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The Ruins of the Unsustainable: Searching For Answers to the Suburbs
Julia Levitt, 3 Aug 09
"The ruins of the unsustainable are the 21st century's frontier."

austrini_300.jpgWe've been pondering that statement by Worldchanging ally Bruce Sterling for nearly two years now. In North America, several decades of bad development (and the government policies that enabled and encouraged it) have resulted in unchecked sprawl and played no small part in our global financial meltdown.

Far-flung exurban areas have swallowed up miles of greenfield, replacing farmland and woods with pavement and lawns, and costing taxpayers a fortune in what's possibly the least efficient form of infrastructure: providing utilities and public services to a small number of people spread out over an large area. The social impacts of sprawl are arguably just as harmful. Sprawl is unhealthy for people who live in it. And as we know from the Housing & Transportation Affordability Index, people who have to drive everywhere they go are at an economic disadvantage, as well.

Credit: flickr/Mike Licht,
Now, due to increasing awareness of these issues, changing social and demographic trends, and a dramatic economic shift, the suburbs – once the American Dream – have fallen from grace. According to leading thinkers like Arthur C. Nelson and Christopher B. Leinberger, the majority of Americans no longer desire to live in auto-dependent suburban environments. Given the chance, many would trade large suburban houses for the walkability of an urban neighborhood. Middle-class North Americans are already beginning to move in large numbers back into central cities, while property values on the suburban fringe have plummeted.

The approaching end of sprawl is a good thing, but it leaves the future of the suburbs uncertain. Foreclosures, unemployment and retail losses have already been a disaster for many suburban towns, and experts warn that suburbs are fast becoming the next slums as middle-class residents are replaced by poorer people who've been priced out of the central cities. Already, much of the outmost ring of suburban North America is in steep decline. The suburbs have long been unsustainable, and now they are becoming ruins. What are the solutions for this new frontier?

Smart growth policies and long-term regional land use plans can prevent any more sprawl, concentrate growth in the urban core and help restore vitality to existing communities. But what are the best ideas for retrofitting the damaged environments that already exist? What will become of the empty malls and superstores, vacant parking lots, six-lane roads and McMansions this collapse leaves behind? Should the subdivisions be scrapped, or saved … and how?

Credit: flickr/jonny.hunter

The First Solutions

One major solution will be fixing the neighborhoods that have good bones. Some inner-ring suburbs already offer proximity to an urban center, and a dense Main Street-type area to concentrate on. Creating regional transit plans that extend public transportation out to that inner ring is a big step. Transit encourages compact development where businesses can thrive and residents can escape auto-dependence. In February, sustainable cities expert Peter Newman told us how this solution has worked for his hometown of Perth; in Germany, a transit-served suburb has already even gone as far as to adopt a "car free" standard.

Effective transit plans can be combined with other strategies for increasing density while enhancing character and livability. Incentives that encourage infill development are a good place to start. Some local governments, like Vancouver B.C.'s, have realized that it's beneficial to encourage homeowners to contribute to density by building accessory dwelling units; in Santa Cruz, California, the ADU program includes an initiative that makes plans for zoning-compliant prefab housing available to homeowners who want to become landlords.

Image: flickr/indiewench
Other places are harder to fix. It's the newer, outer-ring suburbs that need the most creative solutions, like deadmall and Big Box retrofits, shared spaces and creative reuse.

Empty Spaces

We now have far more buildings than we use. Former industrial centers like Detroit and Cleveland are becoming ghost towns, but even in prosperous U.S. cities, commercial spaces stand empty as more and more businesses are forced to cut costs or close their doors altogether. Commenting on recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau, business pundit Paul Kedrosky writes, "the U.S. currently has enough surplus housing to put the entire population of the U.K., with room left over for Israel." Given the enormous amount of embedded energy that this existing development represents, our best bet is put these buildings to good use.

One solution is finding better ways to reclaim and rehabilitate neglected space. The National Vacant Properties Campaign works to educate communities about solutions for the very worst situations, when owners neglect properties to the point that they become hazardous to the community, or fail to meet their financial obligations. In the Campaign's words:

Effective vacant property reclamation efforts are coming from a broad set of stakeholders – from environmental advocates who see property reclamation as a way to offset urban sprawl, to housing groups seeing to create affordable homes, to those interested in preserving a community’s history.
Through our Executive and Advisory Committees, we bring these diverse stakeholders together to create a unified coalition of organizations acting to make vacant property reclamation an attainable goal nationwide.

