Leaving the city for outskirts is in the minds of many New Yorkers this year, as teleworking has allowed some to live almost anywhere. However, war auctions and the sharp rise in house prices that resulted from migration are not the only ways in which the suburbs are changing. According to June Williamson and Ellen Dunham-Jones, architects and co-authors of a new book due out in December, a growing number of design and planning schemes are helping to make suburbs more walkable, sociable, healthier and fairer.
“Case Studies in the Modernization of Suburbia: Urban Design Strategies for Urgent Challenges” (Wiley) presents 32 projects focused on ambitions, or rather six ambitions: reducing car dependency, promoting health, supporting the elderly, promoting diversity and justice, creating jobs and environmental Protection. The book follows the author’s “Retrofitting Suburbia” from 2008 (and its update from 2011), which gained a reputation as promising chroniclers of big boxes, dead shopping malls and sunsets.
The authors discussed this last chapter of their collaboration in a recent interview. The conversation has been edited and shortened.
What made you write the sequel “Retrofitting Suburbia”?
Mrs. Williamson: Given our suburbs, our ambition was to respond to a larger and ongoing set of challenges Yippee United States. We are a suburb. They are where most people work, where they live.
Mrs Dunham-Jones: Remarkably little is written about the suburbs, and the literature seems to be removed from what the suburbs really are: They are involved in this old trope suburb versus the city, even though it is not really about whether the suburbs remain the same or turn into something. another. The change happens anyway.
Mrs. Williamson: Whether you want the old mall back or not, it’s gone. Or if you prefer the structure of the office park and the real estate tax revenues that come from it, this company is gone or divided. These properties must therefore be reconsidered.
One of the commonalities seems to be the desire for walkability and mixed-use public space.
You are talking about three types of modernization: redevelopment (demolition and reconstruction of underperforming shopping centers to turn them into mixed-use, retail, office and housing centers); redesign of existing premises; and redisplay.
Mrs Dunham-Jones: What is really interesting about re-shining is that, although it is usually done for ecological reasons or for flood protection, it can create a property on the shores of a lake or a property in front of the park, which then causes some reconstruction around the edges.
Mrs. Williamson: Two of our case studies show that: One is Meriden Green in central Connecticut. The Meriden Hub shopping center was an urban renewal, um, a bad idea built over a culvert. The area was then ravaged by floods. Subsequently, the department store was demolished and the land rebuilt to create a rainwater park that is designed as a bathtub so that it is now able to absorb rainwater for most of the city. Miles and a half of hiking trails, pedestrian bridges and an amphitheater lead to the stream. The whole area was resonated as a transit-oriented neighborhood and new housing was built. In a small town with a decent number of lower-income people, improved and cheaper rail transport has provided access to jobs.
A similar story is in Wyandanch, a village in the Babylonian town of Suffolk County. In the post-World War II era of Levittown, Wyandanch was one of the places where developers built similar houses for black Americans. Black GIs could buy houses there, but the property did not appreciate over time. And other types of investment have not been made in the community for decades. For more than 20 years, with the support of the city and now the county, and with Long Island Rail Road rebuilding the station and building a parking structure, the area will bounce back. Water and sewerage infrastructure, which has never entered the community since the 1940s, has been expanded and mixed-use buildings have been built in many surface car parks. They also added a beautiful little square and a park in the middle, which has a seasonal ice rink.
Mrs Dunham-Jones: In the suburbs, many people have access to deciduous lawns, but what they do not have access to are really community-oriented spaces – urban greenery programmed with activities. Regreening has many different benefits that are too often overlooked.
Mrs. Williamson: It is good to move on to one of our main challenges: retrofitting to improve public health. And that’s something we’ve learned more about from the first book – all the interesting research that links the built environment to chronic levels of North Americans in obesity and diabetes and their lack of physical activity. These are some of the complicating conditions that make this pandemic much more risky and deadly.
By rethinking the built environment and retrofitting, we can achieve significant public health results that could save a lot of money. Merely motivating people to go out and take short walks could have significant health benefits.
Mrs Dunham-Jones: In terms of walkability, one of our case studies is Mueller, a former airport in East Austin, Texas that has been significantly rebuilt on 700 acres. The community was designed to accommodate 13,000 inhabitants and 13,000 workers. It is not 100% complete, but studies already show that residents do, walk and cycle more, encouraged by the small size of the blocks, the narrow alleys that reduce the speed of the car, and the green infrastructure.
This raises the question of supporting older suburban people, a population you describe as “perennials”.
Mrs. Williamson: By 2050, 20 percent of the American population will be over 65 years old. This group is not old; they are simply older. But they have special needs. Consideration is being given to designing communities that would provide lifelong support in the suburbs, where these people may already live and have raised families and want to stay. There are ideas about cohousing, permitting additional housing units or filling the cottage courts or small apartment buildings, which would complement the predominance of a detached family house. Some of the empty shopping malls can be converted into wellness and fitness centers and health clinics.
Greene Cottages in East Greenwich, RI, are an example of a type of housing that allows older people to shrink in their community. The development was built on the site of a car repair shop, which had a mini-strip center on one side and family houses on the other. The land is only an acre, but has 15 small units cleverly arranged around the green space. When you drive down the main street, it looks like two houses. But then you turn left and behind them are more units and the shared green manages rainwater. Four are subsidized housing.
Mrs Dunham-Jones: Cottages at Greene are a great example of how design helps overcome Nimba’s resistance to affordable housing. And it meets the requirements of the market with much smaller houses. The suburbs were built on the premise that the first buyers of new homes will be a young family with children. We see it again in many places, but two-thirds of suburban households do not have children.
Mrs. Williamson: Many of our examples speak of a high percentage of suburban rental houses and flats. I think people have this preconceived notion that the suburbs are all family houses and owner-occupied. Lots of apartments are in garden apartment complexes, as well as new rental units added in retrofits. And, of course, there are the lingering effects of the recession ten years ago, which turned many family homes that could once be owned by owners into rents.
Mrs Dunham-Jones: Since 2005, more Americans have lived in poverty in the suburbs than in cities. So there is a great need to improve opportunities for the very poor and disadvantaged. Many rental shops are aging garden apartment complexes that are housing last resort. And they are often demolished and replaced by brand new complexes with higher density and triple rents. There is no way the same population can afford them. We really encourage other communities to insist on replacement units.
Which retrofitting interventions provide the greatest benefits at the lowest cost?
Mrs Dunham-Jones: Right now, 46 percent of suburban neighborhood trips with a predominantly family home are three miles or less. Which would be perfectly fine for cycling, scootering or walking on many of these trips, if there was an adequate infrastructure for safe choice. That would have a huge impact.
Mrs. Williamson: Something that can be done very easily, almost at no cost, changes the zoning. Several jurisdictions got rid of R1 zoning and allowed housing in the neighborhood. It doesn’t change everything overnight, but you can see the effects over time.
Investing in planning, design, and community processes soon costs little and can have really significant benefits further down the line. Returning to the example of Wyandanch on Long Island, from 2000 to 2016, they calculated a 75: 1 return on investment ratio from public sector investment to new investment that came to that location. This is quite significant.