A recent urban design conference held at North Carolina State University focused on the concept of the “Sustainable Suburb” and how to achieve it. It is now reality that suburbs are no longer places of the white middle class; rather, they are becoming diverse melting pots, attracting a wide range of groups, including a significant percentage of the nation’s poor. Though they once symbolized growing American modernity in the post-war period, many suburbs now suffer from the same sort of decay that has been attacking inner cities for decades, according to a story in Sustainable Cities Collective.
Ellen Dunham-Jones, whose Retrofitting Suburbia (with June Williamson) has become a frequently cited handbook for people looking for ways to reconfigure their environments for a new century. The book shows how strip shopping centers can be morphed into churches and how office parks can be densified:
“The baby boomers want to be really engaged, they want to walk places, and they want to age in place,” she argued. “But we haven’t build the landscape for that.” Rather than suggesting that the suburbs simply be abandoned to reflect the fact that they may be ill-suited for contemporary needs, the answer may be reconfiguring them.
Whereas Dunham-Jones focused on the individual building, Patrick Condon, a professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, was more explicit in his region-wide ambitions for physical transformation:
He argued that the electric streetcar allowed people all over North America to get around very easily while producing few carbon emissions at the beginning of the 20th Century. Condon promoted a return of that transportation mode. He suggested that suburbs could be reconfigured around public transportation links, rather than the automobile as are so many subdivisions and office parks. If suburbs are now car-dominated, it wouldn’t take much investment, or much time, to turn them into transit-oriented landscapes with four-story buildings along streetcar corridors and more subdivision of bungalows that are too large for the small families that now inhabit them.