Reclaiming unused spaces is a hot trend, with pioneers rapidly innovating ways to make dead-space liabilities into repurposed assets (read some of our recent thoughts on this trend in last week's feature on Temporary Spaces and Creative Infill). Resourcefulness like this has gone on for a long time in neglected urban spaces, and continues to make headlines during this economic contraction, as we've seen with artists in Detroit and Dumpster swimming pools in Brooklyn. Will it spread to suburbia?

Reuse or Waste?

Sturdier urban relics have become famous sites for renaissance in cities around the world: iconic rehabbed warehouse districts include Portland's Pearl District, Brooklyn's Dumbo, and Amsterdam's Docklands. And we recently profiled Toronto's promising plan for retrofitting its post-WWII concrete towers.

Unfortunately, one main problem with the ruins of the unsustainable is that these buildings were never really designed to last in the first place. Big-box stores are generally designed to last only about 20-25 years, and the nature of retail leads to some stores closing much earlier. The cavernous shells of a Best Buy or a Sam's Club are suited for very few purposes beyond storing massive quantities of consumer goods. Often, old big-box stores are just abandoned, becoming centers of blight.

According to this article, however, some local governments are responding proactively, by requiring that big boxes be built with certain features that will make them more versatile should the retailer move on:

More communities are introducing policies that require big-box retailers to help redevelop the spaces they leave behind. Some require them to tear down the stores if they're empty more than a year. Others have introduced design standards that require landscaping and more than one main entrance so that the building can accommodate multiple tenants in the future.
A retailer the size of Wal-Mart can make or break a town like Wisconsin Rapids, which has about 18,000 residents. "It changed us," Wisconsin Rapids Mayor Carson says of Wal-Mart's decision to leave downtown and build a superstore on the edge of town. The move eventually helped, she says.
The Centralia Senior Resource Center
"We, as a city, now have a central location for our seniors that's better than having it on the outskirts of town," Carson says.
About 20,000 square feet of the old store were knocked down to make way for a community garden and benches. Inside, seniors now enjoy a library, meeting rooms, a walking track, pool tables and state-of-the-art kitchen and computer center. The center also holds aging and disability centers for two counties.

Ultimately, however, these buildings will need to come down, and adopting a long view as early in the construction phase as possible will mean less material is unnecessarily wasted. We've talked a lot about design for disassembly in the world of consumer products – smart designs that allow product components to be dismantled easily, so that they can be sorted and re-used as nutrients in the industrial cycle (one great example of this thinking is the pop-apart cell phone). Design for Disassembly (DfD) is increasingly being studied and tested by building professionals. A DfD case study home was constructed in Georgia in 2006. While this project is residential, the interest on behalf of the industry is growing.

Sugar Creek Charter School, built in a former K-Mart in Charlotte, N.C.
Source: Big Box Reuse
It seems like big-box stores would be an ideal starting point for city-mandated building code that required adherence to DfD best practices. After all, if it's likely that the store will be defunct in less than three decades, it would be a major benefit to be able to take it down and return the massive pile of components to the building nutrient stream. What if you could dismantle a shopping mall and build a school? It's a solution worth thinking about.

What's truly uplifting, though, is that people are turning a crisis into opportunity, thinking of these frontiers as Special Innovation Zones. Because the ruins are worthless -- or worth little -- pioneering types with big, risky and exciting ideas have a better shot. In many cases, it seems that these up-for-grabs properties are inspiring a kind of experimental "what-if" boldness that's less common in established urban neighborhoods, where cost, regulations and NIMBY-ism can stand in the way. An abandoned home that's already been stripped of its conventional wiring and plumbing, after all, is an ideal frame on which to build a home energy system entirely out of renewables ... and the neighbors aren't likely to fuss. It's possible that one day, these sites will be the Kitty Hawks -- the original testing grounds -- of some of the most important innovations that future generations will take for granted.

However you imagine the future of the suburbs, one thing is certain: The one thing we can't do is keep them the same.

Credit: flickr/mark.hogan.

Top article credit: flickr/austrini, Creative Commons license.

