In Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities, one of the imagined metropolises, Penthesilea, conjures the disconcerting placelessness of suburbia. “You advance for hours and it is not clear to you whether you are already in the city’s midst or still outside it,” the novelist writes. “Like a lake with low shores lost in swamps, so Penthesilea spreads for miles around, a soupy city diluted in the plain; pale buildings and corrugated-iron sheds.”
The unsatisfying and unnerving ambiguity of suburban development, captured with Calvino’s flair in the fable of Penthesilia, has long been met with critical disdain. In the late 20th century, architectural theorists condemned the suburbs for their vapidity and diminution of the meaning of place. More recently, the suburbs have been denounced for their detrimental ecological footprint and deleterious effect on residents’ mental health. Now, as we slowly begin to re-emerge from our pandemic-induced quarantine, we will undoubtedly see the built environment in a new light. What future do we envision for the suburbs?
Case Studies in Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Strategies for Urgent Challenges (Wiley, 2021) aims to answer this question. Written by CUNY architecture chair June Williamson and Georgia Tech architecture professor Ellen Dunham-Jones, the book is a sequel to the authors’ acclaimed Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs (Wiley, 2008), which the Chicago Tribune called “the Bible of the retrofitting movement.” The new volume builds on the original, with 32 case studies and enhanced research documenting how defunct parking lots, vacant shopping malls, and even abandoned airfields are being transformed to solve contemporary problems: increasing environmental performance, improving public health and social capital, and responding to an aging demographic.
The book is organized into two parts: a collection of topical themes and the project case studies. The first half, titled “Urgent suburban challenges,” consists of these chapters: “Disrupt automobile dependence,” “Improve public health,” “Support an aging population,” “Leverage social capital for equity,” “Compete for jobs,” and “Add water and energy resilience.” These six strategies comprise the fundamental toolkit for adapting existing suburban developments to meet 21st century needs. The approaches also uniformly nudge the suburbs to become less ... suburban.
For example, undermining automobile dependence is, if anything, an inherently anti-suburban act. Although the first suburbs in the U.S. were connected by commuter rail lines, today’s suburban paradigm is based on the automobile-dependent developments that proliferated after World War II. Williamson and Dunham-Jones distinguish how modern suburban road configurations create problems not found with urban and pre-automobile networks. Roads, the authors remind us, are all about mobility, whereas streets are all about access. Suburbia’s pervasive mistake is attempting to bring street-like functionality to roads, making them “stroads”—a term devised by engineer Charles Marohn to describe this “very dangerous” and confusing mash-up. Not only should the two types be kept separate, but they should both facilitate multiple forms of mobility.
Consider so-called “complete streets,” which are designed to enable transit by pedestrians, bicycles, buses, and service vehicles in addition to cars. The book points to Aurora Avenue North outside Seattle as a retrofitting case study, illustrating how this once car-centric arterial corridor has been updated with new green medians, sidewalks, crosswalks, and dedicated rapid bus lanes.
Architects and planners should also consider ways to make the most of social capital in existing communities. A common misperception about the suburbs is that they are racially and socioeconomically homogeneous, and centered around a white middle-class way of life. But as the historians Becky Nicolaides and Andrew Wiese have pointed out, suburbia has become increasingly diversified thanks to increased immigration, the shift from a manufacturing- to a service-focused economy, aging baby boomers, and the Civil Rights movement.
Williamson and Dunham-Jones advocate the incorporation of Ray Oldenburg’s 1970s concept of the “third place”—a location for informal mixing and discussion—into suburban retrofits. They include as a case study Lake Grove Village in Lake Oswego, Ore. Inspired by the third-place concept, this reconfigured shopping center now features nontraditional grocery stores and restaurants interspersed with new breezeways that open up the homogeneous mass of the original strip-mall.
As Williamson and Dunham-Jones write, “Suburbia was not designed with climate change, sustainability, or resilience in mind.” Instead, the suburbs epitomize what CUNY architecture and sustainability professor Hillary Brown calls “an industrialized worldview of convenience, efficiency, and bureaucratic control.” Suburban developments typically tell a story of engineering’s domination over natural systems, with hydrological features like headwaters and creeks capped and rerouted into concrete channels for the purposes of homogeneity and control. Such practices have led to degradations in water quality and quantity, exacerbating flooding concerns in low-lying neighborhoods.
Williamson and Dunham-Jones cite Meriden Green in Meriden, Conn, as a case study. Once the home of a dead shopping mall surrounded by an asphalt sea of parking, the site has been “regreened” and now features a newly uncovered brook that had been buried, a stormwater park, an amphitheater, a seasonal farmer’s market, and a sequence of pedestrian and bicycle paths. This example of suburban retrofitting demonstrates how the physical resilience of natural systems may be increased by subtracting old design strategies.
For all those who disparage suburbia as a place of cultural, physiological, and environmental poverty, Case Studies in Retrofitting Suburbia offers a satisfying glimpse into scores of successful rehabilitation efforts, providing proof that even the worst examples in the genre can be transformed into more attractive and beneficial places.
Readers will note that not all case studies are suburban by definition, meaning located outside of urbanized centers. Rather, the sites targeted for retrofit are suburban in character. The authors purposefully avoided attempts to define their subject matter beyond this basic guideline: “A property with a building surrounded by surfaces that are lawn or paid for parking we define as suburban form,” they write. “If the building fronts a sidewalk and places the parking either under or behind it, that’s urban form.” This defensible, if simplistic, approach has some potentially unexpected results. A famously sprawl-averse city like Portland, Ore., might not seem to have much applicability for this book (although a Portland case study is included), whereas a car-loving conurbation like Las Vegas might appear to invite thorough and comprehensive retrofitting (yet doesn't appear in the book).
In this way, the book’s reach is far broader than its title. The authors’ six fundamental strategies might be inspired by challenges and opportunities particular to the suburbs, but the methods may be applied to any development of sufficient density to be called a community. In this way, what Williamson and Dunham-Jones are really proposing is the eradication of suburban design approaches everywhere—a goal worthy of unequivocal support.