There has been a growing movement within the New Urbanist scene to retrofit car-oriented suburbs. There is even an excellent book on the subject titled Retrofitting Suburbia by Ellen Dunham-Jones. The book focuses primarily on retrofitting aesthetically unappealing, car-oriented suburbs that were built in the 2nd half of the 20th Century.
Despite opposition from suburban NIMBYs this idea makes practical and aesthetic sense. Your typical American suburban commercial thoroughfare is lined with ugly strip malls with massive parking lots that are aesthetically unappealing, ecologically unsustainable, and unfriendly to pedestrians.
Ellen Dunham-Jones’ model, influenced by New Urbanism, would transform these strip malls and parking lots into mixed-use, walkable developments where people live above where they shop.
While it is easy to have disdain for these ugly suburbs full of strip malls and track housing, there are also aesthetically pleasing suburbs which tend to be either streetcar suburbs or small towns that later got absorbed by suburban sprawl. While these places have positive attributes such as having quaint, walkable, downtowns, a semi-rural charm, and access to wilderness, they are still for the most part based on the car-oriented, single-family home model.
The town I live in, Santa Barbara–while not quite a suburb, being outside the LA metropolitan– has many of these characteristics. It has a quaint walkable downtown, surrounded by 1950’s suburban single-family homes and massive, multi-million dollar estates in Montecito. The mountains and sea form a natural barrier to growth and very strict zoning laws prevent further growth and densification.
Single family homes with a large backyard gained wide spread popularity during the Baby Boom of the 50’s when the middle class was growing and forming families. The situation is much different today, however, with a rapidly ageing population, especially in affluent suburbs. Many millennials, even from upper middle class backgrounds, are unable to afford a home and start families of their own.
Besides the housing shortage and ecological concerns, single family homes rather than the traditional village model, tend to breed social atomization as documented by Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone. People end up spending more of their time indoors online or watching TV rather than in communal spaces. Obviously the wealthier aesthetically pleasing suburbs have more communal and recreational spaces than your typical suburb, but this is still a major concern.
In opposition to the NIMBYs is the pro-growth youth oriented YIMBY movement which seeks to increase the housing supply in both urban and suburban areas. These wealthy aesthetically pleasing suburbs have some of the strongest opposition to new development. One of the best examples of this is San Francisco Bay Area YIMBY activist Sonja Trauss’ organization GROW SF’s lawsuit against the city of Lafayette over a proposed housing development which was downsized due to the protest of local NIMBYs.
The East Bay City of Lafayette, as well as, neighboring Orinda perfectly epitomizes the aesthetically pleasing suburb. They both have charming walkable downtowns, Mass Transit access via BART, a semi rural feel, and wilderness preserves on both sides and some of the most desirable real estate in the region.
I sympathize with Trauss’ concern about the massive housing shortage in the Bay Area. Despite my annoyance with the hypocritical mentality of California’s liberal elites, I can understand the residents of Lafayette’s opposition to a development that would replace a scenic hillside adjacent to the highway with an eyesore.
Besides developing wilderness I would also be displeased to see large numbers of single family homes and their foliage in those areas replaced by the large boxy condominium complexes typical of much of Los Angeles,which lack any aesthetic charm or connection to nature, and do not provide a communal space.
While NIMBYs will still complain, there are plenty of ways Lafayette could increase its housing without infringing upon open space. In downtown Lafayette there are tons of fast food venues, parking lots, and small apartments with little aesthetic value in close proximity to the BART Station. These, in my view, are ripe for infill development.
There is also a large Mid-Century Modern shopping complex with a Whole Foods in the center of Downtown Lafayette and near the BART Station. Instead of being demolished that particular complex could be retrofitted. By putting it’s vast parking lot underground and replacing it with retail along the street and housing above. While keeping with the mid-century aesthetic and preserving the iconic retro clock tower as well as preserving and expanding the charming pedestrian plazas.
The long term goal for Lafayette and other similar places should be to create a compact downtown with a series of village like structures connected by sky bridges, and pedestrian walkways creating an environment that is a great place to live, work, shop, and dine.
One example of a good model for infill development is Saranap Village in Saranap, an un-incorporated part of Contra Costa County just east of Lafayette. Despite opposition from local NIMBYs, this development would transform a pedestrian dead zone into a walkable mix use community in an area that lacks significant retail.
Besides the generic New Urbanist aesthetic some of the structures incorporate various aesthetics from California Craftsman to Tahoe Ski Lodge.
While more urban in comparison to Lafayette, further east is Walnut Creek: a former car oriented suburb with access to transit via BART and vast expanses of wilderness nearby, which is retrofitting its downtown with mixed-use, pedestrian friendly development.
