‘Retrofitting the suburbs’ has almost become a new buzz word in planning circles. Books have been written on it (and here’s a TED talk from the author, Ellen Dunham-Jones, based on it). Dunham-Jones, from an architect’s perspective, talks about reusing old buildings, such as dilapidated malls. But more often that that, I hear that land use and density in the suburbs needs to change – i.e. it needs to be come ‘denser’ (if that’s a word). Here is another article about a competition in Long Island, trying to come up with ideas to design a ‘better burb’. Interestingly, the entrants landed up trying to address all sorts of issues in the suburbs, from housing type and density, to access to jobs, transport, smart growth, even food security.

One thing I struggle with though is that I haven’t read any articles from people who live in the suburbs arguing for why they need to change and how terrible it is living where they live. As urban planners interested in urban issues, the majority of us tend to live in urban areas. So why do people move to suburbia? Although I would not presume to try to answer this question (being an urban dweller myself) I think it is safe to assume that suburbanites place value on different things than urban dwellers. One example would be that they tend to place a higher value on personal space (move out of the City and you can afford a larger house). Another example would probably be that suburbanites value the sense of open space – they don’t like the city because it’s too crowded.

So, based on this, what does ‘retrofitting suburbia’ mean? Does it mean making it ‘urban’? If that’s the case, wouldn’t those people who value their larger houses and lower density neighbourhoods simply move to the next place that’s still suburban?

As a side note, as oil prices increase, a lot of people say it is inevitable that people (current suburbanites) will seek a less car dependent, more sustainable lifestyle because of increased travel costs. I’m not an economist, but as gas costs rise, I would assume that land values in car dependent areas will have to fall due to affordability issues. This means the combined cost of transport and housing would probably stay about the same.

So, what could retrofitting look like?  It doesn’t have to look like how we currently do ‘urban’. It can, in fact it has, to be different. I would suggest that the suburbs have to stay lower density, in most areas, in order for them not to loose their appeal to those already there. W(e don’t want them creating a demand for some suburbs.) But public transit needs higher densities to work. Or that’s what we’ve been told anyway. I would suggest that perhaps higher density hubs are required around transit stations, surrounded by more suburban, outlying areas. This would place many people outside of the recommended distances for walking to a transit stop with densities too low to support a comprehensive bus service to link to the transit stops (although I would imagine there would be a few). What are required, are bicycles. Bicycles increase the distance that can be traveled within the same amount of time. Now pedal bikes will be fine for many, but I believe electric bikes have a key role to play in this vision. They could transport large numbers of people to and from their homes to these transit hubs. They enable lower density neighbourhoods, but still put people 5 – 10 minutes from a high frequency transit stop to get them into the town or city efficiently. I imagine this would cover a lot of commuter trips.

Suburbia also needs more neighbourhood retail stores that people can walk to. Done well, these can form the focal point for a small community. There could even be more higher density residential around these retail areas (such as apartments over the retail units) to help support the retail and possibly some transit service as well.

Of course there are other aspects as well. These are just a few thoughts. The culture of car ownership also needs to change. If you’re not using your car to commute to and from work, it probably makes more financial sense to just pay for a car when you need one – such as a taxi or car sharing. But that’s a topic for another day.