Aerial view of suburban houses.
Michael Duva for Getty.

The People the Suburbs Were Built for Are Gone

A new book documents the “retrofitting” of obsolete suburban malls, box stores, office parks, parking lots, motels, and more.
January 21, 2021, 5:00pm

Last summer, Donald Trump and Ben Carson, then Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, co-bylined an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal promising to “protect America’s suburbs," describing how they reversed policies that would allow for the creation of denser living structures in areas zoned only for single-family homes.

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"America’s suburbs are a shining example of the American Dream, where people can live in their own homes, in safe, pleasant neighborhoods," they wrote. 

But the suburbs, in the sense of the idyllic American pastoral Trump and Carson referenced, have been changing for some time—not necessarily the physical homes, stores, roads, and offices that populate them, but the people who live there, along with their needs and desires. Previous mainstays of suburban life are now myths: that the majority of people own their homes; that the suburbs are havens for the middle class; or that the bulk of people are young families who value privacy over urban amenities like communal spaces, walkability, and mixed-use properties. 

This mismatch has led to a phenomenon called “suburban retrofitting,” as documented by June Williamson, an associate professor of architecture at the City College of New York, and Ellen Dunham-Jones, a professor of architecture at the Georgia Institute of Technology. They have a new book out this week: Case Studies in Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Strategies for Urgent Challenges.

Since the 1990s, Williamson and Dunham-Jones have been watching the suburbs evolve. They have found that much of the suburban sprawl of the 20th century was built to serve a very different population than the one that exists now, and so preserving what the suburbs once were doesn't make sense. 

Their book describes 32 recent instances in which suburban structures have been transformed into something new. Many of the cases in Williamson and Dunham-Jones first book from 2011 on the same topic were focused on underused parking lots being transformed into mixed-use spaces. But in this new book, the retrofitting projects have become more ambitious, as cities and towns turn old box stores, malls, motels, or office parks into places for people to live, work, eat, play, exercise, go to the doctor, or even watch Mexican wrestling.

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They have found that when the suburbs are retrofitted, they can take on an astonishing array of modern issues: car dependency, public health, supporting aging people, helping people compete for jobs, creating water and energy resilience, and helping with social equity and justice.

Motherboard talked with Williamson and Dunham-Jones about why and how we should retrofit the suburbs, and whether or not the COVID-19 has made the suburbs appealing again, or instead accelerated the desire to retrofit the burbs. 

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Motherboard: How do you define the suburbs—a slippery term with no concrete definition? You write in the book that you define something as suburban based on its “suburban form," not necessarily on location or city lines—what do you mean by that?
June Williamson:
We're architects and urban designers and so we are focused on the built environment. That means that when we're looking at places, generally, that have been built out in the second half of the 20th century to be car dependent, not walkable, and have comparatively lower density.
Ellen Dunham-Jones: Similarly, you can look at the street networks. If you've got a grid, more or less, with small, walkable-sized blocks, that's urban form. If you have a highway leading off into cul de sacs, that's suburban form, which is a more treelike kind of pattern.
JW: That kind of development certainly characterizes most of the peripheral areas around the older urban cores in Northern American cities. But it can also be found within municipal boundaries of cities. We advocate for an erosion of oppositional thinking that you're either in the city or the suburbs. When you look at a larger metropolitan area, suburban form can also be found near the center in need of retrofitting. 


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You argue that many of these suburban forms are obsolete today because they don't fit the needs of the people who live there now. Can you walk me through some of the major demographic changes that have led to these suburban forms becoming obsolete? 
EDJ:
One of the biggest shifts is that the U.S. now is a majority of one to two person households. And yet, the majority of land within regional urban boundaries is zoned for single-family houses. That already is something of a mismatch.

The expectation going forward is that something like 80 percent of new households that will form over the next 15 years will be these one to two person households. A lot of them would prefer an apartment or a condo—smaller units.

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Plus you have the aging of the society, that's the other really big piece. Especially in the suburbs, a lot of elderly people loved their single-family house while they were raising the kids. But now that they're empty nesters and retiring, it's kind of lonely. They want to stay in their community with doctors and friends nearby. But a lot of them are looking for, frankly, a more urban lifestyle.

It's pretty interesting how the desires of both the younger millennials, Gen Z, and a lot of those aging boomers are converging on an interest in more walkable, mixed-use, compact urban places out in the burbs. 

JW: Commuting has also been transformed dramatically over the past decade or so, too. The notion that people live in the suburbs and work in the cities just isn't true anymore.

