Reinventing the Suburban American Dream

CNU 17 focuses on retrofits that bring renewal to declining areas of sprawl

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The sprawling "American suburb as we know it is dying” observed TIME magazine this spring before declaring "recycling suburbia" as one of "ten ideas changing the world." CNU 17 has the two urbanist scholars who have done the most influential recent work in understanding and spreading the message about this trend: City College New York architecture professor June Williamson and Ellen Dunham-Jones, a CNU board member and director of the architecture program at Georgia Tech. Dunham-Jones and Williamson will offer in-depth lessons on how to transform suburbia in their 202 class on Thursday June 11 at CNU 17, and help shape a track of breakout sessions on this fast-mainstreaming trend, which takes the sunk investment in sprawl and connects it to a more resilient, more urban future. Retrofitting Suburbia catalogs a full range of strategies from full-scale town center redevelopment to transformations of big box sites into churches, call centers, and public libraries to incremental strategies such as improving accessibility, so residents can age in place.

With an amusement park already turned into a mixed-use new urbanist neighborhood, a major airport and its runways in the process of becoming multiple neighborhoods, and 7 out of 13 regional malls undergoing transformation, Denver is leading the country in retrofits. Dunham-Jones and Williamson describe Denver landscape as “an astonishing transformation.” According to the authors, the large number of retrofits across the Denver region offers a “tremendous opportunity to re-organize the first-ring suburbs into a comprehensive multi-centered metropolitan structure.”

CNU 17's innovative Experiences feature immersive learning opportunities in three major retrofits in metropolitan Denver:

  • Belmar, a 106-acre mixed-use urban project replacing the Villa Italia mall in Lakewood, Colorado an inner ring suburb.
  • Highlands’ Garden Village, a former amusement park site now a mixed-use retail, office and co-housing site with ample open space led by Rose Companies.
  • Stapleton, the former Denver airport site that is becoming a thriving community featuring housing, office and open space.

Participants will engage with residents, learn from developers and use interactive tools to compare notes on how the places measures up to CNU charter principles in these unique half-day experience tours. A session led by Lee Sobel of the Environmental Protection Agency and urbanist Stuart Sirota will further explore the challenges of knitting together pedestrian-scale retail offerings in retrofit environments, including Belmar and Stapleton, in light of retail trends favoring big-box formats.

Successful retrofit strategies help cities reclaim tax revenue and make quality places that will attract long-term investment. By building on the fundamentals of good urban design and connected street networks, this is one of the ways new urbanists are helping metropolitan areas prepare to re-emerge from crisis in more resilient form. In additional retrofit sessions, Greg Tung and Jeffrey Tumlin will show refined approaches to street typologies that transform a suburban arterial into the spine of a mixed-use town center. Athena Medalist Sinclair Black, John Ellis of WRT Solomon, Ellen Dunham-Jones and Ryan Kennedy will offer strategies for higher density, highly livable retrofits, drawing lessons from Rockville Town Center, National Harbor, and the mixed-use buildings along 2nd Street in downtown Austin.

You won’t want to miss out on all of the opportunities at this year’s Congress for the New Urbanism, June 10-14 in Denver, Colorado. Why wait? Register now and begin the reurbanization of America.

Photo: Formerly the sprawling site of Denver's international airport, Stapleton is fast-becoming a walkable, mixed-use neighborhood — full of parks and amenities — for a growing number of Denverites to call home. Image courtesy of mhanson via Flikr Creative Commons License.