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One possible answer is transforming the suburbs into mixed-used communities. Rather than people leaving the 'burbs for the cities, each suburb can grow its own "downtown." Suburbs can develop diversified economies based on household microenterprises using the "spare cycles" of ordinary capital goods most people already own (e.g. sewing machines, hobbyist metal or wood shops, microbakeries using ordinary kitchen ovens, unlicensed cabs using the family car and cell phone, home-based day care, unlicensed beauty salons, etc.), producing for exchange in the local barter economy. The small hobbist metal shops, in particular, might be the basis of a relocalized industrial revolution based on mass cutomization or on the custom manufacture of repalcement parts (which is exactly how the Japanese bicycle industry got started, according to Jane Jacobs). The average suburban lot, using John Jeavons' raised bed techniques, can feed a couple of people, and neighborhood greenspace might be used for market gardening. Just using the productive capacity of available land and the productive capacity of household capital goods, a suburb could go a long way toward Jacobs' model of economic growth by "import substitution."

Posted by: Kevin Carson on 1 Aug 09

Interesting observations and the recommendations for building big box stores for adaptive reuse are especially useful. Parking lots are actually large land banks that can be remade into pedestrian-scale streets, parking garages, housing, etc., with a reused big-box store at its core.

Posted by: Martin Johncox on 1 Aug 09

Great post and questions.I'd love to see more on DfD. Readers may be interested in the new book that June Williamson and I wrote, Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs (Wiley, 2009.) It tells the story of over 80 examples of dead malls, dying office parks, decaying commercial strips, etc., that have been retrofitted, re-greened, or re-inhabited into more sustainable places - and provides detailed morphological analysis of a few exemplary projects. There's a Facebook page on the book with loads of links.

Posted by: Ellen Dunham-Jones on 1 Aug 09

While Kevin's ideas are nice in theory, they don't seem to factor in two major components: law and safety. Everything gets flushed down the drain the second that the 'unlicensed' beautician is sued for that infection, that cupcake Bobby sold made Sally sick, the guy at the metal shop cut off his finger, and so on. Part of that is something that can only be cured by having a less litigious society, and part of that requires proper safety education. And what happens when Joe's kid runs his bike through Chris' garden? I think what you're talking about fits a commune, where everyone is living towards their own communal sustenance, but to expect normal people to magically live together and respect one another - well, isn't that why suburbs are appealing now to some degree, because being close to disrespectful neighbors drives people to desire space? Of course, in reality they still have squabbles about fences and dogs and kids and noise and PTA bake sales... and bully HOAs that harass their community... It's not impossible, but there are more challenges than are present here, and I think only certain types of people could work within the confines of such a system. What about the rest of the suburbanites?
As to the abandoned retailers and such, I think offering these sites to those who can/will repurpose them in a similar fashion as what they do with lighthouses would be a good start.

Posted by: Lisa H on 1 Aug 09

Another world is possible, another US is necessary and another Detroit is happening.

June 2010.

Posted by: Lou Novak on 2 Aug 09

I'd strongly recommend Stewart Brand (of Whole Earth fame), How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built (1994). Get one used for about $10 total.

This is still quite relevant, especially to anyone thinking of adapting old spaces, or building anything new (that will get adapted).

Posted by: John Mashey on 2 Aug 09

In the Netherlands, the population is decreasing, starting at the outskirts of the country. In the South East, in suburbs selective tearing down takes place, in order to keep the buildings of good quality and to offer the remaining residents more attractive surroundings. In the cities in the (economically well faring and densily populated) West, redundant churches and office buildings are being restructured in to dwellings for either students or 'yups' or into institutes for research and education. Still, too many is recklessly being torn down, a complete waste of materials and energy.

Posted by: marjolein on 3 Aug 09

It's a nice optimistic post, but we've had plenty of time and intellectual capital to make the transition for decades, it's just that people don't want it. Take "A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction" for example. Probably one of the greatest books ever written on the subject and it was published in 1977. There's no planning for this kind of thing, only adaptation.

Posted by: yotoen on 3 Aug 09

About a half mile from where I'm sitting there is an 'undeveloped development'. The developer apparently cleared the land, installed utilities and streets prior to the current economic situation; so there is a suburb with no houses (or rather, two very large god-awful boxes that are meant to be houses in an open field).

