatives also rely on innovative public/private partnerships to fund an “urban” infrastructure of streets, parks, and structured parking. They grow upward, not outward, creating a compact critical mass that supports the people (and disposable income) essential to bringing life to their new streets—without touching a single blade of grass on nearby residential lawns.”
At the cutting edge of sprawl retrofit, Portland is working to making biking desirable in a neighborhood originally built for cars, where the 1920s-style commercial lots to the north face unbroken sidewalks, and the 1950s-style lots to the south face a two-row parking lot.
“Portland’s leaders [are] thinking these two blocks are the perfect place to begin what many of them see as the great work of the 21st century: undoing the errors of car-dependent design that began in the 1940s.
If this row of buildings successfully leads Gateway’s transition to a more walkable, bikeable neighborhood, it’d put the street at the forefront of a national movement to redevelop close-in suburban neighborhoods.
The city’s plan is to preserve parking on both sides of the street, but flip the parking and bike lanes so a combination of curbs and parked cars would separate bike and auto traffic.
That’s why Halsey and its couplet street, Weidler, are slated for $20 million in public investmentin 2018, including a major new city plaza, shorter crosswalks and parking-protected bike lanes at the hub of a new 39-mile low-stress biking network through the area.”
The Policy Watch section of the National Association of Home Builders’ quarterly magazine featured our new article on Sprawl Repair – The next frontier in residential innovation.
Changing demographics, retail trends and lifestyle choices are establishing a new frontier for Home builders interested in helping to transform our suburbs, with actions targeted toward establishing urban centers.
Home builders play a key role in delivering desirable, livable products and can remain competitive by leveraging existing infrastructure, location, and market needs to create value out of stranded real estate assets. By including housing within auto-centric commercial development, sprawl repair promotes economic diversity and vitality.
Form-based zoning is a necessary tool that the home building industry should know well and take advantage of. It enables options and flexibility to transform single-use parcels into more diverse and resilient urban nodes that accommodate different people, incomes, and ages, and serves the suburban population at large.
Developer Ralph Zucker, of Somerset Development, is turning an iconic single-purpose masterwork by Eero Saarinen into a new kind of Downtown – a “metroburb” – in suburban Holmdel, NJ, one of the country’s wealthiest McMansion enclaves. The abandoned, historic Bell Labs created a huge problem for the town, but also huge opportunities. The project is a prime example of what can be accomplished through suburban sprawl retrofit, though the community is still resistant to full integration of diversified housing options.
“The town of Holmdel searched for buyers, but tenants in need of 2 million square feet of space were now rare; across New Jersey and the rest of America, sprawling suburban corporate complexes were being abandoned at an alarming rate for remote work or more urban headquarters.
When he first brought the plan for the metroburb to a Holmdel town hall, the response Zucker heard was, “Hell no.” People told him this was antithetical to the reason they moved to Holmdel, a sheltered, quiet place to raise their families. They didn’t want anything urban. What changed their minds, Zucker says, was an event he hosted at Bell Labs soon after touring the building in 2009: an open house wherein he projected shops and offices onto the walls of the old laboratory spaces, and hosted a pop-up gelato stand and a bar. The simulation of the space’s potential was so compelling, he says, that one woman smacked her head on a wall, thinking a projected hotel lobby was, in fact, the real thing. Still, though, it took until 2013 for Zucker to receive final approval from Holmdel for the purchase and to have the building rezoned as mixed-use; construction began not long after, and in the intervening years, Holmdel has largely embraced the development.”
Generation Z, the born between 1995 and 2012, and raised entirely within the digital age, are likely to mix things up even more than the Millennials. Gen Z-ers in more urban settings are even forgoing a traditional rite of passage: getting a driver’s license and then the car. Natalie Bettendorf, a Gen Z-er just coming of age, describes why she has no intention of getting a car. The Big Three U.S. automakers have taken notice, and ride-sharing applications are busy tracking the way we move. While rural areas of the country can’t easily be served by ride-sharing, Gen Z may be even more influential in pushing transit-oriented development and averting sprawl than Millennials.
“Ford started its own bike-sharing service recently. It wants to sell to people like me who have no interest in buying a car.
The Big Three U.S. automakers — Ford, Fiat Chrysler and General Motors — say they are no longer just automakers. Every major car company is trying to make a move, whether it’s car-sharing, ride-hailing or self-driving.
GM has a new car-sharing app called Maven that it’s betting billions on. “We needed to create a new brand because this is really about access and not necessarily ownership,” says Peter Kosak, executive director of urban mobility for Maven.
Millennials are starting to buy cars in big numbers, The Associated Press reported last year. They just had a late start — mostly because of the Great Recession. Could the same thing happen for Gen Z?”
Paul Genovesi, CNU-A, is an Urban Designer at DPZ CoDesign in Miami, FL. As a Millennial, formerly of New Jersey, he offers additional commentary on Alastair Boone’s piece:
“Why Are Millennials Leaving New Jersey?
