Is a Sustainable Suburbia Still Possible Post-Pandemic?

Is a Sustainable Suburbia Still Possible Post-Pandemic?

By Melissa Dalton
In 2010, Dwell took a look at four radical plans to reshape and retrofit spaces outside of our cities. Ten years later, we asked experts if those plans were possible or pie-in-the-sky.

"Collectively, we've often thought of the suburbs as though they're frozen in amber, but they've been showing their age for quite some time now," muses Ellen Dunham-Jones, director of the urban design program at Georgia Tech and co-author of Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbia. Dunham-Jones grew up in New Jersey—"the most suburban state in the nation," she says—and has spent her academic career studying how to optimize suburban development.

Outside of Houston, Texas, houses line parallel, curved streets.

Dead malls and empty office parks don’t bother Dunham-Jones, as they’re not just monuments to faded infrastructure, but grounds for possibility. Ten years ago, we thought the same, and challenged architects and designers to dream up greener visions of suburbia in our January 2010 issue, which exclusively covered the future of design. "With the current housing crisis, the sub-prime mortgage meltdown, and rising energy costs, the future of suburbia looks bleak," we wrote. 

Dwell and Inhabitat joined with Reburbia, an architect-founded blog, to launch a competition for the best design solutions to address the problems of suburban development. Out of the hundreds of proposals submitted, three entries were selected by a panel of judges, and one chosen by readers' votes.

"Forward Thinking or Far-fetched?" asked an Architect magazine headline when the contest results were announced. Turns out, the answer to that question might be: Both. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. 

Let’s revisit.

Reader’s Choice: Sprawl Repair Toolkit

For the Sprawl Repair Toolkit, Galina Tachieva suggested techniques to retrofit five typical suburban building types, including a strip mall, gas station, and McMansion. Such retrofits better utilize empty and underperforming land that surrounds the buildings, densifies neighborhoods, employs green technology, and fosters a more "walkable urban fabric" to combat the baked-in car dependence of the suburbs. 

In 2010, Tachieva expanded on the Toolkit in her book, the Sprawl Repair Manual, which serves as a comprehensive how-to guide for combating sprawl at all different scales. Today, Tachieva is a managing partner at the Miami office of DPZ CoDesign, a leading firm in the New Urbanism movement, which seeks to "promote mixed-use, traditional neighborhood planning over the segregated-use suburban sprawl seen worldwide." 

In St. Louis, Missouri, architect William McCuen converted an abandoned gas station into a personal residence with a neighborhood cafe on the corner. "We got to do this really contemporary thing in the middle of a very historic neighborhood, and it works," says McCuen. "I smile every time I pull up to the home in the evening."

At DPZ, Tachieva works on master plans for places like Phoenix, a "poster child for sprawl," but which, in the past decade, has taken a "forward-thinking" approach to reverse it by investing in walkable development along a new light rail line. "I'm in the trenches," says Tachieva, adding that she thinks: "What has been achieved in the last decade has been more ambitious than what was shown" in our competition just 10 years ago.

"Over 120 malls are in the process of, or have already been, substantially built out in a more dense, mixed-use, livable manner," says Dunham-Jones. This photo shows the conversion of a dead shopping center in the North Loop neighborhood of Austin, Texas, into a campus for Austin Community College. Dunham-Jones points out "the former JCPenney [on the left] with a new front porch to welcome the ACC Highland students, and one of several apartment buildings being constructed on the former parking lots."

Third Place: Big Box Agriculture

Got an empty big box store? This proposal suggests planting the parking lot and roof, turning the interior into a greenhouse, and enjoying hyper-local fresh produce.

For this entry by Forrest Fulton, an empty mega-supermarket becomes a food producer, underscoring the need for suburbs to localize food production. Crops are grown on the roof or in the underutilized parking lot. Inside, customers dine in restaurants that cook with the locally-grown goods, or shop the fresh produce to bring home.

The Pike & Rose is a redevelopment of a 30-acre strip mall within the Pike District in North Bethesda, Maryland. The rooftop farm, planted by Up Top Acres, supplies produce to the nearby restaurants and residents.

Ten years on, rooftop farms exist. Dunham-Jones cites the group Up Top Acres, a Washington, DC–based organization that wants to integrate agriculture with urban life. In 2018, they installed a 17,000-square-foot farm atop a modern, multi-use, North Bethesda mall called the Pike & Rose, which has shopping, entertainment, apartments, and office space. The rooftop farm supplies produce to nearby restaurants and acts as a local CSA.