I wonder how many such situations there are in the country? I would think that this infrastructure could be used for something other than housing; perhaps the bank could lease out the lots for garden allotments? There are gas, water and electric to each plot. It would seem relatively straightforward to put in raised beds (which one would have to do as the developers scraped away all the topsoil).

Many of these empty developments were intended to be gated communities so they also have fencing and security.

One would think that, rather than writing it off as a loss, the banks would welcome some kind of income from land use. Of course, our banking and land-use policies don't actually make logical sense to begin with, so perhaps the suggestion is moot.

Posted by: Jason Nicholas on 8 Aug 09

Share the environment with nature. Limit local government to allowing buildings & roads to cover only 50% of the earth, so the plants & animals can survive.

Posted by: Allan Niass on 9 Aug 09

I agree that some parts of the suburbs should be retrofitted into compact, mixed-use centers, focusing particularly on places that will reduce auto-dependency and open up of areas with good jobs, successful schools and safe neighborhoods to those trapped in areas of concentrated poverty. However, it should be noted that not all places are appropriate for retrofitting -- some are simply in areas that are too remote or too environmentally sensitive. Adding more development in these places would only add insult to injury. The planning community should be able to create a matrix of tests to determine which places should be retrofitted and which should not.

Posted by: Dianne Brake on 17 Aug 09

As I discovered in researching my book "The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome," the exurbs or what I call "spurbs" (sprawling urban areas) are due for a serious and prolonged contraction. They simply weren't sustainable for economic, ecological and energy reasons. People who moved further out to afford these homes were blindsided by rising taxes, energy bills and mortgage resets. It's time to retrench and rethink development through a sustainability lens.

Posted by: John F. Wasik on 18 Aug 09

"The social impacts of sprawl are arguably just as harmful. Sprawl is unhealthy for people who live in it."

I'm not about to accept that statement at first blush without a lengthy, detailed examination of what led to an exodus from the cities.

Obviously the "Levitown phenomenon" and houses "all made out of ticky-tacky" was the post-WW2 choice of tens of millions ... for a reason. If that choice was unwise, then a close look at what factors encouraged that choice seems mandatory in the construction of a viable alternative.

If, as I suspect, it was the result of the degeneration of the cities, then simply condemning 'sprawl' without a compensating plan for prescribing urban healthiness is premature. I suspect that noone has the answer to how to keep cities healthy; so I question the wisdom of bad-jacketing sprawl until the New Vision is clear in all it's details and guarantees of a better life.

Else it's just another knee-jerk reaction of the kind that led to sprawl in the first place, another giant investment with no certainty of its wisdom. Mere fashion is not basis for decisions about investments of such magnitude.

Posted by: TJ on 6 Sep 09

Fine article, and thoughtful comments!

For most of the ideas above to take place – the development of suburban mixed-use centers, adding in-law units to existing houses, neighborhood-serving businesses in residential areas, reusing disused commercial and industrial buildings – local zoning will need to change. Zoning, as it is used in most suburban places, mandates monocultural land use and automobile dependency, and prevents diversification, densification, and concentration. Jonathan Levine's book Zoned Out is a good introduction to how zoning typically prevents mixed-use development even where a market exists for it.

Advocates for livable and sustainable suburbs ought to look at their local zoning, and advocate for its reform. Fortunately, there are lots of alternative approaches to zoning being developed in the US, and more and more cities putting them into practice. Simply amending conventional 'Euclidean' zoning ordinances to allow greater density, reduce parking requirements, and allow a mix of uses can allow diverse and walkable places to grow. Form-based zoning pays greater attention to how buildings meet the street and create good neighborhoods and public spaces, and encourages a greater diversity of uses. Environmental performance zoning regulates the environmental impact of various uses (noise, vibration, dust, traffic, etc.) rather than separating them in space.

Relaxing zoning is of course only part of the picture – government action is still essential to creating public transit, livable streets and open spaces, and the other social and physical infrastructure necessary to make compact, walkable communities work. And not every suburb, especially those on the exurban fringe, has a future as a walkable, mixed-use place; some of these places will doubtless revert to agriculture or open space, and figuring out a way to let them do so gracefully is the best strategy. All that said, getting the impediments to compact, diverse, and walkable communities out of local zoning rules is part of the solution.

Posted by: Tom Radulovich on 7 Sep 09

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