September 17, 2010

What We're Reading: Retrofitting Suburbia

Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs is the full title, and totally encapsulates the tome's intent.

What's been most interesting so far are the market forces it describes. To authors Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson, the financial incentives for retrofitting are present and only gathering more steam.

To wit:
  • Reduced percentages of suburban households with children
  • Growing market for multiunit housing in suburban locations
  • Continued growth in percentage of jobs in suburban locations.
  • First-ring suburbs that are aging and depopulating, and becoming comparatively central thanks to newer, farther-flung developments
And here's a quote that stood out for multiple, perhaps paradigm shift-related reasons:

"The future promises to alter our relationship to place as we continue to shift from an industrial to a postindustrial economy and society. This economy is digitally enabled to be less dependent on geography, making the qualities of individual places matter more in locational decisions ... a primary goal is to build and support an identifiable, durable place to which people will be attracted."

At first I thought, you ninny, we are obviously post-industrial. Then I remembered that I am 24, and the author could be double my age. I've never even really lived in an industrial economy, so acknowledging post-industrialism feels calling my music habits post-vinyl.

My second impression is that her assessment of our evolving geography is on point. A knowledge economy is, at least comparatively, a movable feast. In determining where to look for jobs, or where I'd like to live, I determine my shortlist exclusively by quality of place. After that cut, other factors dominate (well, just one, really--employment), but I hadn't really considered the implications of such radical mobility. With the power of the internet fueling national and international job searches and instant information gathering, the barriers to getting a job in x place because it seems like the get lower and lower. And let's get tighter: even moving to x neighborhood, or x street. It seems more people than ever have* the kind of choosing power and information re location and place that is traditionally reserved for appliances and car stereos. A more powerful customer can certainly shift the old demand curve ...

*Or do they? Having a family with a stable financial background and a college education seem completely essential here. And those are two big caveats. As suburban places improve and diversify their land-use in desirable ways, I wouldn't be surprised if traditionally marginalized groups get priced/elbowed out into the newly least desirable spaces ... actually I kind of expect it. Keeping the less-mobile in mind will be critical to ensuring that the boon from these market forces (better places) are equitably available.


  1. One cool aspect of higher density development in inner-ring suburbs is the socioeconomic diversity that it can encourage and allow. Sure, there will be some elbowing, but neo-urbanists can hold dear a belief that we can achieve greater diversity than the current iteration of the suburb will allow through more variation in the housing stock.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Totally -- higher density allows for infinitely more diverse uses, and part of this is certainly a direct outgrowth of having different kinds of housing stock on offer. You'd have some older buildings, some newer buildings, homes, apts, condos, studios, all that jazz. And all of that can only really come with infill and density. Because apts in the suburbs mostly just feel like second-class houses, not the efficient, diversity and density enabling dwellings that they are ...