The only flaws with Walnut Creek are that they are building some boxy apartment complexes that are typical in much of LA and a significant portion of the city is consumed by suburban sprawl. However much like with Saranap Village, there are many new developments in Walnut Creek that incorporate features such as pedestrian walkways and plazas with fountains. Despite its flaws the City is still way ahead of most American suburbs.
Further South is Danville with it’s charming Old West Downtown, semi rural feel in residential areas, and proximity to both Mount Diablo State Park to the East and Las Trampas Wilderness to the West. However most of Danville is almost entirely car oriented.
What inspired me to consider these questions was my interview with advocate for Ecologically sustainable cities Richard Register , excerpted here:
RS: As far as retrofitting suburbia goes, you have a lot of these car oriented suburbs that are full of track housing and strip malls that are really awful places but then you also have places….well where I live in Santa Barbara kind of fits this model, but since your’ from the Bay Area I’ll mention places like Marin County, towns in the East Bay like Orinda, Lafayette, and Danville. And these are places that have charming small towns, they have a lot of…kind of a semi rural feel, a lot of nature, and a lot of positive attributes but at the same time they are primarily single family homes. Is there a way to implement a lot of these ideas without destroying the charm of the nature and the small towns?”
RR: Well the sprawly part has destroyed nature pretty thoroughly. It’s kind of a funny version of what’s natural. You have your decorative plants, you have your robins coming to visit. But it’s basically all built on driveways, garages, freeways, freeway interchanges and enormous parking structures in the cities….
[Richard continues to talk about development in his home city of Oakland which is much more urban but back to the suburbs he continues:]
… a lot of these suburbs have very cozy places to go, like little pedestrian walkways, and centers, as people are now putting in San Francisco and in a lot of towns, these parklets. You give up a couple of parking spaces and you make a nice place on the side where people can enjoy coffee or dinner, and that’s really good. That’s headed in the right direction but it’s not much. In the suburbs you can have these off-center much higher density things, but you would best, in my opinion, tie that in with removing some of the development on top of creeks and the development next to large community parks and so on so that your expanding the open space bringing back in agriculture which has been covered by cities. And cities have covered some of the best agriculture land in the world, especially with sprawl development because that’s where people went in the first place. They got good food and good agriculture. That’s where they started their cities but when they spread out with their cars they destroyed most of the agriculture land. So you can start by finding your centers, building them up, and integrating these structure so that there’s a lot of diversity coordinated so that your looking at the complexity of small areas. You know the housing close to the shops, close to the jobs, the offices, close to the water that flows through your area where ever you happen to be if you have a creek, where a water way flows through and so on. So there’s all these little steps a long the way.”
RS: [As far as the question of retrofitting aesthetically pleasing suburbs] “in places like wealthy East Bay Suburbs and Marin County you can do amazing things. So you could have a very compact village that could either be on the kind of European model or I know it sounds a little bit cheesy but maybe on the model of a Tahoe Ski Lodge. And that would be very compact and charming and that would be surrounded by creeks and oak woodlands so there’s a lot of ways to create a really amazing place to live without destroying the charm so i think it’s important to put these ideas out there
RR: You could imagine a place like Mill Valley (Marin County) for example which I know fairly well. They could take four or five blocks on one of the slopes there facing the sun so you have passive solar energy available and carve out two or three new blocks where there’s now maybe ten houses on a slope right next to the center
RS: “Would it be necessary to destroy any of the Redwoods?”
RR: “Yeah, but not very many. You’re creating a model where you can withdraw from thousands and thousands of houses all over California that have been built on the destruction of the natural environment.”
Another thing Richard mentions is restoring creeks, which in many cases are underground as storm-drains, trenches, or face the backs of single family homes. Restoring the creek system would provide a great opportunity for nature, greenbelts, and recreation. For example the trenched creek that runs through downtown Walnut Creek has the potential to create a great area for walking and open air dining.
A Vision for Change
This will sound Utopian or Disneyesque to some, but I use my upcoming novel which takes place in the Bay Area to put forth a vision that will hopefully inspire further discussion on the matter.
Roger Blackstone is an eccentric real estate mogul and presidential candidate who is featured as a major figure in my previous novel Journey to Vapor Island. In this scene Blackstone is showing the protagonist his architectural scale models of his plans for various Bay Area suburbs:
“The first model is for the town of Danville. The Old West aesthetic is preserved but there are several village structures connected by an Old West Style Railway and surrounded by Oak Woodlands and small ranches with Old West style windmills. The centerpiece of the project is a mixed use shopping complex designed like a mill with a giant water wheel on a lake and a neon sign saying “Danville Mill.” A few of the original historic structures are preserved in the main village area.
