An Urban Fix for Suburbia? Tackling Growing Problems Through Retrofits

Watching Andres Duany go through images at the final presentation of the Lifelong Communities charrette in Atlanta, it quickly became clear how many of the goals of the ambitious planning effort could be lumped under one category: retrofitting suburbia.

“In one way or another,” said DPZ principal Galina Tahchieva, “all of the interventions we suggested were suburban retrofits.” They involved connecting street networks, creating town or neighborhood centers, “completing” neighborhoods with the missing components of mixed-use, and providing for transit interconnections.

Emerging evidence suggests the retrofitting phenomenon is going to grow in importance. Credit Georgia Tech School of Architecture director Ellen Dunham-Jones and City College of New York/CUNY professor June Williamson for getting out a book that explains it all.

The retrofitting movement is likely to benefit by a broader trend of redevelopment in close-in neighborhoods, including central city neighborhoods. Read about the EPA’s most recent research in the trend here.

At the Atlanta charrette, Tahchieva oversaw DPZ’s ideas for bringing new life to Gwinnett Place Mall in the northeastern suburbs. Expanding the study area to adjacent strip malls and offices, DPZ created three designs for a site totaling 900 acres. It’s a big enough parcel to accommodate something like a third of the projected growth of the county over the next 20 years, provided the declining single-use mall converts to an urbanized, mixed-use community with a town center.

“We were after a visionary sort of retrofit that could be a successful intervention,” said Tahchieva. Her team offered three alternatives. Two assumed adaptive reuse of at least some of the existing mall structures and the addition of residential and office components to the retail.The core of the mall would become either a public square or a Main Street.  “The interiors of malls such as this provide the best public space,” said Tahchieva. “So why not build on that?”

The third option went in the opposite direction, assuming a devolution of intensity to what would essentially become a medieval-style village surrounded by farmland. In his presentation of the options, Duany pointed to the canal that encircled the retrofitted site to help manage stormwater: “Here’s the moat.”

Tahchieva, Duany, and the authors of Retrofitting Suburbia make the case for malls as ideal places for second chances at urbanism on the metro edge. They are often large enough to make walkable mixed use viable; they have intact infrastructure; already sited at key transportation cross-roads, they connect easily to transit; and they are typically owned by one entity, which streamlines the planning and entitlement process.

Duany added one other advantage: “Since they’ve already decimated the natural ecosystems of the original site, there’s not going to be an environmental issue. Whatever you do, you’re likely to improve the environment.”

- Ben Brown


  1. The Sky Method has lots of potential in the retrofitting of Suburbia because it uses the Transect as a tool to upgrade suburbia over time without the need to assemble a lot of property. Rather, it works by allowing existing property owners to subdivide their land as they upgrade to the next Transect zone. There’s a pdf outlining the Sky Method here:
    FWIW, it’s called the Sky Method because it was developed for Sky in the Florida panhandle.

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