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Putting the Urban in Suburban

It takes some imagination to think of a strip mall as anything else.


Alan Ehrenhalt

Alan is a Governing senior editor.

Although I have been writing about cities and suburbs for quite a while now, I have had to do it while suffering from a curious malady: UIDD - Urban Imagination Deficit Disorder.

In simple terms, I have a hard time looking at places and imagining them as anything different from what they currently are. I ride down traffic-choked suburban highways, past faded shopping malls and twisting feeder roads that lead to monotonous, isolated cul-de-sacs, and I am told that in a decade or so it will all be gone: The patch of strip suburbia I'm looking at will be transformed into a real urban place, with sidewalks and gridded streets and mixed-use projects where people will live, work and play without ever having to set foot in a car. But as attractive as I find this idea, I just can't envision it.

I probably need to try harder. American cities are changing rapidly, but suburbs are changing even faster. An impressive collection of evidence documents that today's young adults have a pronounced taste for urban living. One recent poll, conducted by the marketing firm Lesser & Co., reported that 77 percent of Americans born after 1981 want to live in an "urban core." More than 70 percent said they would remain urbanites even after they had children. All this is in addition to the baby boomers now approaching retirement. Another survey by Lesser found that 71 percent of the boomers placed walking distance to transit at the top of their list of housing demands.

You don't have to be a seer to figure out what these numbers mean. You just have to be able to add. The baby boomers currently are about 65 million people. The millennials are close to 80 million. The total number of people in the United States is about 300 million. If the survey numbers are even remotely accurate, we are talking about close to a majority of the American adult population that wants some form of urbanized existence.

This is, to my mind, good news. But it raises a challenging question: Where are all these urbanists-in-waiting going to live?

There are, quite obviously, some plausible answers. But each poses equally plausible problems. The present decade, at least until the recent economic collapse, witnessed a substantial and growing migration of singles, couples and older people to homes in traditional downtowns. These people are the colonizers of lofts in lower Manhattan, restored textile factories in New England, and Victorian houses and Art Deco apartment buildings in Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia.

But there's only a finite number of buildings like this for people to move into. Last year, Christopher Leinberger of the Brookings Institution calculated that in Atlanta, the demand for homes in walkable urban neighborhoods constituted 30 percent of the market. The supply was only about 12 percent.

There's one simple solution, of course: cram American downtowns full of new skyscrapers that will bring the supply up to the demand. This is what Vancouver, Canada, did in the 1990s. And in this decade, there has been a fair amount of it in the most desirable city centers in the United States, as well: Seattle, Minneapolis, Charlotte and Miami, to name just a few.

When the recession ends, there will be more. But you have to wonder how much more. People who move into lofts and older residential buildings downtown generally do it because they are attracted to neighborhoods built to human scale. They don't want to live in a forest of high-rises. Long before the supply of downtown housing units catches up with the demand, I think there will be a political backlash strong enough to prevent cities and developers from erecting many soaring new condo towers.

If I am right, and central cities alone can't handle the growing demand for urban living, then there is only one practical choice: We are going to have to urbanize the suburbs.

This, in fact, is the premise of a splendid new book, "Retrofitting Suburbia," by two architecture professors, Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson. They argue that the remaking of the American suburb not only needs to happen but already is happening, in places scattered all over the country. And they offer reporting and superb photography to back up their claim.

One thing is clear: There is a ton of suburban land ripe for renewal - greyfields, or "underused asphalt," as the authors call it. Every metro area is studded with dead or dying strip malls built in the 1960s or 1970s that will never be succesful as businesses again. One estimate is that 3 million acres of greyfield land exist in the United States. Not all of this is in obsolete strip malls. Quite a bit comes from big-box stores whose owners moved to larger plots of land and left the original building commercially useless. Wal-Mart alone has an inventory of some 200 to 400 vacant stores at any one time, most of them unrentable.

There's one obvious thing to do with all this land: Convert it to housing. In particular, housing that can satisfy the demand for urban-style living.

"The systematic development of suburban sprawl was the big architectural project of the last 50 years," Dunham-Jones and Williamson write. "The redevelopment of sprawl into more urban, more connected, more sustainable places is the big project for this century."

It's a simple idea. It's just difficult to do. The buildings aren't the hard part; an urban minded-developer and a smart local government can find ways to get residences onto abandoned suburban lots - even residences with some of the familiar New Urbanist amenities, such as porches and sidewalks. The real problems are streets and transportation.

If you want to retrofit an old mall into a truly urban place, you need to level virtually everything above ground and put in an extensive network of gridded streets. This is what makes my Urban Imagination Deficit Disorder flare up. And it isn't entirely my fault: Hardly anybody has done this. Private developers have rebuilt malls into town centers with public squares and sidewalks to stroll on, but in most cases, the grid ends after a couple of blocks. Leave the center, and you are back in an automobile-dominated no-man's land. It's nothing like a city. Few developers want to pay for a town-sized street grid on an old mall site, and local governments generally can't afford to do it.

Then there is the Catch-22 of density and transit. Every study shows that those willing to live in retrofitted suburbs want good public transit more than almost anything else. Without convenient transit stops, it's hard to get buyers for condos or tenants to fill up apartments. But without density, it's extremely hard to persuade local authorities to create the transit lines. Any solution to this problem virtually requires an "if we build it, they will come" mentality. And there's evidence that this can work, most notably in Arlington County, Virginia, just outside Washington D.C. Decades ago, Arlington opted for rail stations along a faded and underused corridor of the county. This investment paid few dividends for many years. But development eventually took off, and transit is the main reason.

The connection one ultimately draws from "Retrofitting Suburbia" is a bit paradoxical. In the authors' view, retrofits have to be really big to work. Piecemeal conversion tends to peter out before it can make a significant change in the life of a community. On the other hand, piecemeal conversion is pretty much where we are at this point. So we have to settle for it and hope for grander things to come.

There are some undeniably interesting projects. In the suburb of Falcon Heights, Minnesota, outside the Twin Cities, a failed 50-year-old mall was converted to townhouses, low-rise senior housing, and apartments above retail space. Gwinnett County, Georgia, a national symbol of chaotic suburban sprawl, is in the midst of creating 25 high-rise residential towers in mixed-use developments along some of its major corridors. It's not exactly walkable urbanism, but it's a form of urbanism nevertheless.

And in perhaps the most thorough retrofit anywhere so far, Lakewood, Colorado, a Denver suburb, bulldozed the failing Villa Italia shopping mall and built 1,300 housing units in three- and four-story buildings, placed on narrow, gridded streets with wide sidewalks. "It's not a shopping center pretending to be a downtown," the developer insists. It's a real downtown.

For all those stories, and all the enthusiasm of Dunham-Jones and Williamson about a "wave of suburban retrofits," it's fair to say that the failures still outnumber the successes at the point. But the game is only beginning. All you need to do is look at the demographics to know what the suburban future looks like - even if, like me, you have trouble visualizing it.

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