Architectural Record BE - Building Enclosure

Retrofitting Suburbia

America takes back the bleak suburbs of yesterday and repurposes them into vibrant, interconnected, mixed-use communities.
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From GreenSource
Katharine Logan
Continuing Education

Learning Objectives - After this course, you should be able to:

  1. Describe current factors for change in America's suburban landscapes.
  2. Identify opportunities for retrofitting at a variety of scales.
  3. Apply principles and strategies from successful retrofits of suburban commercial development.
  4. Reference urban design elements necessary to complete communities.


1 GBCI CE Hour

Surburbia started well enough, with leafy nineteenth-century neighborhoods connected along rail and streetcar lines, walkable shops and services, and a sense of belonging. The post-World War II sequel, spurred by federal mortgage incentives and a culture going car-crazy, lost the story line: Levittown and its ilk rejected compact, diverse settlement patterns for car-based monocultures. By the end of the twentieth century, third-generation exurbs had made "suburb" a synonym for "sprawl."

The average North American suburbanite now treads with three times the carbon footprint of a city dweller, except that suburbia's oil dependency and land profligacy mean there's not a lot of treading going on. One in three kids born today faces the prospect of developing diabetes as a result, in large part, from having nowhere to walk to, and many suburban families spend more on transportation than they do on housing. In this economic wintertime, suburban commercial centers are failing in record numbers, triggering blight and flight in a spiral of wider decay.

The suburbs are not just middle-class bedroom communities any more. Suburbia accounts for 75 percent of developed land in America, and more than half of us live—and work—in it. Fixing the mess, according to Ellen Dunham-Jones, Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at Georgia Tech, will be "the big design and development project for the next fifty years." Suburbia, take four, is a retrofit.

Although the human and environmental reasons for change have been plain for years, a couple of market factors are now joining the push. Two big generations, baby boomers and Gen Y, are looking for more urban lifestyles even when they don't live in the city; and developers, with underperforming asphalt surface parking lots leap-frogged by sprawl, are looking for higher value.

Illustration by Paul Wearing


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Originally published in GreenSource