Ellen Dunham-Jones: The Recycling of Suburbia

To appeal to today's households, suburbs need to take a more urban approach to development, says Atlanta architect Ellen Dunham-Jones, co-author of Retrofitting Suburbia (John Wiley & Sons, 2009).

January 1, 2011

In your book, you say that the suburban landscape no longer fits with today’s demographic trends. Can you explain why?

DUNHAM-JONES: When we began building suburbs in the 1950s and ‘60s, half of all households lived there, and most of those households had children and a stay-at-home mom. Since 2000, two-thirds of suburban households no longer fit that Ozzie-and-Harriet stereotype. Demographers predict that 75 percent to 85 percent of new households through 2025 won’t have children for several reasons—an aging population, more single-person households, and Generation Y waiting longer to have kids. Households want more compact living places and public spaces that encourage interaction with a greater diversity of people.

Does this mean a death knell for traditional suburbs?

DUNHAM-JONES: Some suburbs will retain their values because they’re perceived as prestigious communities with great housing and unique identities. Some will transform themselves, similar to what the Buckhead community in Atlanta has done. It still has great houses, but most new construction consists of high-rise luxury towers close to shops, restaurants, and parks.

How can suburban shopping areas reinvent themselves to better suit the lifestyle of today’s households?

DUNHAM-JONES: The most successful mall retrofits have an urban-type layout superimposed on them. They become mixed-use town centers with housing, stores, offices, movie theaters, and parks. Home owners who live there don’t feel isolated and aren’t as dependent on cars as they would be in more traditional suburbs. One example is Belmar, a redevelopment project in Lakewood, Colo., near Denver. It used to be a huge enclosed mall. But now it’s being transformed into an urban concept with 23 walkable blocks, public spaces, and LEED-certified mixed-use buildings. It will function as a downtown.

Belmar sounds like a major project. What if communities can’t handle such a huge undertaking?

DUNHAM-JONES: We’ve identified two other approaches. With reinhabitation, new businesses take over and change store layouts rather than make fundamental changes in the structure. This often occurs in old strip malls in first-ring suburbs, which offer more affordable retail space than expensive urban downtown sites do. The other approach, regreening, is rare but will probably become more common. It happens in areas where the population is shrinking, real estate values are low, and densification isn’t likely to happen. A developer turns the property into green space, which may increase surrounding property values.

In today’s economy, is there really money available for retrofit projects?

DUNHAM-JONES: Financing from public and private sectors will be tough for awhile. So much depends on President Obama’s stimulus package. He’s investing more in infrastructure and sustainable living. Transportation is also where the federal government should play a key role. Good public transportation helps improve long-term values and cuts down on greenhouse gases.

So, people who formerly dreamed of a detached single-family house may now prefer a loft above the store?

DUNHAM-JONES: A lot of consumer research says yes. A study conducted last year by real-estate consulting firm RCLCO found that 77 percent of Generation Y members want to live in an urban-style core.

How do real estate salespeople convince home owners to consider new options?

DUNHAM-JONES: So many people—downsizing boomers and young professionals—want to have more access to urban street life and activities they can walk to. The suburbs originally were designed to maximize privacy for young families, but many now view them as lonely and isolating. Yet, many jobs now are found in the suburbs. In many Southern cities, up to 70 percent of the office market is there. We encourage real estate professionals to help buyers realize they can enjoy an urban experience in a suburban location.

Want More?

For more information on walkable, neighborhood-based development, visit the Congress for New Urbanism at www.cnu.org.

Barbara Ballinger

Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer and the author of several books on real estate, architecture, and remodeling, including The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing, 2014). Barbara’s most recent book is The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space, co-authored with Michael Glassman (Images, 2015).