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CivicCon speaker says the 'burbs deserve a makeover

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We’ve all seen them. Aging, deserted strip malls and retail shops are not only pretty ugly but are also taking up valuable real estate that could be put to better use.

“There’s so much opportunity in these aging sites to help existing communities really become much more sustainable, much more just, much more prosperous places,” said Ellen Dunham-Jones, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Director of the MS in Urban Design and host of the "Redesigning Cities" podcast. She has been speaking out about sustainable suburban redevelopment for years.

Her latest book, with co-author June Williamson, is called “Case Studies in Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Strategies for Urgent Challenges.”

“We’ve categorized a lot of the retrofits in terms of the challenges that suburbia in general was never designed for, and that we see these aging commercial sites as really the opportunities for those suburbs, those communities to really address ‘How do we disrupt dependence on the automobile, how do we improve public health, support an aging population, leverage social capital for equity, compete for jobs, and add water and energy resilience.'”

Professor Dunham-Jones will be coming to Pensacola as part of the CivicCon Speakers Series, which has been bringing top minds to town to discuss the best practices used by the best and most successful communities. She says, besides the obvious differences in location, the design of cities and suburbs makes very different uses of available space.

“Suburban form is characterized by boxes that are more or less surrounded by flat-ish space that is either lawn or asphalt. And urban form (consists of) boxes that front onto sidewalks, and if there’s parking it’s underneath or behind. Then you can also distinguish the nature of the street networks is quite different in suburban form than in urban form.”

Ellen Dunham-Jones
Ellen Dunham-Jones

That’s not to say that some cities don’t have areas that resemble suburban form and there are some suburbs that have an urban feel.

“There are plenty of suburbs that have some great urban form for a couple of blocks that should be preserved and extended,” she said.

And if there is one thing that is behind the design of the modern suburb it’s the automobile.

“The suburbs were completely designed around cars," Dunham-Jones said. "Postwar we were charging the economy back up by suburbanization and building homes for veterans. Because each new suburban house had to come with a car, a refrigerator, a sofa set, all sorts of things that helped to drive the economy. If aliens looked down on us right now they’d probably think that the cars were in control because we really do provide much more space for the cars than we do for individuals.”

In fact, according to her latest book, while there is no accurate count of the number of parking spaces that exist in the U.S, it is known that in Des Moines, Iowa there are 19 parking spaces per household. In Jackson, Wyoming the number is 27.

Dunham-Jones will demonstrate examples of successful suburban retrofits from around the country during her talk. She’ll be showing before, during, and after images of these retrofitted sites and then asking people to picture the same revitalization happening in their own neighborhoods.

"I think when the audience sees how that site has been either redeveloped, reinhabited or regreened, it helps them imagine change in their own community," she said. "And that’s really my goal.”

Professor Ellen Dunham-Jones will be speaking as part of the CivicCon Speakers Series at 6 p.m. Oct. 11 at the Rex Theater in downtown Pensacola. There is no charge but if you wish to attend register on CivicCon’s Eventbright page.