TOEFL Quiz 5: Retrofitting Suburbia
Quiz by: Danielle_BIA

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In the last 50 years, we've been building the
suburbs with a lot of unintended consequences. And
I'm going to talk about some of those consequences
and just present a whole bunch of really
interesting projects that I think give us
tremendous reasons to be really optimistic that
the big design and development project of the next
50 years is going to be retrofitting suburbia. So
whether it's redeveloping dying malls or re-
inhabiting dead big-box stores or reconstructing
wetlands out of parking lots, I think the fact is
the growing number of empty and under-performing,
especially retail, sites throughout suburbia gives
us actually a tremendous opportunity to take our
least-sustainable landscapes right now and convert
them into more sustainable places. And in the
process, what that allows us to do is to redirect
a lot more of our growth back into existing
communities that could use a boost, and have the
infrastructure in place, instead of continuing to
tear down trees and to tear up the green space out
at the edges.

So why is this important? I think there are any
number of reasons, and I'm just going to not get
into detail but mention a few. Just from the
perspective of climate change, the average urban
dweller in the U.S. has about one-third the carbon
footprint of the average suburban dweller, mostly
because suburbanites drive a lot more, and living
in detached buildings, you have that much more
exterior surface to leak energy out of. So
strictly from a climate change perspective, the
cities are already relatively green. The big
opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is
actually in urbanizing the suburbs. All that
driving that we've been doing out in the suburbs,
we have doubled the amount of miles we drive. It's
increased our dependence on foreign oil despite
the gains in fuel efficiency. We're just driving
so much more; we haven't been able to keep up

Public health is another reason to consider
retrofitting. Researchers at the CDC and other
places have increasingly been linking suburban
development patterns with sedentary lifestyles.
And those have been linked then with the rather
alarming, growing rates of obesity, shown in these
maps here, and that obesity has also been
triggering great increases in heart disease and
diabetes to the point where a child born today has
a one-in-three chance of developing diabetes. And
that rate has been escalating at the same rate as
children not walking to school anymore, again,
because of our development patterns.

And then there's finally -- there's the
affordability question. I mean, how affordable is
it to continue to live in suburbia with rising gas
prices? Suburban expansion to cheap land, for the
last 50 years -- you know the cheap land out on
the edge -- has helped generations of families
enjoy the American dream. But increasingly, the
savings promised by drive-till-you-qualify
affordability -- which is basically our model --
those savings are wiped out when you consider the
transportation costs. For instance, here in
Atlanta, about half of households make between
$20,000 and $50,000 a year, and they are spending
29 percent of their income on housing and 32
percent on transportation. I mean, that's 2005
figures. That's before we got up to the four bucks
a gallon. You know, none of us really tend to do
the math on our transportation costs, and they're
not going down any time soon.

Whether you love suburbia's leafy privacy or you
hate its soulless commercial strips, there are
reasons why it's important to retrofit. But is it
practical? I think it is. June Williamson and I
have been researching this topic for over a
decade, and we've found over 80 varied projects.
But that they're really all market driven, and
what's driving the market in particular -- number
one -- is major demographic shifts. We all tend to
think of suburbia as this very family-focused
place, but that's really not the case anymore.
Since 2000, already two-thirds of households in
suburbia did not have kids in them. We just
haven't caught up with the actual realities of
this. The reasons for this have a lot to with the
dominance of the two big demographic groups right
now: the Baby Boomers retiring -- and then there's
a gap, Generation X, which is a small generation.
They're still having kids -- but Generation Y
hasn't even started hitting child-rearing age.
They're the other big generation.

So as a result of that, demographers predict that
through 2025, 75 to 85 percent of new households
will not have kids in them. And the market
research, consumer research, asking the Boomers
and Gen Y what it is they would like, what they
would like to live in, tells us there is going to
be a huge demand -- and we're already seeing it --
for more urban lifestyles within suburbia. That
basically, the Boomers want to be able to age in
place, and Gen Y would like to live an urban
lifestyle, but most of their jobs will continue to
be out in suburbia.

