Debating the Feasibility of Retrofitting Suburbia

Is the challenge of retrofitting sprawl intractable or unavoidable?
August 5, 2015, 11am PDT | James Brasuell | @CasualBrasuell
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Robert Steuteville picks up on a debate from the CNU conference earlier this year about whether "whether sprawl repair is worth the trouble." Steuteville notes first that the debate was surprising, given that "Retrofitting Suburbia was one of top books in the planning field in the last decade" and co-author Ellen Dunham-Jones "has accumulated a database of more than 1,200 suburban retrofit projects under construction or in planning."

Architect Kevin Klinkenberg and development expert Lee Sobel, however, dared to argue that sprawl repair is "a fool's errand." Klinkenberg even penned a blog post in May making this provocative argument: "Suburbia, or sprawl as we interchangeably call it, is all about bigness and mass production," meaning, "it's outside the DNA of walkable cities. Embracing sprawl retrofit is like saying we can transform fast food culture into healthy food."

Steuteville, however, rejects that premise, and proceeds to take on theanti-suburban retrofit arguments, one by one. Those arguments include:

  • "Even when suburban retrofit projects are built, the urbanism is far from great." Steuteville's response is that "turning a lousy place into a decent one improves people's lives."
  • "Existing urban places are plentiful, so just work in those areas." Actually, argues Steuteville, the supply of urban areas with 19th century and early 20th century street grids is extremely finite, meaning it will never meet demand. "Values will relentlessly increase unless we transform some of the drivable suburban areas."

A final point is that much of what Klinkenberg abhors about sprawl, especially its "bigness," can also be found in cities. So, says Steuteville: "We can't avoid the task of sprawl repair—not even in cities."

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Published on Wednesday, July 22, 2015 in Better Cities & Towns
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