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TEDxAtlanta

Ellen Dunham-Jones: Retrofitting suburbia

January 26, 2010

Ellen Dunham-Jones fires the starting shot for the next 50 years' big sustainable design project: retrofitting suburbia. To come: Dying malls rehabilitated, dead "big box" stores re-inhabited, parking lots transformed into thriving wetlands. (Filmed at TEDxAtlanta.)

Ellen Dunham-Jones - Architect
Ellen Dunham-Jones takes an unblinking look at our underperforming suburbs -- and proposes plans for making them livable and sustainable. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
In the last 50 years,
00:16
we've been building the suburbs
00:18
with a lot of unintended consequences.
00:20
And I'm going to talk about some of those consequences
00:22
and just present a whole bunch of really interesting projects
00:25
that I think give us tremendous reasons
00:28
to be really optimistic
00:31
that the big design and development project of the next 50 years
00:33
is going to be retrofitting suburbia.
00:36
So whether it's redeveloping dying malls
00:39
or re-inhabiting dead big-box stores
00:42
or reconstructing wetlands
00:45
out of parking lots,
00:47
I think the fact is
00:49
the growing number
00:51
of empty and under-performing,
00:53
especially retail, sites
00:55
throughout suburbia
00:57
gives us actually a tremendous opportunity
00:59
to take our least-sustainable
01:02
landscapes right now
01:04
and convert them into
01:06
more sustainable places.
01:08
And in the process, what that allows us to do
01:10
is to redirect a lot more of our growth
01:13
back into existing communities
01:15
that could use a boost,
01:17
and have the infrastructure in place,
01:19
instead of continuing
01:21
to tear down trees
01:23
and to tear up the green space out at the edges.
01:25
So why is this important?
01:27
I think there are any number of reasons,
01:30
and I'm just going to not get into detail but mention a few.
01:33
Just from the perspective of climate change,
01:36
the average urban dweller in the U.S.
01:39
has about one-third the carbon footprint
01:41
of the average suburban dweller,
01:44
mostly because suburbanites drive a lot more,
01:47
and living in detached buildings,
01:50
you have that much more exterior surface
01:53
to leak energy out of.
01:55
So strictly from
01:58
a climate change perspective,
02:00
the cities are already
02:03
relatively green.
02:05
The big opportunity
02:07
to reduce greenhouse gas emissions
02:09
is actually in urbanizing
02:11
the suburbs.
02:13
All that driving that we've been doing out in the suburbs,
02:15
we have doubled the amount of miles we drive.
02:18
It's increased our dependence
02:21
on foreign oil
02:23
despite the gains in fuel efficiency.
02:25
We're just driving so much more;
02:27
we haven't been able to keep up technologically.
02:29
Public health is another reason
02:31
to consider retrofitting.
02:33
Researchers at the CDC and other places
02:35
have increasingly been linking
02:38
suburban development patterns
02:40
with sedentary lifestyles.
02:42
And those have been linked then
02:44
with the rather alarming,
02:46
growing rates of obesity,
02:48
shown in these maps here,
02:50
and that obesity has also been triggering
02:53
great increases in heart disease
02:55
and diabetes
02:57
to the point where a child born today
02:59
has a one-in-three chance
03:01
of developing diabetes.
03:03
And that rate has been escalating at the same rate
03:05
as children not walking
03:08
to school anymore,
03:10
again, because of our development patterns.
03:12
And then there's finally -- there's the affordability question.
03:14
I mean, how affordable is it
03:18
to continue to live in suburbia
03:21
with rising gas prices?
03:24
Suburban expansion to cheap land,
03:26
for the last 50 years --
03:29
you know the cheap land out on the edge --
03:31
has helped generations of families
03:33
enjoy the American dream.
03:35
But increasingly,
03:37
the savings promised
03:39
by drive-till-you-qualify affordability --
03:41
which is basically our model --
03:43
those savings are wiped out
03:45
when you consider the transportation costs.
