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From Death & Life to Retrofitting Suburbia

February 8, 2011 Books, Planning & Design 3 Comments

Fifty years ago Jane Jacobs published her now-classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  Her book was a criticism of the Urban Renewal policies she observed in the 1950s.  Unfortunately too few paid any attention to her observations until it was too late.  Inner cities were gutted and suburban sprawl has leapfrogged way beyond anything sustainable.  Jacobs’ book offers little t0 help us  in the 21st century.

In the last 50 years we’ve had various planning trends & terms:

“There’s a 15- to 20-year cycle on urban planning terms,” says Robert Lang, urban sociologist at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. “Remember ‘urban renewal’? Smart growth is near the end of its shelf life.” (USA Today : Will ‘intelligent cities’ put an end to suburban sprawl?)

I’m betting on “retrofitting suburbia” as a lasting planning process for the next 25-40 years.  In April 2009 I did a book review on a new volume: Book Review: Retrofitting Suburbia, Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs. The book is $75  and worth every penny (Left Bank Books).  Unfortunately neither the St. Louis or St. Louis County library systems have this excellent book.

In January 2010 co-author Ellen Dunham-Jones presented an excellent TED Talk on the subject.  In 20 minutes you can get, for free, the basic concepts presented in the book.  Please take time to watch all 20 minutes.


I’m excited about gradually building on parking lots, densifying corridors, daylighting creeks, and restoring wetland areas.  This retrofitting should be applied to the suburbanized parts of the City of St. Louis as well the rings of suburbs around the city.

Dunham-Jones says:

“The growing number of empty and under-performing, especially retail sites, throughout suburbia gives us actually a tremendous opportunity to take our least sustainable landscapes right now and convert them into more sustainable places.”

Agreed!  The St. Louis region must begin planning for the future now, if we wait our jobs and economy will suffer.  I have a framed picture of the cover of Death & Life next to my desk because it is such an important book.  I may need to frame the cover of Retrofitting Suburbia as well.

– Steve Patterson


Currently there are "3 comments" on this Article:

  1. JZ71 says:

    Without underlying changes in our reliance on local sales taxes, this could be difficult. Based on what's been planned and what's actually happened over the past couple of decades, most Retorfitting of Suburbia around here has involved demolishing lower income residential neighborhoods for new shopping centers. Until a developer is motivated, either out of their own greed and/or through government incentives, and SUCCEEDS at doing something different, we can “plan” until we're blue in the face and see little real change.

    Look at what's happening in Shrewsbury – Kenrick Plaza is failing and the city has signed on with a developer to replace it with a Super Walmart despite vocal opposition from local residents. While part of this is classic NIMBY (“make it a park”), the city leaders are obviously more fofcused on the bottom line than quality of life . . .

  2. Dave says:

    I look forward to watching this video, but I wonder if even retrofitting suburbia is a real solution. I'm currently reading a very interesting book that has only increased my skepticism: Green Metropolis by David Owen.

  3. JZ71 says:

    More thoughts . . . One, much of this vision relies on a regional commitment to land use and transportation planning and implementation, something that seems to be sorely lacking here, especially in St. Louis County, due to the multitude of small governmental entities, and their none-too-surprising focus on self-preservation and enhancement. Two, it takes a commitment from local government officials who “get it” and are willing to say no to schlock to get to higher densities and better quality. Three, it takes safety and a perception of safety. If people are afraid, they won't shop, they won't choose to live and they won't want to work in any area that's “dangerous”. And four, it's going to take changing perceptions about our public transit/Metro. It's going to be years before we say any significant new investments in rail transit, so buses are going to remain the only “answer” when it comes to public transit in places like Crestwood or Ellisville.

    Still, this is a good compendium of many previous and current ideas and philosophies. But don't be deceived into thinking that repurposing suburban sites and structures is a new thing. Many drive-in movie theaters, motels and mobile home parks were “sacrificed” in the 1960's, 70's and 80's to build the now-declining malls. There's a whole generation of early Walmarts, K-Marts and grocery stores that have already been repurposed or demolished and replaced.

    The real challenge remains convincing suburbanites around St. Louis that higher densities along major corridors and/or on declining retail and industrial sites is actually a good thing, and not a Democratic conspriacy to impose all of the city's ills on the county . . . .


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