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Book Review; Retrofitting Suburbia, Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs

April 28, 2009 Books, Suburban Sprawl 2 Comments

I love books.  I have hundreds of them.  Many are great resources.  But none have proved as valuable as the recently published Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson ($75, Wiley).

The PR piece that came with my review copy describes the book a as a “comprehensive guidebook for architects, planners, urban designers, and developers….”  So true.  Dunham-Jones & Williamson have concisely identified the problems of suburbia and illustrated numerous real-world solutions.

The introduction does a wonderful job of explaining “urban versus suburban form.”  One example from the bullet point list:

Suburban form is characterized by buildings designed “in the round” to be viewed as objects set in a landscape they dominate; in urban form, a clear focus is on the fronts of buildings and how they line up to meet the sidewalk and shape the public space of the street.

Very straightforward, here is one more:

Suburban form tends to be lower-density and evenly spread out, while urban form tends to have a higher net density as well as a greater range of localized densities.  This is true for densities measured by population and by building area.

The book doesn’t try to convince anyone that all of suburbia can & should be turned into Manhattan.  It is about creating place and connections. The book is not so technical or academic that a lay person wouldn’t appreciate or understand the material presented.  Every elected official in every local of government needs to read this book cover to cover.

As the US population increases we need to find alternatives to just building on the edge.  As the authors show, we can infill existing suburbia effectively. Low-density single use corridors can get mixed use structures while leaving the existing single family subdivisions behind them alone.  Of course, zoning codes that created the mess we have today will need to be completely revamped.

From a recent review in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

“Retrofitting Suburbia,” a timely book co-written by Atlantan Ellen Dunham-Jones, proposes a way to turn dead malls —- as well as ailing office parks, older subdivisions and strip-center-lined arterial roads —- into lively places. Dunham-Jones, director of Georgia Tech’s architecture program, is a proponent of New Urbanism. The movement champions walkable streets, urban blocks, public spaces, mixed-use and density as keys to enduring and sustainable communities.

She and co-author June Williamson have adapted those principles to mint what you might call New Suburbanism.

The economic downturn has undoubtedly sparked some of the buzz surrounding the book. But, as the authors argue in their book, the old suburbanism is obsolete, recession or no, and for reasons that go beyond energy consumption.

Highly recommended reading for anyone interested in their cities and suburbs.

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Currently there are "2 comments" on this Article:

  1. john says:

    “While researching her book, she discovered that Atlanta was among the top three metro areas undertaking such projects” including in Dunwoody. Having owned real estate and working in this area, I see little hope for significant change. An important underlying assumption is that demographics will create the demand for more livable environments and the public will be willing to forego convenience for civility. I’m for it but political leadership prefers power over progress and the StL region is a perfect example.

  2. Steveo says:

    The great flaw in this thread of urban thinking is exactly what is stated in the first comment: that demographics will create a better urban environment. It should be welcomed that there appears to be growing demand for urban environments, but we’re bound to fail if we bask too long in that light. We must plan and demand urban environments for social, economic and environmental reasons. A new paradigm must be created that makes “urban” the new norm for many millions of people who are not part of the predicted urban demographic. Many are underestimating the stand that suburban life will make to oppose re-use and repurposing.


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