03:47
For instance, here in Atlanta,
03:50
about half of households
03:52
make between $20,000 and $50,000 a year,
03:54
and they are spending 29 percent of their income
03:57
on housing
04:00
and 32 percent
04:02
on transportation.
04:04
I mean, that's 2005 figures.
04:06
That's before we got up to the four bucks a gallon.
04:08
You know, none of us
04:11
really tend to do the math on our transportation costs,
04:13
and they're not going down
04:16
any time soon.
04:18
Whether you love suburbia's leafy privacy
04:20
or you hate its soulless commercial strips,
04:23
there are reasons why it's important to retrofit.
04:25
But is it practical?
04:28
I think it is.
04:30
June Williamson and I have been researching this topic
04:32
for over a decade,
04:34
and we've found over 80
04:36
varied projects.
04:38
But that they're really all market driven,
04:41
and what's driving the market in particular --
04:43
number one -- is major demographic shifts.
04:46
We all tend to think of suburbia
04:49
as this very family-focused place,
04:52
but that's really not the case anymore.
04:55
Since 2000,
04:58
already two-thirds of households in suburbia
05:00
did not have kids in them.
05:03
We just haven't caught up with the actual realities of this.
05:06
The reasons for this have a lot to with
05:09
the dominance of the two big
05:12
demographic groups right now:
05:14
the Baby Boomers retiring --
05:16
and then there's a gap,
05:19
Generation X, which is a small generation.
05:21
They're still having kids --
05:23
but Generation Y hasn't even started
05:25
hitting child-rearing age.
05:28
They're the other big generation.
05:30
So as a result of that,
05:33
demographers predict
05:35
that through 2025,
05:37
75 to 85 percent of new households
05:39
will not have kids in them.
05:42
And the market research, consumer research,
05:45
asking the Boomers and Gen Y
05:48
what it is they would like,
05:50
what they would like to live in,
05:52
tells us there is going to be a huge demand --
05:54
and we're already seeing it --
05:57
for more urban lifestyles
06:00
within suburbia.
06:03
That basically, the Boomers want to be able to age in place,
06:06
and Gen Y would like to live
06:09
an urban lifestyle,
06:11
but most of their jobs will continue to be out in suburbia.
06:13
The other big dynamic of change
06:16
is the sheer performance of
06:19
underperforming asphalt.
06:21
Now I keep thinking this would be a great name
06:23
for an indie rock band,
06:25
but developers generally use it
06:27
to refer to underused parking lots --
06:30
and suburbia is full of them.
06:33
When the postwar suburbs were first built
06:36
out on the cheap land
06:39
away from downtown,
06:41
it made sense to just build
06:43
surface parking lots.
06:45
But those sites have now been leapfrogged
06:47
and leapfrogged again,
06:49
as we've just continued to sprawl,
06:51
and they now have
06:53
a relatively central location.
06:56
It no longer just makes sense.
06:58
That land is more valuable than just surface parking lots.
07:01
It now makes sense to go back in,
07:04
build a deck and build up
07:06
on those sites.
07:09
So what do you do
07:11
with a dead mall,
07:13
dead office park?
07:15
It turns out, all sorts of things.
07:17
In a slow economy like ours,
07:20
re-inhabitation is
07:22
one of the more popular strategies.
07:24
So this happens to be
07:26
a dead mall in St. Louis
07:28
that's been re-inhabited as art-space.
07:30
It's now home to artist studios,
07:33
theater groups, dance troupes.
07:35
It's not pulling in as much tax revenue
07:37
as it once was,
07:39
but it's serving its community.
07:41
It's keeping the lights on.
07:43
It's becoming, I think, a really great institution.
07:45
Other malls have been re-inhabited
07:48
as nursing homes,
07:50
as universities,
07:52
and as all variety of office space.
07:54
We also found a lot of examples
07:56
of dead big-box stores
07:58
that have been converted into
08:00
all sorts of community-serving uses as well --
08:02
lots of schools, lots of churches
08:05
and lots of libraries like this one.
08:08
This was a little grocery store, a Food Lion grocery store,
