Posted about 2 months ago

Redeveloping the Suburbs

Sustainable real estate often focuses on urban infill and redevelopment. When people live closer to the places where they work, shop, and find entertainment they spend less time driving, which is good for both the environment and our mental health.

Yet, much of our nation was built following the invention of the automobile, which has led to the development of suburbia and the proliferation of suburban sprawl. In fact, about 25% of the US population lives in suburban counties.

Instead of giving up on the suburbs, we need to find ways to improve our suburbs and make them better for future generations who continue to live there.

New Neighborhood Cores

Rather than starting from scratch and developing a new suburban town where we can build a walkable downtown community, redeveloping a suburban community means being able to take advantage of the infrastructure already in place. This means that instead of knocking down trees to make room for new buildings and parking lots, we can redesign existing ones. Instead of having to draw new electric and water lines in from elsewhere, we can use ones that already exist.

Places such as regional malls and big box stores were designed with traffic in mind, meaning that there are already roads and highways connecting these places to residential areas. This makes them ideal redevelopment targets when a developer is debating where to start creating a new suburban downtown.

No longer operational regional shopping malls can be transformed into assisted living homes, colleges and universities, and business parks. Similarly, big box stores that are no longer being used can be refashioned into grocery stores, community centers, elementary schools, high schools, and libraries.

In many places, sprawl is being gradually replaced with villages and main streets. This allows people, including those in the suburbs a neighborhood business district that they can travel to. Instead of driving perhaps 30-60 minutes to get to the downtown of the nearest major city, people may travel 5-15 minutes to an area where they can find restaurants, movie theaters, coffee shops, bookstores, art museums, and other places to spend their free time.

This approach to suburban retrofitting is not about knocking down an entire area and building a walkable community in its place, but about filling in pockets of underperforming real estate. If a shopping plaza is doing well, there’s no need to change it. But if an area has become abandoned, then these simple ideas allow suburbanites more options for where to live, work, and play. It also makes our suburban cities and towns nicer and safer places to be.

It can be thought of as a combining of the best of city and suburban lifestyles. You’re able to keep your large, single family, detached home on a cul-de-sac, and then drive to a nearby business district, with walkable streets where you can work, shop, and have fun. For those who still want miles and miles of big box stores where they can buy just about anything they want, they still have a place. But where they’ve reached the end of their useful life, suburban retrofitting makes use of those stores, offices, and other buildings.

Non-Commercial Options

In other cases, building up commercial sectors within the suburbs is not the best option. Sometimes, landbanking or converting foreclosed and abandoned buildings into community gardens, open park space, baseball and soccer fields, and protected land is the better choice.

Suburban farms, farmer’s markets, and co-ops can also be created. This can provide residents access to a wider array of healthier food choices that are sometimes only available in urban settings where larger groups of people congregate.

Open spaces and farm land also have environmental benefits and can aid in the retention of clean air, water, and the protection of wildlife.

In one example, a city created a wetland in a low-income neighborhood. This not only provided environmental benefits and a trail for people to walk along, but it also increased the property values of nearby buildings, which suddenly became waterfront properties.