A Not So Suburban Suburbia: Possibilities for Our Urban Future

More on retrofitting suburbia


There are nearly seven billion people on the planet, and more than half of them live in urban areas. Close your eyes and try to picture that. Do you see the towering density of Tokyo or Mumbai? Well, you’re partly right. Megacities with populations topping 10 million are part of the picture, but our urbanization rate also captures lots and lots of areas with populations as small as 2,500 (Instead of Cairo, think Bloomfield, Iowa, for example). What’s more, megacities are groupings of multiple cities and suburbs, and each of these is subject to changing local definitions. As Hania Zlotnik, a population expert from the United Nations, put it earlier this week here at the Aspen Environment Forum, the statistic that we’re more than half urban “hides more than it reveals.”

So if the mostly urban world isn’t going to be a uniform skyscraper forest, is it going to be a sprawling megasuburb with oceans of parking lots? Not necessarily. As Georgia Tech’s Ellen Dunham-Jones shows, there is a growing trend in the United States to retrofit suburbia in ways that incorporate what people like about more traditional urban settings (see video above). Abandoned supermarkets, shopping malls, and big box stores are being sliced and diced into walkable neighborhoods with street grids, mixed uses, and a comfortable feel. Rather than simply spreading out into fertile farmlands, these urban projects are targeting what Dunham-Jones calls “underperforming asphalt” – blank spaces within the urban boundary. As a result, the burbs are getting their own downtowns.

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