08:10
that is now a public library.
08:13
In addition to, I think, doing a beautiful adaptive reuse,
08:17
they tore up some of the parking spaces,
08:20
put in bioswales to collect and clean the runoff,
08:22
put in a lot more sidewalks
08:25
to connect to the neighborhoods.
08:28
And they've made this,
08:30
what was just a store along a commercial strip,
08:32
into a community gathering space.
08:35
This one is a little L-shaped strip shopping center
08:38
in Phoenix, Arizona.
08:41
Really all they did was they gave it a fresh coat of bright paint,
08:43
a gourmet grocery,
08:46
and they put up a restaurant in the old post office.
08:48
Never underestimate the power of food
08:51
to turn a place around
08:54
and make it a destination.
08:56
It's been so successful, they've now taken over the strip across the street.
08:58
The real estate ads in the neighborhood
09:01
all very proudly proclaim,
09:04
"Walking distance to Le Grande Orange,"
09:06
because it provided its neighborhood
09:09
with what sociologists like to call
09:12
"a third place."
09:14
If home is the first place
09:16
and work is the second place,
09:18
the third place is where you go to hang out
09:20
and build community.
09:22
And especially as suburbia is becoming
09:24
less centered on the family,
09:26
the family households,
09:28
there's a real hunger
09:30
for more third places.
09:32
So the most dramatic retrofits
09:35
are really those in the next category,
09:38
the next strategy: redevelopment.
09:40
Now, during the boom, there were several
09:42
really dramatic redevelopment projects
09:44
where the original building
09:46
was scraped to the ground and then the whole site was rebuilt
09:48
at significantly greater density,
09:51
a sort of compact, walkable urban neighborhoods.
09:53
But some of them have been much more incremental.
09:56
This is Mashpee Commons,
09:58
the oldest retrofit that we've found.
10:00
And it's just incrementally, over the last 20 years,
10:02
built urbanism
10:05
on top of its parking lots.
10:07
So the black and white photo shows
10:09
the simple 60's strip shopping center.
10:11
And then the maps above that
10:13
show its gradual transformation
10:15
into a compact,
10:17
mixed-use New England village,
10:19
and it has plans now that have been approved
10:22
for it to connect
10:25
to new residential neighborhoods
10:28
across the arterials
10:30
and over to the other side.
10:32
So, you know, sometimes it's incremental.
10:34
Sometimes, it's all at once.
10:36
This is another infill project on the parking lots,
10:39
this one of an office park outside of Washington D.C.
10:42
When Metrorail expanded transit into the suburbs
10:45
and opened a station nearby to this site,
10:48
the owners decided
10:51
to build a new parking deck
10:53
and then insert on top of their surface lots
10:56
a new Main Street, several apartments
10:59
and condo buildings,
11:02
while keeping the existing office buildings.
11:04
Here is the site in 1940:
11:06
It was just a little farm
11:09
in the village of Hyattsville.
11:11
By 1980, it had been subdivided
11:13
into a big mall on one side
11:15
and the office park on the other
11:17
and then some buffer sites for a library
11:19
and a church to the far right.
11:21
Today, the transit,
11:23
the Main Street and the new housing
11:25
have all been built.
11:27
Eventually, I expect that the streets
11:29
will probably extend through a redevelopment of the mall.
11:31
Plans have already been announced
11:34
for a lot of those garden apartments
11:36
above the mall to be redeveloped.
11:38
Transit is a big driver of retrofits.
11:41
So here's what it looks like.
11:44
You can sort of see the funky new condo buildings
11:46
in between the office buildings
11:48
and the public space and the new Main Street.
11:50
This one is one of my favorites, Belmar.
11:53
I think they really built an attractive place here
11:55
and have just employed all-green construction.
11:58
There's massive P.V. arrays on the roofs
12:01
as well as wind turbines.
12:04
This was a very large mall
12:06
on a hundred-acre superblock.
12:08
It's now 22
12:10
walkable urban blocks
12:12
