Retrofitting the suburbs

February 6, 2014

Suburbs, like the rest of America, have long prioritized auto-centric urban planning, but plenty of research shows that the public’s appetite for cars is calming. Consequently, suburban communities are trying to keep up by restoring pedestrians and the environment to the center of their planning practices.

Challenges suburbs face

While infrastructure is under pressure in poorer suburbs, rich suburbs are home to high-end houses and schools. These create challenges like traffic congestion. “Transportation is the key issue,” says Wharton real estate professor Giles Duranton. “But the density in most North American suburbs is so low that it’s hard to justify even bus service.”

Suburbs also face unique challenges, such as storm water management in wetter places like Minnesota. Innovative strategies like rainwater gardens, which use the water running from driveways to streets, can beautify neighborhoods.

Many unused spaces are being retrofitted in the suburbs

Big box stores like Walmarts that are not doing well in the suburbs have been converted in community spaces like churches – transformations that help suburbanites to feel less isolated. In Los Angeles, a mini-mall was converted into an award winning school, so an eyesore was removed and suburbanites had a good option for educating their children.

By adding sidewalks and some greenery, a grocery store was transformed in a library in Denton, Texas. Food is another way to turn a place around. A mall in Phoenix, Arizona got a gourmet grocery store, a restaurant in place of a post office, and a new coat of paint.

Other uses for big box stores include office space, health care, and civic space. For instance, a Crestwood mall in St. Louis was converted into ArtSpace by art, theater, and dance groups in the city.

Ingenious new strategies are making suburbs greener

Going natural is another option. An erstwhile mall has become a wetlands area in Phalen Village, Minnesota. Even parking lots are getting facelifts. The parking lot of an office building in Hyattsville, Maryland has now become a University Town Center.

Planners are now weaving walkable spaces in suburbs in their designs for new buildings. Architects working for Miami-Dade county on new zoning across many parcels of land have come up with a new strategy. Each owner gets 15 percent of open space, which connect to each other at anchor points on corners of property boundaries.

Retrofitting suburbs only set to rise

Greyfield areas, which have the potential to be retrofitted are only going to rise. 2.8 million hectares of such spaces will be available over the next 15 years, says Arthur Nelson of the University of Utah. Even if just a fourth of this land is repurposed for community use, it will meet half the housing needs required by 2030.

Challenges faced in retrofitting

Retrofitting without connectivity defeats the purpose. An industrial park in Westwood, Massachusetts is using its location on a commuter rail line to become a residential, office, and shopping complex.

Another option is to retrofit transport corridors. For instance, adding palms to a part of a commercial strip corridor made it more pedestrian friendly, attracting high-end shops in Cathedral City, California.

A revision in zoning codes and regulations will make retrofitting suburbs in community spaces easier. Communities need to work across state boundaries and around federal regulations to keep the greater good in mind.

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Category: Infrastructure

About the Author ()

A graduate in English Literature from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, India, Nupur also has an MBA from the Faculty of Management Studies, Delhi University. Nupur is currently trying to be as savvy a cook as she is with a book. She likes watching plays and sunsets. Nupur first lived in Kolkata and then for a decade in Delhi, still her favorite city.

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