- New Jersey ranked 47th out of 50 states and Washington, D.C., for its percentage of Millennials in 2012.
- Of the state’s 565 municipalities, only 183 scored well on two or all three smart-growth metrics, and according to the study, only 111 of those places are popular with Millennials.
- New Jersey’s Millennials are struggling to find affordable housing in their home state. For one, 47 percent of them live with their parents. In fact, New Jersey has the highest rate in the country of 18-to-34-year-olds living with their parents.
- 54 percent of the housing in New Jersey is made up of single-family detached homes”
Losing millennials is just the tipping point for New Jersey. As these young, talented professionals flock to Hoboken to work in New York, or flee to adjacent Philadelphia and leave the state altogether, their empty-nester parents are also abandoning the Garden State to escape the high property taxes. Even their prospective employers are following them on the train out of NJ. According to Plan Smart NJ, the state currently has a 60+ year stock of vacant office space, and it’s increasing by the day as companies follow the millennials to areas like Brooklyn and Philadelphia.
Repairing suburban office parks and shopping areas to make them once again viable for millennial employers/retailers should be a priority. These areas should be near existing major transit stations, as they are primed to better provide an exchange of residents, jobs, and lifestyle activities with the major metropolitan areas like New York, Hoboken/Jersey City, and Philadelphia.
However, none of this will be possible without a major bureaucratic makeover in the state. Exclusionary zoning laws prohibit the building of walkable urbanism and housing types other than single family. High property taxes make homeownership difficult and force rents to be higher than the market dictates. Arguably, the extremely limited/restrictive liquor license laws may be the biggest hurdle that prohibits millennial-popular places from forming in New Jersey. Several of the new urban/infill projects in the state are successful, but lack a pulse after 8pm, just like the sleepy suburb the millennial fled in the first place.
Robert Steuteville of Build a Better Burb highlights 25 great ideas of the New Urbanism, in honor of the 25th annual Congress for the New Urbanism held this year in Seattle.
Check out Suburban Retrofit as one of the 25 great ideas:
Retrofit is the suburban fountain of youth. It can literally save the suburbs.”
“Conventional suburbs, conceived in the mid-20th Century, are outdated. The oldest suburbs, the mixed-use walkable kind, are the most current—they meet market demand. Companies don’t want to locate in isolated places. Many shopping malls and shopping centers are dying, and suburban retrofit is the answer. We invested trillions of dollars in the suburbs, and some believe this investment has no future. I believe that significant value that can be salvaged with retrofit. This is a sunk cost opportunity, not dilemma. At CNU, we call this Build a Better Burb.”
Alan M. Berger of The New York Times writes:
“Millennials want a different kind of suburban development that is smart, efficient and sustainable.
The suburbanization of America marches on. That movement includes millennials, who, as it turns out, are not a monolithic generation of suburb-hating city dwellers.
Most of that generation represents a powerful global trend. They may like the city, but they love the suburbs even more.
They are continuing to migrate to suburbs. According to the latest Census Bureau statistics, 25- to 29-year-olds are about a quarter more likely to move from the city to the suburbs as vice versa; older millennials are more than twice as likely.
Their future — and that of the planet — lies on the urban peripheries.
Planners need to view cities, suburbs and exurbs not as discrete units but as regions, with one integrated environmental and technological system.”
The most environmentally responsible approach is almost always reusing and reconfiguring what already exists, rather than discarding and creating something new. It is critical to employ sprawl repair techniques to make our communities more socially and environmentally responsive, not just build new to suit the millennials. Read more from Galina Tachieva.
Christopher Cheung asks,
“…does choosing the suburbs have to mean saying goodbye to the conveniences and lifestyle of the city?
Urbanists are saying no. “Sprawl repair” and “retrofitting suburbia” have become popular terms in the past two decades. Many municipalities that have embraced suburbia in the past are taking action to transform their sprawls into healthier, more convenient and more diverse communities.”
“The suburbs can change and get better without transforming every square foot of its built form,” said Brent Toderian, Vancouver’s former chief planner, now a global consultant on city building.
At the very least, “you need to make the suburbs walkable,” said Toderian. “At minimum, you need sidewalks and street trees.”
Toderian also recommends mixed-use suburban centres that have higher density and are pedestrian, bike and transit-friendly. This evolution doesn’t mean doing away with cars; it means offering more choices so driving isn’t your only option if you need to get to work or grab a carton of milk.
“The conversation needs to be about true costs and consequences, as well as opportunities to do density well with great design,” he said. “Because if not, politicians could just suggest to their constituency that they’re protecting their city from density and change. That’s a dangerous, false narrative.”
Learn more about the Sprawl Repair Manual by Galina Tachieva.
According to Laurie Volk and Todd Zimmerman, “Since the turn of century, the demographic convergence of the two largest generations in the nation’s history, Baby Boomers and Millennials, both at life stages favoring community-oriented neighborhoods has formed the foundation for a nationwide urban resurgence.