with public streets,
12:14
two public parks, eight bus lines
12:16
and a range of housing types,
12:18
and so it's really given Lakewood, Colorado
12:20
the downtown
12:23
that this particular suburb never had.
12:25
Here was the mall in its heyday.
12:28
They had their prom in the mall. They loved their mall.
12:30
So here's the site in 1975
12:33
with the mall.
12:36
By 1995, the mall has died.
12:38
The department store has been kept --
12:40
and we found this was true in many cases.
12:42
The department stores are multistory; they're better built.
12:44
They're easy to be re-adapted.
12:46
But the one story stuff ...
12:48
that's really history.
12:50
So here it is at projected build-out.
12:53
This project, I think, has great connectivity
12:56
to the existing neighborhoods.
12:58
It's providing 1,500 households with the option
13:00
of a more urban lifestyle.
13:02
It's about two-thirds built out right now.
13:04
Here's what the new Main Street looks like.
13:07
It's very successful,
13:09
and it's helped to prompt --
13:11
eight of the 13
13:13
regional malls in Denver
13:15
have now, or have announced plans to
13:17
be, retrofitted.
13:19
But it's important to note that all of this retrofitting
13:21
is not occurring --
13:24
just bulldozers are coming and just plowing down the whole city.
13:26
No, it's pockets of walkability
13:29
on the sites of
13:32
under-performing properties.
13:34
And so it's giving people more choices,
13:36
but it's not taking away choices.
13:39
But it's also not really enough
13:42
to just create pockets of walkability.
13:44
You want to also try to get more systemic transformation.
13:47
We need to also retrofit the corridors themselves.
13:50
So this is one that has been
13:53
retrofitted in California.
13:55
They took the commercial strip
13:57
shown on the black-and-white images below,
13:59
and they built a boulevard
14:01
that has become the Main Street for their town.
14:03
And it's transformed from being
14:06
an ugly, unsafe,
14:08
undesirable address,
14:10
to becoming a beautiful,
14:12
attractive, dignified sort of good address.
14:15
I mean now we're hoping we start to see it;
14:18
they've already built City Hall, attracted two hotels.
14:20
I could imagine beautiful housing going up along there
14:23
without tearing down another tree.
14:26
So there's a lot of great things,
14:29
but I'd love to see more corridors getting retrofitting.
14:31
But densification
14:34
is not going to work everywhere.
14:36
Sometimes re-greening
14:38
is really the better answer.
14:40
There's a lot to learn from successful
14:43
landbanking programs
14:45
in cities like Flint, Michigan.
14:47
There's also a burgeoning suburban farming movement --
14:49
sort of victory gardens meets the Internet.
14:51
But perhaps one of the most important re-greening aspects
14:54
is the opportunity to restore
14:57
the local ecology,
14:59
as in this example outside of Minneapolis.
15:01
When the shopping center died,
15:03
the city restored the site's
15:05
original wetlands,
15:07
creating lakefront property,
15:09
which then attracted private investment,
15:11
the first private investment to this very low-income neighborhood
15:14
in over 40 years.
15:17
So they've managed to both restore the local ecology
15:19
and the local economy at the same time.
15:22
This is another re-greening example.
15:25
It also makes sense in very strong markets.
15:27
This one in Seattle
15:29
is on the site of a mall parking lot
15:31
adjacent to a new transit stop.
15:33
And the wavy line
15:35
is a path alongside a creek that has now been daylit.
15:37
The creek had been culverted under the parking lot.
15:40
But daylighting our creeks
15:43
really improves their water quality
15:45
and contributions to habitat.
15:47
So I've shown you some of
15:49
the first generation of retrofits.
15:51
What's next?
15:53
I think we have three challenges for the future.
15:55
The first is to plan retrofitting
15:58
much more systemically
16:01
at the metropolitan scale.
16:03
We need to be able to target
16:05
which areas really should be re-greened.
16:07
Where should we be redeveloping?
16:09