EDJ: We tend to think that the jobs are downtown. Since the 1980s, the majority of jobs have been more than three miles from the central business district. In places like Atlanta, where I live, it's closer to 90 percent of jobs are way outside. The central business district often has high rises and so it's really visible, but we’re really seeing something called job sprawl. I certainly see in Atlanta, we have a lot of reverse commuters in that situation. 

So when you talk about retrofitting, you mean finding and altering underused or abandoned suburban buildings to better accommodate the demographics and desires of the people who live there now?
JW:
Absolutely. And in most of the cases we've studied, this is happening because the built places have failed or are struggling to some degree. 

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The dead and dying malls, the vacated office parks, the ghost box stores left behind. Rather than bring back the same thing, this is a tremendous opportunity. 

It can be as simple as re-inhabiting, or an adaptive reuse—fixing up the building, or changing the parking lot for something that's better suited to the times. Taking something that was commercial and turning it into housing. 

It can also involve re-greening because so much of the suburbanization processes disrupted the regional ecologies and stormwater flow systems. Then it's an opportunity for wider ranging benefits. There could be places of recreation or social exchange having small plazas and program parks. And then there is redevelopment. Taking a low density, car-dependent use-separated or mono-use place and mixing it up and investing in it. 

I was really struck by the statistics in the book about how many parking spaces there are per household in certain cities. Like how there are 1.97 cars per U.S. household, but in Des Moines, Iowa, there are 19 parking spaces per household. In Jackson, Wyoming, there are 27. These all seem like really obvious places to re-think about how we're using land. 
JW:
These choices around parking we've made have been codified through regulations and naturalized as normal.

EDJ: We really have made it almost a right to park as opposed to a right to housing. Cars have much more protection than people do.

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There are these aging properties for the most part; a lot of them have become obsolete and those are places to retrofit. But sometimes [properties] are thriving. They're doing well. Yet they still look at their parking lot as this underperforming asphalt. It's not doing enough of the job. Sometimes there's a mall that is doing well, and it makes more sense now to build a parking deck and build housing and bring in offices and make more mixed use. 

All of these: the parking lots, the dead space, the vacant spaces. Those are the opportunities for the suburbs to finally address really urgent challenges of equity, climate change, and health.

You’ve been documenting retrofitting since 2011, when your first book came out, and now this second book includes even more case studies. Is the retrofitting phenomenon increasing, or does it need a push? 
EDJ:
If you go into any architecture school or city planning school's library, there are tons of books on downtowns. There's remarkably little written about the suburbs or suburbia. Most of what is there are sort of condemning them as wasteful and ecological boring places. 

We're academics, we're documenting this stuff, but we're not exactly neutral. We are advocates. We're advocates within our disciplines to to sort of say, hey, we really need to bring design to the suburbs

There's so much opportunity. It is where most Americans live. We saw a lot of these projects happening and noticed that none of the architecture magazines would cover them because they weren't cool looking enough. 

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And yet this stuff was happening. We thought it was important both to say it's important that the suburbs do retrofit and become more sustainable and resilient in just places. But it's also really important to recognize this is actually happening. And that this should happen even more. A lot of communities are afraid to do something unless they know that some other community has already done it. 

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A former Big Lots box store and parking lot converted into the Collinwood Recreation Center in Cleveland, Ohio. Photo courtesy of City Architecture.

You discuss the many social challenges retrofitting can take on. Some are more obvious like reducing dependency on cars or becoming more environmentally friendly. But there are some less intuitive ways retrofitting can impact our lives, like improving public health. 
JW:
One of the observations in public health is that there are chronic diseases of our time in developed countries, and certainly in Northern America, related to obesity and the higher incidences of diabetes, and so on. 

One way to address those kinds of diseases is simple physical activity, yet we've designed physical activity out of our environments. To design it back in is a kind of low cost way of getting people to move their bodies.

A lot of literature looks at how access to nature, being able to have a view of trees, but also being able to socialize with others is really important. That links back to the demographic prevalence of one and two person households. That leads to loneliness. How can our physical environments create places—not force people to be physically active or to socialize in any particular ways—but to support the possibility?

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Can you explain one specific facet of intentionally designed well-being called the "third place?"
JW:
This is a sociological concept. The "first place" is home and then the "second place" is work. The third place is is a little harder to define.

You might know it as the coffee shop, barbershop, or pub—so it might be a privately owned place, a place of business. It's where one habitually gathers with others, forms friendships, and is engaging in social life. These are the places that we can design into suburbs as a way to support the overall social body. 

