Suburbs Are Changing, Like It or Not


Leaving the city for the suburbs is on the minds of many New Yorkers this year, as remote work has made it possible for some to live just about anywhere. But the bidding wars and spiking home prices that have resulted from the migration aren’t the only ways 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, healthy and equitable.

“Case Studies in Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Strategies for Urgent Challenges” (Wiley) features 32 projects through the lens of ambition, or rather six ambitions: reducing car dependency, boosting health, supporting seniors, promoting diversity and justice, creating job opportunities and protecting the environment. The book is a sequel to the authors’ 2008 “Retrofitting Suburbia” (and its 2011 update), which made their reputations as hopeful chroniclers of big boxes, dead malls and sunset strips.

The authors discussed this latest chapter in their collaboration in a recent interview. The conversation has been edited and condensed.

Credit…June Williamson

Ms. Williamson: Our ambition was to engage with a larger, continuing set of challenges, given that suburbia is the United States. Suburbs are us. They’re where the majority of people work, where they live.

Ms. Dunham-Jones: There’s really remarkably little written about the suburbs, and the literature seems removed from what the suburbs actually are: They’re engaging in this old trope of suburbs versus city, when really it’s not a question of whether suburbs will stay the same or will be turned into something else. Change is occurring anyway.

Ms. Williamson: Whether you want the old mall back or not, it’s gone. Or if you prefer the way the office park was structured and the property-tax revenue that came from it, well, that company is gone, or broken up. So rethinking these properties has to happen.

One commonality that seems to emerge is a desire for walkability and a mixed-use public space.

Ms. Dunham-Jones: What’s really interesting about regreening is that even though it is usually done for ecological reasons or flood control, it can create lakefront property, or park-front property that then induces some redevelopment around the edges.

Ms. Williamson: Two of our case studies illustrate that: One is Meriden Green, in central Connecticut. The Meriden Hub mall was an urban renewal, um, bad idea built over a brook that was culverted. The area was then devastated by floods. Subsequently, the mall was demolished and the land regraded to make a storm-water park that is designed like a bathtub so it’s now capable of absorbing the storm water for most of the town. There are a mile and a half of walking paths along the brook, as well as pedestrian bridges and an amphitheater. The entire area was rezoned as a transit-oriented district, and new housing has sprung up. In a small city that has a fair number of lower-income folks, the enhanced, lower-priced rail service has provided access to jobs.

A similar story is in Wyandanch, a hamlet in the Suffolk County town of Babylon. In the post-World War II period, when Levittown was being built, Wyandanch was one of the places where developers built similar houses for Black Americans. Black G.I.s were able to buy houses there, but the property didn’t appreciate over time. And other kinds of investments weren’t made in the community for decades. Over 20 years, with the support of the town and, now, county, and with Long Island Rail Road rebuilding a station and putting in a parking structure, the area is rebounding. Water and sewer infrastructure, which had never made it to this community since the 1940s, was extended, and mixed-use buildings were built on the many surface parking lots. They also added a lovely little plaza and park in the center that has a seasonal ice-skating rink.

Ms. Dunham-Jones: In the suburbs, many people have access to leafy lawns, but what they don’t have access to are really community-oriented spaces — the little town green programmed with activities. Regreening has a lot of different benefits that are too often overlooked.

Ms. Williamson: That’s a good segue to one of our main challenges: retrofitting to improve public health. And that’s something we learned more about since the first book — all of the interesting research that links the built environment to North Americans’ chronic levels of obesity and diabetes, and their lack of physical activity. Those are some of the complicating conditions that make this pandemic so much more risky and deadly.

Through rethinking the built environment and retrofitting, we can have significant public health outcomes that could save a ton of money. Just motivating people to go outside and take short walks could have significant health benefits.

Ms. Dunham-Jones: On the matter of walkability, one of our case studies is Mueller, a former airport in east Austin, Texas, that’s been significantly redeveloped on 700 acres. The community has been designed to accommodate 13,000 residents and 13,000 workers. It’s not 100 percent complete, but studies already show that, yes, residents are walking and biking more, encouraged by the small block sizes, the narrow streets that reduce car speeds and the green infrastructure.

Ms. Williamson: By 2050, 20 percent of the U.S. population will be over 65. This group is not old; they’re just older. But they do have particular needs. There is thinking about designing communities that provide lifelong support in suburbs, where these folks perhaps already live and have raised families and want to remain. There are ideas about cohousing, about allowing accessory dwelling units, or infilling with cottage courts or small apartment buildings that would complement the predominance of detached single-family housing. Some of the empty malls can be turned into wellness and fitness centers and health clinics.

Cottages on Greene, in East Greenwich, R.I., is an example of a housing type that allows older people to downsize within their community. The development was built on the site of a car-repair business that had a mini-strip center on one side and detached houses on the other. The lot is only about an acre, but it has 15 small units artfully arranged around a green space. When you’re driving along the main street, it just looks like two houses. But then you take a left and there are more units behind, and the shared green manages the storm water. Four are subsidized housing.

Ms. Dunham-Jones: Cottages on Greene is a great example of how design helps overcome Nimby resistance to affordable housing. And it meets the market for much smaller homes. The suburbs were built on this assumption that the first buyers of new homes are going to be a young family with kids. We’re seeing a resurgence of that in many places, but two-thirds of suburban households do not have kids in them.

Ms. Williamson: A lot of our examples speak to the high percentage of suburban rental houses and apartments. I think people have this preconceived idea that suburbia is all detached houses and owner-occupied. A lot of the housing is in garden apartment complexes, as well as new rental units added in retrofits. And, of course, there’s the lingering effects of the recession a decade ago that has turned a lot of detached houses that might have once been owner-occupied into rentals.

Ms. Dunham-Jones: Since 2005, more Americans in poverty have lived in the suburbs than have lived in cities. So there’s a great need to improve opportunities for the very poor and disadvantaged. A lot of rentals are aging garden apartment complexes that are housing of last resort. And they’re often getting torn down and replaced with brand-new complexes at higher density and triple the rent. There’s no way that the same population can afford them. We really encourage more communities to insist on replacement units.

Ms. Dunham-Jones: Right now, 46 percent of trips from predominantly single-family-home suburban neighborhoods are three miles or less. Which would be perfectly fine for a bike ride, a scooter ride, or a walk in many of those trips, if there was adequate infrastructure to make that a safe choice. That would have enormous impact.

Ms. Williamson: Something that can be done very simply, at almost no cost, is changing zoning. Several jurisdictions have gotten rid of the R1 zoning and allowed accessory dwelling units in neighborhoods. It doesn’t change everything overnight, but you can see the effects over time.

Investing in planning, design and community processes early on 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-to-1 return-on-investment ratio from the public-sector investment to the new investment that came to that location. That’s pretty significant.

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