And where should we be encouraging re-inhabitation?
16:11
These slides just show two images
16:14
from a larger project
16:16
that looked at trying to do that for Atlanta.
16:18
I led a team that was asked to imagine
16:20
Atlanta 100 years from now.
16:22
And we chose to try to reverse sprawl
16:25
through three simple moves -- expensive, but simple.
16:28
One, in a hundred years,
16:31
transit on all major
16:33
rail and road corridors.
16:35
Two, in a hundred years,
16:37
thousand foot buffers
16:39
on all stream corridors.
16:41
It's a little extreme, but we've got a little water problem.
16:43
In a hundred years,
16:46
subdivisions that simply end up too close to water
16:48
or too far from transit won't be viable.
16:50
And so we've created the eco-acre
16:53
transfer-to-transfer development rights
16:56
to the transit corridors
16:58
and allow the re-greening
17:00
of those former subdivisions
17:02
for food and energy production.
17:04
So the second challenge
17:08
is to improve the architectural design quality
17:11
of the retrofits.
17:14
And I close with this image
17:16
of democracy in action:
17:18
This is a protest that's happening
17:21
on a retrofit in Silver Spring, Maryland
17:23
on an Astroturf town green.
17:26
Now, retrofits are often accused
17:30
of being examples of faux downtowns
17:32
and instant urbanism,
17:35
and not without reason; you don't get much more phony
17:38
than an Astroturf town green.
17:40
I have to say, these are very hybrid places.
17:43
They are new but trying to look old.
17:46
They have urban streetscapes,
17:49
but suburban parking ratios.
17:51
Their populations are
17:53
more diverse than typical suburbia,
17:55
but they're less diverse than cities.
17:58
And they are
18:00
public places,
18:02
but that are managed by private companies.
18:04
And just the surface appearance
18:07
are often -- like the Astroturf here --
18:10
they make me wince.
18:13
So, you know, I mean I'm glad that
18:16
the urbanism is doing its job.
18:18
The fact that a protest is happening
18:20
really does mean
18:23
that the layout of the blocks, the streets and blocks, the putting in of public space,
18:25
compromised as it may be,
18:28
is still a really great thing.
18:30
But we've got to get the architecture better.
18:32
The final challenge is for all of you.
18:34
I want you to join the protest
18:37
and start demanding
18:39
more sustainable suburban places --
18:41
more sustainable places, period.
18:43
But culturally,
18:46
we tend to think that downtowns
18:48
should be dynamic, and we expect that.
18:50
But we seem to have an expectation
18:52
that the suburbs should forever remain frozen
18:54
in whatever adolescent form
18:56
they were first given birth to.
18:58
It's time to let them grow up,
19:00
so I want you
19:03
to all support the zoning changes,
19:05
the road diets, the infrastructure improvements
19:07
and the retrofits that are coming soon to a neighborhood near you.
19:10
Thank you.
19:13

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Ellen Dunham-Jones - Architect
Ellen Dunham-Jones takes an unblinking look at our underperforming suburbs -- and proposes plans for making them livable and sustainable.

Why you should listen

Ellen Dunham-Jones teaches architecture at the Georgia Institute of Technology, is an award-winning architect and a board member of the Congress for the New Urbanism. She shows how design of where we live impacts some of the most pressing issues of our times -- reducing our ecological footprint and energy consumption while improving our health and communities and providing living options for all ages.

Dunham-Jones is widely recognized as a leader in finding solutions for aging suburbs. She is the co-author of Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs. She and co-author June Williamson share more than 50 case studies across North America of "underperforming asphalt properties" that have been redesigned and redeveloped into walkable, sustainable vital centers of community—libraries, city halls, town centers, schools and more.

The original video is available on TED.com
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