The other big dynamic of change is the sheer
performance of underperforming asphalt. Now I keep
thinking this would be a great name for an indie
rock band, but developers generally use it to
refer to underused parking lots -- and suburbia is
full of them. When the postwar suburbs were first
built out on the cheap land away from downtown, it
made sense to just build surface parking lots. But
those sites have now been leapfrogged and
leapfrogged again, as we've just continued to
sprawl, and they now have a relatively central
location. It no longer just makes sense. That land
is more valuable than just surface parking lots.
It now makes sense to go back in, build a deck and
build up on those sites. So what do you do with a
dead mall, dead office park? It turns out, all
sorts of things. In a slow economy like ours, re-
inhabitation is one of the more popular

So this happens to be a dead mall in St. Louis
that's been re-inhabited as art-space. It's now
home to artist studios, theater groups, dance
troupes. It's not pulling in as much tax revenue
as it once was, but it's serving its community.
It's keeping the lights on. It's becoming, I
think, a really great institution. Other malls
have been re-inhabited as nursing homes, as
universities, and as all variety of office space.
We also found a lot of examples of dead big-box
stores that have been converted into all sorts of
community-serving uses as well -- lots of schools,
lots of churches and lots of libraries like this

This was a little grocery store, a Food Lion
grocery store, that is now a public library. In
addition to, I think, doing a beautiful adaptive
reuse, they tore up some of the parking spaces,
put in bioswales to collect and clean the runoff,
put in a lot more sidewalks to connect to the
neighborhoods. And they've made this, what was
just a store along a commercial strip, into a
community gathering space. This one is a little L-
shaped strip shopping center in Phoenix, Arizona.
Really all they did was they gave it a fresh coat
of bright paint, a gourmet grocery, and they put
up a restaurant in the old post office. Never
underestimate the power of food to turn a place
around and make it a destination. It's been so
successful, they've now taken over the strip
across the street. The real estate ads in the
neighborhood all very proudly proclaim, "Walking
distance to Le Grande Orange," because it provided
its neighborhood with what sociologists like to
call "a third place." If home is the first place
and work is the second place, the third place is
where you go to hang out and build community. And
especially as suburbia is becoming less centered
on the family, the family households, there's a
real hunger for more third places.

So the most dramatic retrofits are really those in
the next category, the next strategy:
redevelopment. Now, during the boom, there were
several really dramatic redevelopment projects
where the original building was scraped to the
ground and then the whole site was rebuilt at
significantly greater density, a sort of compact,
walkable urban neighborhoods. But some of them
have been much more incremental. This is Mashpee
Commons, the oldest retrofit that we've found. And
it's just incrementally, over the last 20 years,
built urbanism on top of its parking lots. So the
black and white photo shows the simple 60's strip
shopping center. And then the maps above that show
its gradual transformation into a compact, mixed-
use New England village, and it has plans now that
have been approved for it to connect to new
residential neighborhoods across the arterials and
over to the other side. So, you know, sometimes
it's incremental. Sometimes, it's all at once.

This is another infill project on the parking
lots, this one of an office park outside of
Washington D.C. When Metrorail expanded transit
into the suburbs and opened a station nearby to
this site, the owners decided to build a new
parking deck and then insert on top of their
surface lots a new Main Street, several apartments
and condo buildings, while keeping the existing
office buildings. Here is the site in 1940: It was
just a little farm in the village of Hyattsville.
By 1980, it had been subdivided into a big mall on
one side and the office park on the other and then
some buffer sites for a library and a church to
the far right. Today, the transit, the Main Street
and the new housing have all been built.
Eventually, I expect that the streets will
probably extend through a redevelopment of the
mall. Plans have already been announced for a lot
of those garden apartments above the mall to be
redeveloped. Transit is a big driver of retrofits.
So here's what it looks like. You can sort of see
the funky new condo buildings in between the
office buildings and the public space and the new
Main Street.

This one is one of my favorites, Belmar. I think
they really built an attractive place here and
have just employed all-green construction. There's
massive P.V. arrays on the roofs as well as wind
turbines. This was a very large mall on a hundred-
acre superblock. It's now 22 walkable urban blocks
with public streets, two public parks, eight bus
lines and a range of housing types, and so it's
really given Lakewood, Colorado the downtown that
this particular suburb never had. Here was the
mall in its heyday. They had their prom in the
mall. They loved their mall. So here's the site in
1975 with the mall. By 1995, the mall has died.
The department store has been kept -- and we found
this was true in many cases. The department stores
are multistory; they're better built. They're easy
to be re-adapted. But the one story stuff ...
that's really history.