EDJ: The suburbs largely sold themselves on the value of the terrific private realm that they present. The suburbs emphasize privacy. As these demographics are changing, there's more and more people recognizing, "I'm lonely. I would like a little bit more of a public realm."

If your public realm is just a commercial corridor full of strip malls and parking lots, there's not much opportunity. 

What we see happening are both the incorporation of the third places, but also small programmed parks, little town greens that have places for yoga classes, farmers' markets, concerts, movie nights, and those kinds of activities that don't force people to talk to one another, but at least enable the building of community. 

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The atrium at Bell Works, formerly Bell Labs in Holmdel, New Jersey. Photos by Belma Fishta, 2018.

You also write how retrofitting the suburbs can be a tool for social equity, or minority community building—how does that work? 
JW:
When thinking about social equity, it's about how people use their social relationships in their social network in order to get connected to opportunity. It really is worth a lot. And it’s one of the reasons we need to challenge the exclusionary practices that have been codified in suburban jurisdictions for decades now. And the coarse sorting that we find in suburbs. 

Some of the ways to break out of that is in older retail properties, the rent might be less. There's an opportunity for networks of immigrant groups with social and business relationships to form businesses, bring people in, and enliven a place. 

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There is a number of examples of vanilla shopping malls that had seen better days that were dead and dying. They have been reinhabited and revitalized by reflecting the changing demographics of the neighboring areas. 

One example is Grand Plaza in Fort Worth, what has been rebranded as a Latino mall. One of the large several story department stores was broken up into hundreds of stalls for very small businesses, like a mercato that you might find in Central America or Mexico. The central atrium space in the mall now hosts Mexican wrestling and other kinds of themed events that reflect the culture of the dominant ethnoburb demographics surrounding it. 

These places can also become flash points in political movements. If you're in the suburbs and you want to gather to have a peaceful protest, where do you go? One of the places you might go is the mall parking lot or along an arterial boulevard. 

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A lucha libre professional wrestling match at La Gran Plaza de Fort Worth in June 2018. Photo courtesy of Boxer Retail.

What is there still left to do when it comes to retrofitting the suburbs with social equity in mind? 
EDJ:
One of the other myths about suburbia is that the suburbs are middle class. Well, the middle class has been shrinking—we all know that. What we also see is that the suburbanization of poverty has really been tremendous. And yet it's relatively invisible. 

Poverty remains most highly concentrated in our cities. But there's actually more Americans living in poverty out in the suburbs.

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We draw attention to some of the efforts that have been made. Sadly, we don't yet see nearly enough examples of retrofitting that are really addressing the problem.

There have been some cases of aging garden apartments that are the housing of last resort for a lot of very, very poor people. 

Those are just kind of aging out. In some cases, they're being redeveloped into more expensive fancy apartments. We need a lot more attention to preserving and restoring a lot of those. It's not solving a lot of ecological problems. These places are very auto dependent. But there's such desperate need for more affordable housing out in the burbs. 

JW: I don't think we can emphasize enough that there are people in very precarious conditions across the metropolitan landscapes of North America, and that retrofitting is a way by increasing the mix and introducing supportive housing and other kinds of support services in places where people aren't marooned if their car breaks down and so forth. It’s an important factor in this conversation. It's not something that can be isolated as only a city or urban problem. 

Remaking these garden complexes or old motels, if you're going to add transit, make sure there's access for lower income people, and also younger people who might be on the beginning stages of their kind of lifelong earning trajectory. They should be saving money and shouldn't have all of their income poured into housing and supporting a vehicle. 

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There were a couple other case studies from the book I wanted to bring up. For example, I did not know that Bell Labs had been retrofitted! 
JW:
That's a super interesting retrofit. Bell Labs is a storied mid-century modern research and development campus designed by Eero Saarinen, a famous architect who unfortunately died right near its completion.

All sorts of things were invented there: transistors and technologies that led to cell phones. But it lay vacant for many years.

It's in an affluent exurb in New Jersey, and the municipality hoped to tear it all down and develop 50 or so McMansions there

But the Preservation Society and other groups rallied and a developer got interested, and now it's become like a vertical downtown. It has a quarter-mile long atrium and dozens of businesses located on the ground floor. They have a farmer's market, yoga, a hairdresser, a Montessori school, a branch of the local public library, and fireworks on the Fourth of July. It's called Bell Works. 

