Retrofitting Suburbia

Just over a week ago I was fortunate enough to attend one of the seminars at the CNU 17 (Congress of New Urbanism annual conference) here in Denver.  The seminar was called Retrofitting Suburbia, and it was given by the co-authors of the Retrofitting Suburbia book Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson.

It’s obvious that suburbia is based on the ease of use for the automobile – the wide streets that allow faster speeds, the ample parking lots that at most times of the year remain for the most part empty, and the ubiquitous driveways that demarcate the garage door as being the new front door into our homes.  Suburbia comes across as a haphazard “train wreck” development that is more driven by the profit margin of a development company rather than creating a livable environment (i.e. an environment that offers any other option other than getting in ones car and driving to a destination) for the populous.

This train wreck development is sorely lacking in any kind of meaningful design.  And by meaningful design I don’t mean implementing an aesthetic that is pleasing (which of course is highly subjective), but instead I mean injecting a sense of purpose into the design, to create connections between buildings and open spaces, and ultimately build an environment that fosters personal interactions and promotes a democratic society.  What suburbia does promote is a reclusive society that travels primarily in their cars and interacts with other people with their car horn and their middle finger.

So why has the last sixty years erased our knowledge of how to create viable communities?  Has capitalism over-reached its bound and become more centralized to our society than democracy?  We as a society are heading into a future where we know the current status quo can not carry us forward.  The solutions for many of society’s problems – a more fuel efficient automobile, urban sprawl, obesity, a failing infrastructure – could be answered by asking one question – what if I could walk to the store?

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One thought on “Retrofitting Suburbia

  1. Mile High Pixie

    OMGOMGOMGOMG! You make an excellent point. I realize that the “what if I could walk to the store” question seems overly simple to some, if not many. However, I see it from the other side: I CAN walk to the store, and it really makes a difference. Walking through my neighborhood at different times of the day and week has made me familiar with a lot of faces. Even if I never properly “meet” those people, I know them, and I know who belongs here–the Einstein’s bagel maker, the cashier at King Soopers that looks like Fernando Vina, the homeless guy that looks like Santa Claus and Jerry Garcia. Walking makes me familiar with the physical spaces as well, and I know what’s different–they’re remodeling, that looks new, oh god I think someone broke their window. And most importantly, taking people out of their cars makes them face each other and recognize that we aren’t shiny metal boxes to be shouted and cursed at, but we are REAL PEOPLE. We may not visit with our neighbors, but we can’t help but nod or say hello as we pass them and they’re sitting on their porch. Because we recognize that they’re people and not just Others in the stucco box next door, we’re less likely to run power tools at 7am or have a loud karaoke party at 11pm, and we’re more likely to call the cops if we hear or see something wrong. Despite the fact that more people live in my neighborhood than in a suburban neighborhood of the same size, I maintain that I’m more engaged with my neighbors because I recognize their humanity on a human scale on a regular basis. And all that because I walk to the grocery store once a week.

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