Why Do The Suburbs Still Matter?

Jun 15, 2012

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Future of Cities. Watch Ellen Dunham-Jones' full Talk -- Retrofitting Suburbia -- on TED.com.

About Ellen Dunham-Jones' Talk

In this Talk, Ellen Dunham-Jones takes an unblinking look at underperforming suburbs and makes a proposal that would transform them into livable, sustainable places. She offers the next big idea for sustainable design over the next 50 years: retrofitting suburbia. She shares her vision of dying malls rehabilitated, dead "big box" stores re-inhabited and parking lots transformed into thriving wetlands.

About Ellen Dunham-Jones

Ellen Dunham-Jones teaches architecture at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She is an award-winning architect and a board member of Congress for the New Urbanism. She shows how the design of where we live can impact some of the most pressing issues of our times: reducing our ecological footprint and energy consumption, 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, showcasing 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.

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This is the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. I'm Alison Stewart. On today's show, we're talking about the future of our cities and the power they have to foster community and hope, even in the world's most difficult and dense urban centers. And we're hearing iconic sounds of several cities which we asked our listeners to share with us.


STEWART: Our next TED speaker says the biggest urban revitalization challenge we face today isn't happening in the big cities.

ELLEN DUNHAM-JONES: We've got to celebrate and learn from the energy, the entrepreneurialism and lower carbon footprints of those compact, heavily populated areas; the mega-cities, the mega-slums. But we really need to recognize that, as the planet is becoming more and more urbanized, in many respects it's actually becoming more and more suburbanized.


DUNHAM-JONES: We've had - in the last 50 years, we've been building the suburbs with a lot of unintended consequences and...

STEWART: That's Ellen Dunham-Jones, a professor of architecture at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. In her 2010 TEDX Talk, she said the best way to understand the future of our cities is to rethink the current state of our suburbs.


DUNHAM-JONES: ...that the big design and development project of the next 50 years is going to be retro-fitting suburbia. So whether it's redeveloping...

STEWART: Ellen Dunham-Jones is with me now. And, Ellen, just so we have a definition of terms, what does retro-fitting suburbia mean?

DUNHAM-JONES: Retro-fitting suburbia is taking some of our least sustainable landscapes: the landscapes of dead malls, dying big box stores, ageing commercial strip corridors, office parks, garden apartments, the whole kit and caboodle that is extremely auto-dependent, requires an enormous amount of resources and, in many respects, is really pretty wasteful.

And now that those properties are ageing and underperforming, we have an opportunity to retro-fit them into more sustainable places.

STEWART: You talk a lot about areas in cities that are repurposing dead malls. How do malls die?

DUNHAM-JONES: Malls die for a lot of reasons. Part of it is simply we've over-saturated the market.


DUNHAM-JONES: You know, they compete with each other and - and certainly the Internet is also beginning to have a - just a growing and growing impact on retail stores in general. So the average lifespan of a mall is about 25 to 30 years. And we started building them in earnest in the '70s, so we've got a third of our enclosed regional malls right now are dead or dying. And only about a third that are really strong and healthy.

STEWART: What can one do with a dead mall?

DUNHAM-JONES: All sorts of things. I'm constantly surprised at the wide range.


DUNHAM-JONES: So this happens to be a dead mall in St. Louis. It's now home to artists, studios, theatre groups, dance troupes. It's not pulling in as much tax revenue as it once was, but it's serving its community, it's keeping the lights on. It's, I think, a really great institution. Other malls have been re-inhabited as nursing homes, as universities and has all variety of office space.

We also found a lot of examples of dead big-box stores that have been converted into all sorts of community serving uses as well. Lots of schools, lots of churches and lots of libraries.

This one is a little L-shaped strip shopping center in Phoenix, Arizona. Really, all they did was they gave it a fresh coat of bright paint, a gourmet grocery, and they put a restaurant in the old post office. Never underestimate the power of food to turn a place around and make it a destination.

It's been so successful, they've now taken over the strip across the street and the - the real estate ads in the neighborhood all very proudly proclaim, walking distance to Le Grande Orange, because it provided its neighborhood with what sociologists like to call, a third place.

If home is the first place and work is the second place, the third place is where you go to hang out and build community. There's a real hunger for more third places.

This is Mashpee Commons, the oldest retro-fit that we found, and it's just incrementally over the last 20 years, built urbanism on top of its parking lots.

STEWART: In your talk, you have up some slides about Mashpee Commons and it's actually - it's very stark, the difference between what it was and what it's become. Can you describe it to the radio audience?

DUNHAM-JONES: Mashpee Commons was a fairly typical 1960s strip mall on Cape Cod, just surrounded by a sea of parking. And then it was owned by a family and, over the course of 20 years, bit by bit, they just began building on top of the parking lots and creating a little urban grid of walkable blocks with two to three story buildings with apartments above the shops. And creating a little downtown that Mashpee had never had before.

And part of how they make sure that they're going to have local retailers is they deliberately built some of their retail spaces as little winer (ph) buildings on the edges of parking lots that are too shallow to work for the national chains, but they're great to incubate local business.

STEWART: You end your TED Talk with a description of a protest that happened in Silver Spring, Maryland. And it was on a green space made out of Astroturf.


DUNHAM-JONES: Now, retro-fits are often accused of being examples of faux downtowns and instant urbanism. And not without reason. You don't get much more phony than an Astroturf town green. And they are - are public places but that are managed by private companies. And just the surface appearances are, like the Astroturf here, you know, they make me wince.

So, you know, I mean, I'm glad that - that urbanism is doing its job. The fact that a protest is happening, really it does mean that the layout of the blocks, the streets and blocks, the putting in of public space, compromised as it may be, you know, is still a really great thing. But we just - we've got to get the architecture better.

I want you to join the protest and start demanding more sustainable suburban places. More sustainable places, period. Culturally, we tend to think that downtowns should be dynamic, and we expect that, but we seem to have an expectation that the suburbs should forever remain frozen in whatever adolescent form they were first given birth to.

It's time to let them grow up. So I want you to all support the zoning changes, the road diets, the infrastructure improvements and the retro-fits that are coming soon to a neighborhood near you. Thank you.


STEWART: Ellen Dunham-Jones, thank you so much for being on the TED RADIO HOUR.

DUNHAM-JONES: Thank you.

STEWART: Ellen Dunham-Jones is a professor of architecture at Georgia Tech. You can find links to her book, "Retrofitting Suburbia," and pictures of many of the sites we discussed. Go to ted.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.