This kind of development concept is being repeated in another former AT&T property outside Chicago, so we'll see how that goes. 

EDJ: There's well over 150 office parks that are now being urbanized in some way. 

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The atrium at Bell Works, formerly Bell Labs in Holmdel, New Jersey. Photos by Belma Fishta, 2018.

Bell Works is an example of mixing the uses of a space that used to be just offices, and where the assumption was that scientists would have epiphanies if they were isolated in their office looking at a pastoral landscape. Now, we tend to think of innovation as occurring in much more urban places, and it's the chance encounters that trigger innovation.

It's also being driven because employers recognize that the younger workers do not want to work in a cubicle in an office park. They do not want to work in a place that is only "work."

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Another great example is the old box store that became a recreation center.
JW:
Yes, in this case it was Big Lots in a relatively low-income neighborhood on the periphery of Cleveland that has been transformed into a recreational center. 

It now has a running track through it, a pool, some outdoor recreational spaces, and it’s yards from the lake there, too. 

There are opportunities to take these dead retail boxes all across the country—and there are thousands of them—and rethink not only the building itself, but the entire property and parking lots to support health, wellness, day care clinics, clinics for routine health care, libraries, and other kinds of sharing services.

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A former Big Lots box store and parking lot converted into the Collinwood Recreation Center in Cleveland, Ohio. Photo courtesy of City Architecture.

Sometimes it's not about redeveloping these spaces, but about regreening them. Can you give an example of that kind of project?
JW:
Back in the 19th century, Meriden, Connecticut lost all of its industrial use and job space, and so by the middle of the 20th century, a suburban, enclosed shopping mall had been built in the middle of downtown over in creek, and it failed miserably. 

Every time there was a big storm event, the creek would flood and cause millions of dollars of damage to all the neighboring businesses and the town had become increasingly lower-income. 

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Formerly a mall and parking lot, Meriden Green, CT, now has relocated subsidized housing, and green infrastructure including a daylit brook and stormwater park. Photos courtesy of Milone & MacBroom, Inc.

What happened here was an incredible greening retrofit where the mall was demolished, the creek that had been put into concrete below ground was opened back up to the air. The ground was regraded—that's a technical term, but basically the surface of the ground was made lower. 

The whole property was turned into a park, which is a stormwater park. The next time there's a big storm event, the park becomes like a big bathtub and water will drain there and eventually percolate into the soil and not cause all of the damages that it had in previous cycles.

There's this beautiful amenity and then around it, lots of new housing is being built that then has the park amenity. There's a train station right there that's been rebuilt with increased service through central Connecticut. It has all of these kinds of connected benefits around taking away development.

Last summer, the New York Times wrote that "New Yorkers Are Fleeing to the Suburbs" because of the pandemic. There's been this narrative that people who live in urban areas are moving back to the suburbs—and they suddenly want the things that were previously obsolete. Do you think that's true, and would it put a stall on these kinds of retrofitting projects?
JW:
Broadly, what we've seen in this past year is an intensification, or an acceleration, of some of the trends that were happening already. There was already the redistributing of populations to some of those locations, especially in metro areas like New York, which are so insanely expensive. If you could find something that was New York-like in New Jersey or Westchester or Long Island, it would make sense that those places might be attractive to people.

What we're seeing right now, I think in New York certainly, is people who'd been thinking about this acting on it. But where are they moving in the suburbs? They’re not rejecting the urban lifestyle altogether. They're being drawn to already urbanizing locations in the suburbs.

It's not a complete rejection of one for the other, but it's finding like for like. Still, the evidence is mostly anecdotal at this point. Time will tell. 

I think it's also understood that developers who are planning new projects in these suburban locations are looking to make mixed-use places, and are looking to add different housing types in their suburban projects. 

EDJ: In the long run a lot of those suburbs that those folks are moving to, if they're going to retain those households, they're going to have to start providing more of the urban amenities. 

I'm certainly seeing around Atlanta as one example, a lot more communities changing their zoning to allow for access to accessory dwelling units, to allow for what’s been called the "missing middle"—duplexes, quadplexes, townhouses—in existing neighborhoods with suburban neighborhoods that were single family [only]. Now they're allowing that densification. 

Those regulatory changes have happened just in the last eight months. There's been a surge of that. And it's very much in response to recognizing that there is the market, the demand. People want these more urban lifestyles, even if they are choosing to move to the burbs. A lot of people who have isolated themselves might still be craving places to be able to gather safely. And so it could accelerate the retrofitting of suburbia.

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