The impact has been felt in neighborhoods at every scale, from the nation’s greatest cities to small, walkable 19th century downtowns that have become the de facto urban centers for surrounding auto-oriented subdivisions.”
However, there are other distinctions among households that can be more meaningful than age cohort, including preferences for urban scale and taste for new versus old.
In addition, Millennials’ life stage, financial circumstances and attitude toward ownership housing threatens to clog the whole system of ownership housing.
Millennial families’ continued embrace of walkable urbanism will depend on the success and quality of re-urbanization, particularly in smaller-scale urban centers, and whether a range of housing types can be developed, redeveloped, restored or maintained within these walkable neighborhoods. And, perhaps more importantly, it will depend on whether these dwellings, whether for-rent or for-sale, will be affordable to a wide spectrum of households.
Note: Great article on the success of three New Urbanist developments! These particular communities are examples of new and/or infill projects in suburban locations, which can serve as inspirational models for future suburban retrofits.
Three Alabama towns are robust examples of New Urbanism — traditional communities designed to be practical rather than nostalgic. One was named the National Association of Homebuilders’ 2014 Community of the Year.
In this article, Cary Estes and Art Meripol highlight three successful Alabama communities: Hampstead in Montgomery, the Village of Providence in Huntsville, and Mount Laurel in Birmingham.
It is called New Urbanism, a design concept in which communities are compact and connected. A place where children can walk to school, families can walk to church, and many of the necessities of daily life, such as food and health care, are also just a short stroll away. Where the sidewalks are wide and the front porches deep, and neighbors actually know each other.
“The reason it’s New Urbanism and not old urbanism is that it combines elements of both,” Andres Duany [of DPZ CoDESIGN] says. “We are non-ideological. This is not a nostalgic movement. It’s a pragmatic movement about whatever works best in the long run. And it turns out that what works best tends to have a lot of the characteristics of old-town planning, but with some of the things that suburbs do well. So it’s actually ruthlessly pragmatic.
“Essentially, suburbia, as we’ve known it, is obsolete. Office parks and malls are closing. People want the main streets. So now New Urbanism is dedicated to retrofitting suburbia and repairing urban sprawl. One of the most exciting things we’re doing now is taking all this great investment in suburbia that is losing value, and we’re fixing it. We’re making it walkable and diverse. This isn’t some kind of intellectual movement. It’s driven very much by reality,” according to Duany.
Jenna Martin of the Charlotte Business Journal wrote, “Think small to drive big, lasting results. That’s the current thought behind early efforts to breathe new life into the abandoned Eastland Mall property. That could range from small market-like businesses operating out of shipping containers and open, outdoor dining to a spot for food trucks or a place to hang out.”
As a sub-consultant to Jacobs Engineering’s Atlanta office, DPZ CoDesign is collaborating on the redesign of site of the former Eastland Mall, a 69-acre parcel owned by the City of Charlotte. They met with many of the key stakeholder groups in the East Charlotte area where this mall was once a major regional retail and social hub. This was also a week of re-assessing several prior design exercises.
On May 18th, 2017, the community celebrated the site’s past and explored the future during the exciting Eastland “days gone by” and Eastland “days to come” event. Neighbors gathered amid food trucks, a pop up park, cycle track, interactive murals and activities, to reminiscence and imagine new possibilities for the site as part of the evolving Eastland story.
DPZ provided a popular exhibit based on the successional evolution of an existing flea/farmer’s market. A typical public open space can be surrounded and defined by food trucks and temporary market stalls, initially, transitioning to fun and funky shipping container groupings, and ultimately to vibrant shops and restaurants in the potential climax condition for a revitalized town center.
On February 21, 2017, a diverse collection of change-makers, influencers and forward thinkers gathered to discuss the future of cities, their makers and dwellers. The purpose was to share actionable ideas across disciplines in new urbanism and place making, and spark a movement of collaboration among new urbanism practitioners, investors, startups, policy makers and community.
Tachieva of DPZ, Cooper Copetas, architectural designer and George Cuevas, founder of CollabMiami, teamed up for a panel discussion on how to create co-working space in the context of suburbia that can support small and independent businesses.
Learn more here:
Sprawl is a pattern of growth characterized by an abundance of congested highways, strip shopping centers, big boxes, office parks, and gated cul-de-sac subdivisions—all separated from each other in isolated, single-use pods. This land-use pattern is typically found in suburban areas, but also affects our cities, and is central to our wasteful use of water, energy, land, and time spent in traffic. Sprawl has been linked to increased air and water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, loss of open space and natural habitat, and the exponential increase in new infrastructure costs. Social problems related to the lack of diversity have been attributed to sprawl, and health problems such as obesity to its auto-dependence.
In contrast, complete communities have a mix of uses and are walkable, with many of a person’s daily need—shops, offices, transit, civic and recreational places—within a short distance of home. They are compact, so they consume less open space and enable multiple modes of transportation, including bicycles, cars, and mass transit. A wide variety of building types provides options to residents and businesses, encouraging diversity in population. This mix of uses, public spaces, transportation, and population makes complete communities economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable.