Reshaping Suburbia

Glenwood Park, Atlanta

One of the greatest challenges for the 21st Century, as stated in the IMCL Mission Statement, is to replace sprawl with compact human scale urban fabric. The solutions must rebuild community, be ecologically and socially sustainable, and healthy for all, especially the most vulnerable among us, children, elders, and the poor. Planners and government entities are beginning to see the benefits of retrofitting existing suburban communities, increasing density, and accommodating healthier transportation modes.

While not yet built out, Glenwood Park, Atlanta, by Dover Kohl is an excellent example of a walkable, child-friendly neighborhood with a fine-grained, human scale mix of uses, lively urban places and green parks. The new neighborhood, replacing an old brownfield site, was honored at the 2010 48th IMCL Conference with the IMCL Neighborhood Award.

One dying community that took an outdated suburban mall and transformed it into a new multi-functional heart for their community is Belmar, in Lakewood, CO. The 100 acre parking lot with an enclosed mall, Villa Italia, at its center has been replaced with mixed use buildings, shops with residential above, and a square at its center. 

These developments provide exemplary models for how to rebuild sprawl and create real communities.

Belmar Town Center Plaza, CO

Rockville, MD began as a suburb within the Washington DC Metro area. In 2001, the community adopted a Master Plan for a new Town Center, in order to create a heart for this maturing town.  The site chosen was a dying strip mall and parking lot across the turnpike from Rockville Metrorail station.

Rockville Town Square is a pedestrian square surrounded by mixed-use development. At street level there are 175,000 square feet of shops and restaurants, surmounted by 644 residential units (both condominiums and apartments, 15 percent of which are affordable, moderately-priced dwelling units. A new Rockville Public Library closes the square on the north side. In addition, the Rockville Innovation Center, a new Visual Arts Center, and three public parking garages have been constructed around the square.

Town Square is a place for outdoor dining, entertainment and pedestrian-oriented activities. The square is a 28,000-square-foot rectangular area bounded on north by the public library and on the south by mixed-use buildings, mostly eating places. Unfortunately for the residents in surrounding apartments, there are few shops that serve their daily needs. Maryland Avenue, the new main street for Rockville, and Newmarket Street run along the east and west ends of the square. Traffic along these streets has been calmed to enhance pedestrian comfort. A handsome clock tower over the Fenestra apartments and shops on Maryland Avenue closes the east end of the square. To the west, mixed-use buildings along Newmarket Street close the view. The surrounding residential population provide "eyes on the square", may exert jurisdiction when necessary, and make it feel inhabited.

The square is designed in two parts: the western half is a hard surfaced area suitable for markets and festivals, with a bandstand and interactive fountain. The east end of the square has a lawn with scattered boulders to climb on beneath a tree, wall seating and picnic tables with chess boards. A full program of events is organized on the square, including free music concerts in the summer and ice skating in the winter. As David Levy, Rockville chief of redevelopment said at the dedication in 2007: “It’s a space where people can go and sit outside on a steamy mid-Atlantic summer evening and hang out.”

The Master Plan was developed by the City planning staff, Town Center Master Plan Advisory Group, and planning consultants Development Concepts, Inc. and HNTB. Town Square architectural design was by WDG Architecture. Groundbreaking for the Town Square took place in 2004, and the Grand Opening was held in 2007.

In the excellent book Retrofitting Suburbia, Helen Dunham-Jones addresses how to restructure sprawl in order to reduce greenhouse gases and foster social interaction. She offers a comprehensive step by step guide to planners, architects, and urban designers about how to approach retrofitting suburban development.

In Retrofitting Suburbia, the specific problems posed by garden apartments and residential subdivisions, commercial strips, regional malls, edge cities, and office and industrial parks are discussed, and for each category, case studies showing designs to ameliorate their problems are presented.

Dunham Jones outlines 10 general principles for retrofitting suburbia:

  • Reduce vehicle miles traveled and improve public health by creating a transit-served or transit-ready mix of uses in a walkable street pattern connected to adjacent uses
  • Reduce vehicle land consumption and per capita costs of public investment by absorbing growth that, without alternatives, would otherwise expand in sprawl and edgeless cities.
  • Increase the feasibility and efficiency of transit
  • Increase local interconnectivity
  • Increase permeable surfaces and green space
  • Increase public and civic space
  • Increase choice in housing type and affordability
  • Increase diversification of the tax base
  • Establish an urban node within a polycentric region
  • Change big box stores with an unwalkable single use suburban format into a more compact urban design.