So here it is at projected build-out. This
project, I think, has great connectivity to the
existing neighborhoods. It's providing 1,500
households with the option of a more urban
lifestyle. It's about two-thirds built out right
now. Here's what the new Main Street looks like.
It's very successful, and it's helped to prompt --
eight of the 13 regional malls in Denver have now,
or have announced plans to be, retrofitted. But
it's important to note that all of this
retrofitting is not occurring -- just bulldozers
are coming and just plowing down the whole city.
No, it's pockets of walkability on the sites of
under-performing properties. And so it's giving
people more choices, but it's not taking away

But it's also not really enough to just create
pockets of walkability. You want to also try to
get more systemic transformation. We need to also
retrofit the corridors themselves. So this is one
that has been retrofitted in California. They took
the commercial strip shown on the black-and-white
images below, and they built a boulevard that has
become the Main Street for their town. And it's
transformed from being an ugly, unsafe,
undesirable address, to becoming a beautiful,
attractive, dignified sort of good address. I mean
now we're hoping we start to see it; they've
already built City Hall, attracted two hotels. I
could imagine beautiful housing going up along
there without tearing down another tree. So
there's a lot of great things, but I'd love to see
more corridors getting retrofitting.

But densification is not going to work everywhere.
Sometimes re-greening is really the better answer.
There's a lot to learn from successful landbanking
programs in cities like Flint, Michigan. There's
also a burgeoning suburban farming movement --
sort of victory gardens meets the Internet. But
perhaps one of the most important re-greening
aspects is the opportunity to restore the local
ecology, as in this example outside of
Minneapolis. When the shopping center died, the
city restored the site's original wetlands,
creating lakefront property, which then attracted
private investment, the first private investment
to this very low-income neighborhood in over 40
years. So they've managed to both restore the
local ecology and the local economy at the same
time. This is another re-greening example. It also
makes sense in very strong markets. This one in
Seattle is on the site of a mall parking lot
adjacent to a new transit stop. And the wavy line
is a path alongside a creek that has now been
daylit. The creek had been culverted under the
parking lot. But daylighting our creeks really
improves their water quality and contributions to

So I've shown you some of the first generation of
retrofits. What's next? I think we have three
challenges for the future. The first is to plan
retrofitting much more systemically at the
metropolitan scale. We need to be able to target
which areas really should be re-greened. Where
should we be redeveloping? And where should we be
encouraging re-inhabitation? These slides just
show two images from a larger project that looked
at trying to do that for Atlanta. I led a team
that was asked to imagine Atlanta 100 years from
now. And we chose to try to reverse sprawl through
three simple moves -- expensive, but simple. One,
in a hundred years, transit on all major rail and
road corridors. Two, in a hundred years, thousand
foot buffers on all stream corridors. It's a
little extreme, but we've got a little water
problem. In a hundred years, subdivisions that
simply end up too close to water or too far from
transit won't be viable. And so we've created the
eco-acre transfer-to-transfer development rights
to the transit corridors and allow the re-greening
of those former subdivisions for food and energy

So the second challenge is to improve the
architectural design quality of the retrofits. And
I close with this image of democracy in action:
This is a protest that's happening on a retrofit
in Silver Spring, Maryland on an Astroturf town
green. Now, retrofits are often accused of being
examples of faux downtowns and instant urbanism,
and not without reason; you don't get much more
phony than an Astroturf town green. I have to say,
these are very hybrid places. They are new but
trying to look old. They have urban streetscapes,
but suburban parking ratios. Their populations are
more diverse than typical suburbia, but they're
less diverse than cities. And they are public
places, but that are managed by private companies.
And just the surface appearance are often -- like
the Astroturf here -- they make me wince. So, you
know, I mean I'm glad that the urbanism is doing
its job. The fact that a protest is happening
really does mean that the layout of the blocks,
the streets and blocks, the putting in of public
space, compromised as it may be, is still a really
great thing. But we've got to get the architecture

The final challenge is for all of you. I want you
to join the protest and start demanding more
sustainable suburban places -- more sustainable
places, period. But culturally, we tend to think
that downtowns should be dynamic, and we expect
that. But we seem to have an expectation that the
suburbs should forever remain frozen in whatever
adolescent form they were first given birth to.
It's time to let them grow up, so I want you to
all support the zoning changes, the road diets,
the infrastructure improvements and the retrofits
that are coming soon to a neighborhood near you.

Thank you.
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