Ellen Dunham-Jones Talks Retrofitting Suburbia


In her talk to the Illinois chapter of CNU in September of 2007, Board Member Ellen Dunham-Jones urged CNU members to think about the retrofit – or retrofill – of suburban development as a pragmatic means of improving the sustainability of the built environment. More specifically, her use of the word retrofit was meant to speak to a “redevelopment of prototypical suburban property types into more urban form.” While Dunham-Jones admitted that such redevelopment is unlikely to achieve a fully “sustainable urbanism,” she also emphasized the ways in which it can bring about incremental improvement in critical aspects of sustainable communities such as walkability. Combining academic analysis with impressive on-the-pavement observations from the real estate market, Dunham-Jones offered refreshing insights on the state of “greyfield development,” including the current thirst of developers in built-out suburbs to improve return on their “underperforming asphalt.”

In her discussions about the suburban environment, Dunham-Jones defined retrofit as an alteration of forms, the modification of critical aspects of the built landscape that would allow for it to become less automobile-reliant and more pedestrian-friendly. She discussed many projects that had successfully made such a transformation, looking particularly at the conversion of shopping malls, industrial and business parks, big box stores, strip malls, garden apartments, and residential subdivisions. According to Dunham-Jones, the retrofit of shopping malls will be a particular focus for suburban redevelopment, as failing malls are one of the most pervasive concerns for suburban communities; as Dunham-Jones noted, in 2001 a full 20% of the nation’s malls were dead or dying.

Dunham-Jones observed that it is often the problems – such as aging commercial spaces, traffic congestion, or crowded schools – that initially garner enthusiasm for retrofit projects. Other potential forces for change include changing demographics, increasing population, the arrival of transit, and a shifting economic identity relative to the urban core (where suburbs come to understand themselves as a destination, as opposed to being peripheral to a larger urban area). That said, Dunham-Jones noted that changes in the suburban landscape tend to happen incrementally, and not smoothly, given the conservatism of suburban communities relative to urban cores.

One of the most interesting aspects of Dunham-Jones’ talk was the way in which she wrestled with the imperfect solutions appearing in many suburban retrofits. For instance, she spent several minutes discussing the “Texas Donut,” a parking structure surrounded by usable residential and commercial space. While the Texas Donut thereby maintains an urban streetscape while providing suburban parking ratios, Dunham-Jones was honest about the drawbacks to the solution, noting that it continues to encourage people to drive. However imperfect such compromises are in the short-term, however, Dunham-Jones remained optimistic that a market for new suburban density will develop, and she urged us to be prepared to meet that market as it grows.

This, ultimately, was Dunham-Jones’ message: that while planners might dream of starting from scratch, creating an ideal and sustainable built environment, they must face up to the fact that they are working with an existing landscape. As she noted, “it’s not as if the existing suburban landscape is going to go away.” While she argued that many effective compromises – like the Texas Donut – are solutions that have been created by the needs of the market, she also called upon planners to take an active role in “facilitat[ing] these kinds of changes.” Calling retrofit a “hybrid form of urbanity,” Dunham-Jones spoke enthusiastically about the use of greyfields in “starting to plan ahead” for a more sustainable future.
CNU Board member Ellen Dunham-Jones spoke at the annual CNU Illinois chapter meeting in Wheaton, IL on Friday, September 28th. She discussed suburban retrofiting - a pertinent issue that will be featured in her forthcoming book. As suburban design practices boom in some areas, many cities are now more reminiscent of suburbia. On the other hand, Dunham-Jones notes that because of "under-performing asphalt" (greyfields), real estate developers in the suburbs are increasingly changing the way they do business to make profits. New developments, some known as "Texas Doughnuts," which include a circular parking lot surrounded by a mix of uses are altering the suburban landscape.

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RetrofittingSuburbsDupage.pdf11.05 MB