A number of interesting research studies have been conducted to identify the issues involved in the challenge to restructure suburban sprawl. One of these is Retrofitting Suburbs to Increase Walking. In 2004, communities in the South Bay area of Los Angeles County decided to focus on how to transform their suburbs to accommodate alternatives to automobile transportation. Marlon Boarnet and colleagues at the University of California Irvine report on the effort to accomplish this goal.

There are strong reasons why this is especially advisable in California. a) California’s major cities are bounded by the coast on the west, and by mountain ranges or deserts, leaving little space for expansion; b) The housing market crisis has decreased consumer preference for large-lot, single-family residences; c) state planning policy now inhibits new un-sustainable sprawl and aims to limit total auto-dependency.

South Bay is a collection of cities in LA county situated between Los Angeles Airport and Long Beach. This area currently houses over 1 million people and the population is rapidly increasing. The South Bay study examined traffic patterns in eight neighborhoods within the south bay district. The purpose was to identify how and where to create new infill development.

The neighborhoods were divided into two categories  ~ pedestrian oriented centers and auto centered corridors. These pedestrian oriented centers were primarily developed during the pre war era, while most auto centric corridor development was created post war. Participants completed a survey, which tracked all trips taken within 24 hours. It included mode of transport, the trip purpose and the distance traveled.

Results strongly indicated that those living in pedestrian oriented centers were more likely to walk or bike to their destination versus using the automobile. Among other factors increasing the likelihood of residents walking, density of businesses in the neighborhood generally had the largest effect on increasing trips by foot. However, most businesses cannot support themselves from local neighborhood residents alone because residential density is not high enough. Residents in less walkable surrounding areas are shopping and commuting by car, so business centers increase auto traffic.

Boarnet concludes that suburban regions should work on fostering pedestrian centers and combining these centers with transportation corridors and networks. Planners can create economically viable pedestrian oriented centers through densification and infill development, as well as by reducing the amount of available parking.

The study makes two transportation recommendations: a) that the most effective and inexpensive new transport system would be to remove the central city style bus system and create a streamlined shuttle service from one neighborhood center to another; and b) to implement a fuel efficient car share program in these suburban development.

The following “Ten Principles for Reshaping Suburbia” were outlined in Livable Cities Observed (1995):

  1.  Every suburban neighborhood needs a core. Identify a village main street, or a shopping mall that has the potential for higher density mixed use development, and reshape this as the neighborhood core.
  2. Create a pedestrian plaza at the heart of the neighborhood core to function as the neighborhood’s main gathering place. Surround this by a mix of uses, particularly in the shop/house form. The neighborhood main street will be easiest to reshape as the traffic-free “heart”; a shopping mall will require more restructuring
  3. Develop the neighborhood core to a higher density of mixed use (maximum five or six stories), to include not only commercial and residential, but also offices, small light industry and workshops, schools, service facilities, etc.
  4. Suburban shopping malls will need considerable restructuring, especially in those extensive residential suburbs where no other likely central core can be identified. Construct small scale mixed use development, interlinked with a network of pedestrian streets and squares in place of acres of parking lots.
  5. Connect the neighborhood core to the city center by main line public transportation (light rail, subway or bus), and to a network of local public transportation (small electric bus or tram) into the residential areas and to neighboring suburbs.
  6. Create pedestrian and bicycle networks to link residential areas to schools, workplaces and commercial areas.
  7. Increase the density of residential areas close to the neighborhood core, using infill townhouse and shop/house construction, addition of garage apartments, backyard bungalows and “granny flats”.
  8. Create a community development program to generate public activities that involve local citizens, such as festivals and markets; and to create contexts for community participation in improving their neighborhood core.
  9. Coordinate the efforts of suburban district authorities with neighboring county authorities to prevent further spread of new suburban housing divisions on virgin land within commuting distance, and to ban shopping malls and hypermarkets dependent on automobile access within a twenty mile radius of cities.
  10. Coordinate efforts with transportation authorities to stop future expansion of freeways, and to prevent increase in highway capacity. Direct efforts and funding towards development of public transportation, walking and biking, making it easier, more affordable and more attractive for the public to accept these new forms of transportation.