Retrofitting Suburbia by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson

Despite being published almost ten years ago, Retrofitting Suburbia has many relevant lessons for salvaging suburban sprawl created by generations before us that took the term Euclidean zoning and ran with it. They left downtown's and created separated districts in the suburbs. One area was for the office towers on the highway, the other on the rail lines was for industry, and removed a safe distance away were winding neighborhoods for the single-family home.

This kind of community design may have had a time and place in the years following World War II, but too many decision makers went too far and created auto dependent communities clogged with traffic from workers leaving their residential subdivisions to drive to their isolated office complexes, only to spend more hours in the car after work running errands in a separate business district. The authors, Dunham-Jones and Williamson, saw these problematic communities and instead of taking the urban renewal approach of demolition and redo, suggest ways to retrofit through mixed use redesigns.

The three principles outlined in the beginning of the book are re-inhabitation, which involves reusing buildings to create more third places, redevelopment which includes building over parking to create more compact and walkable developments, and regreening or creating more parks, gardens, and wetlands with the extra space. These techniques used together create incremental metropolitanism, that process of slowly changing suburbs into places where residents can live, work, and play in one area. If enough of these retrofits takes place, a polycentric region where each node is a dense mix of uses can result.

Throughout the book were dozens of examples of failed shopping mall rebuilds that involved breaking the large mass into a walkable, urban mini city. Many of the them actually changed the way I viewed the developments. I've visited the Plaza in Kansas City, MO many times and always disregarded it as an outdoor mall, never considering that it was designed more intentionally to be a cohesive pedestrian-friendly development. I was most shocked to find that in Minnetonka, Minnesota, a city I write off as a standard suburb, has a modern loft conversion of a former office building (Cloud 9 Sky Flats). While this conversion was an interesting attempt to mix more residential into an office district, a missed opportunity was not including ground floor retail and commercial uses to capture more vehicle trips on-site.

The most striking question posed by the authors was how to follow good urbanism when the context is anti-urban strip? I struggled with this while working in Lubbock, Texas where the entire city was laid out in this manner, having all but abandoned their historic downtown core ages before. But it takes patience and perseverance. Most of the developments in the book took almost ten years to see the first results, many more were waiting on phase two to get started. Suburbia can be retrofitted, it just takes creativity and an open mind.