At Serenbe, an eco-friendly community outside Atlanta, New Urbanism planning principles were applied to create a live/work community that revolves around a variety of green spaces, including open fields, farmland, and forests.

Second Place: Entrepreneurbia

Brought by Urban Nature, F&S Design Studio and Silverlion Design, Entrepreneurbia sought to reconsider the traditional approach to zoning divisions, which can keep the residential and commercial modes far apart and promote sprawl and car dependence.

Entrepreneurbia was focused on policy change, and specifically, tweaking zoning laws to allow small businesses to operate in residential domains. "This model transforms inefficient single-family dwellings and decorative landscaping into intelligent enterprise zones," said Sarah Rich in our write-up.

With a new baby on the way and the soon-to-be grandmother moving in, Seattleites Ilga Paskovskis and Kyle Parmentier asked Best Practice Architecture to expand their detached garage into a 570-square-foot ADU, which they now call the Granny Pad. "We can see the joy it brings Grandma when the baby comes over to visit," says Kyle. "It’s the best part of her day."

In the years since the competition, accessory dwelling units have popped up all over the United States and are a flexible means for adding space to a single-family home, whether that space is used as a rental or a home office. Still, they remain a more popular build for the backyard, and are hardly ever seen in the front—the prospect of giving up the iconic suburban front lawn might be the final frontier. 

For Tahchieva’s diagram from the Sprawl Repair Toolkit, traditional setbacks are reimagined to reduce dead space. "Why don't we urbanize the frontage of suburban houses and create opportunities for people to have an accessory dwelling unit, which can be a rental, a live/work unit, or a granny flat?" asks Tahchieva. 

First Place: Frog’s Dream 

For Frog's Dream, an abundance of plants and the installation of wetlands overtake empty suburban homes to clean and filter water.

As proposed by Calvin Chiu, this entry turns an abandoned subdivision into a biofilter water treatment plant. "I will say, I don't see a whole lot of big mansions being converted, specifically, into biofilter water treatment plants," says Dunham-Jones, who points out that instead, she's catalogued many examples of suburban properties turned into stormwater parks.

A before and after diagram of Meriden Green by June Williamson.

Take Meriden Green. Today, it's a 14-acre park in downtown Meriden, Connecticut, which is located between the cities of New Haven and Hartford. The park serves to control annual flood waters, provide a communal green space, and has spurred economic development, thanks to new apartment buildings, an amphitheater, and a weekend farmer's market. What used to occupy the space? An abandoned shopping mall.

This is what Dunham-Jones calls "regreening," a retrofit approach needed "because we never should have built there in the first place," she says. 

Where Do We Go From Here?

Whether it's the retail apocalypse, or the pandemic that’s done them in, the 1970s-era shopping mall and 80s office park no longer cut it. Not only that, the demographics of the suburbs have long been diverging from the prototypical family with 2.5 kids. "Today, two-thirds of suburban households do not have children in them. That's been true since 2000," says Dunham-Jones. 

There are actually several metrics that point to the changing face of American suburbia: From ethnicity to income brackets to age groups, whether Millennials are moving from expensive cities, or retired Baby Boomers are aging in place. Not only do these changing demographics require a change to the outdated infrastructure—apparently Millennials and Boomers can agree on wanting more urban-style amenities—but the pandemic and climate crises have accelerated the need for a new vision. 

When Dunham-Jones was working on her first book, she and her co-author drew on examples of development that primarily reduced automobile dependency. "I would say the ideas of, certainly 'Frog's Dream' and 'Big Box Agriculture', seemed pretty wacky at the time," says Dunham-Jones of our competition winners. "But they actually, in many respects, were prescient." 

Over the past decade, Dunham-Jones and co-author June Williamson have compiled a database of suburban retrofits, watching it grow from 80 to over 2,000 examples. This December, the pair are releasing a second book of case studies. Their findings? 

"All of the retrofits were just getting more and more ambitious and integrating solutions to more challenges," says Dunham-Jones. "Nowadays, instead of just saying 'Well, what are you doing for auto dependency?' Now communities are saying, 'Okay, while you reduce automobile dependency, what are you going to do for public health, for climate change, for an aging population, to help us compete for jobs, and improve social equity?'" 

Sounds like it might be time for another competition. 

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