“The next is Lafayette which is a series of villages in the style of Bavarian Alpine, Swiss Chalet, Tahoe Ski Lodge, and California Craftsman surrounded with oak woodlands, pine and eucalyptus forest, and creeks. Like with the previous rendering there are swimming holes among the Oak Groves.
“Besides replacing the single family home neighborhoods with villages and wilderness the downtown area is much more compact in various architectural styles including European style villages with a clock tower as the centerpiece and mid-century modern wood structures, all connected by a network of sky bridges and pedestrian paseos. A few older buildings of aesthetic value are either preserved or retrofitted into the new downtown.
“The villages and Downtown are connected by a network of trams similar to what one would find in Yosemite and there is a park over part of the highway connecting the city. The 70’s Retro BART Station is preserved and nearby is the only parking structure for cars which is connected to the trams.”
One of the biggest barriers to retrofitting aesthetically pleasing suburbs is transforming single family neighborhoods into villages, parks, and wilderness.
Since the real estate value is these communities is high, the homes would be costly to purchase by the city, and unlike lower income communities, wealthy communities have the economic and political resources to fight eminent domain.
I agree with Richard Register that these changes would have to be instituted gradually, over time. Starting with retrofitting the city’s cores and then slowly expanding open space. While this would also face major political barriers I would also support changing zoning laws to allow developers to build these village like structures as long as they provide sufficient open space and public amenities. This would be economically viable without having the city purchase homes or use eminent domain .
Near where I live in Santa Barbara is Montecito. Last December there was a disastrous mudslide after a rainstorm washed over the hillsides that were scorched in the Thomas Fire. The mudslides destroyed over 100 homes and there were multiple casualties. The area that was most heavily devastated was along a flood plain surrounding a creek.
Since the disaster there has been a campaign to “Rebuild Montecito,” with many properties in the flood plain being retrofitted to minimize further damage. However there is not a grand vision for a future that is more ecologically sustainable that creates walkable communal spaces.
Montecito is one of the most exclusive communities in the entire nation. Much more so than previous places I have discussed.
Montecito’s aesthetically pleasing aspects are what make it one of the most desirable places in the country for the ultra-wealthy to live, with it’s Spanish style palatial estates on multi acre lots with oak trees, orange groves, and ranches.
However, it is far from being ecologically sustainable. For example, Oprah Winfrey is Shipping in Drought Water to her Massive Montecito Estate. From the linked article: Oprah “has cut water usage in half at her 40-acre estate—which she calls the Promised Land—by using well water, taking advantage of “a small lake,” and taking in massive tanker-truck shipments of water every day before 7 am, reports Politico.”
Also reported by LA Curbed “the area’s biggest residential water user in 2012 and 2013 was Pat Nesbitt, the CEO of Windsor Capital, which owns a major part of Embassy Suites. His plan for getting around water restrictions: try to get the polo field on his 20-acre estate to qualify for a discounted agricultural water rate. So far, he’s sued the water district twice in an attempt to convince them.
If Montecito were to be rebuilt in a way that is ecologically sustainable and preserves the unique aesthetic qualities, its ultra wealthy residents would have to make some sacrifices.
This goes back to the barrier of cities buying real estate or using eminent domain but ideally much of Montecito, as well as, Santa Barbara would consist of a series of compact villages in styles that reflect the heritage of California such as Spanish Colonial and California Craftsman with oak woodlands, orange groves, communal swimming pools, and increased greenbelts along creeks to prevent future flood damage.
Density should also be greatly increased in Downtown Santa Barbara, Montecito’s Coast Village Road, and Upper State Street in Santa Barbara.
I am not proposing that we turn Santa Barbara into Miami Beach but the region must look to where it originally got its aesthetic inspiration from: Andalucia in Spain and other parts of the Mediterranean such as the Cote d’Azur in France which are considerably more dense and compact due to the fact they developed over time before the automobile.
Thinking about a utopia that would evolve over a long term period I envision a community that respects aesthetics, a compact walkable core with surrounding villages, lots of parks and communal spaces, and access to nature.
Inspiration for these concepts comes from traditional European Villages, New Urbanism, some College Campuses such as UC Santa Cruz, resorts such as ski lodges, and Richard Register’s concept for a compact Ecocity where structures are interconnected via sky bridges.
This is a long term goal but we can continue making steps in the right direction. It is important to emphasize to skeptics that it is feasible to both increase the housing supply while reducing our overall suburban footprint in a model that borrows from the past, looks to the future, and is totally different than what exists today in urban, suburban, or rural communities.