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Small-scale Tactics to Retrofit the Suburbs

There are some thriving, close-knit communities in American suburbs. But for the most part, the suburbia is the subject of so much ridicule among urban planners and designers. Still, for a host of reasons, that’s where most Americans live.

Suburbs can feel like lonely places for several reasons:

Social = Lack of social connections. Suburbs often lack the sense of community and social connections that can be found in more densely populated areas. Homes are generally clustered in subdivisions, spaced further apart from each other and separated by fenced yards.

Physical = Lack of public spaces. Residents have access to fewer public spaces, such as parks and community centers. Those are the hotspots where neighbors can gather and interact with each other.

Practical = Dependence on cars. Suburban dwellers are forced to rely on cars for transportation, which limits the opportunity for casual social interactions, such as chatting with neighbors while walking to the store.

Ellen Dunham-Jones is a Georgia Tech professor who has traveled throughout North America, examining before-and-after stories at empty shopping malls, lonely commercial corridors, outdated office parks, and so on. She summarized her suburban retrofit findings into three approaches:

  1. Re-inhabitation (adaptive reuse)

  2. Re-development (urbanization)

  3. Re-greening (parks, plazas, and wetlands)

When you consider those broad options, all sorts of possibilities come to mind. Sure, one large developer might purchase and retrofit an entire retail district, but there’s no reason to wait for “whale” investors. The suburbs can be transformed bit by bit.

Here are 10 ways you can deploy some of your tactical urbanism and placemaking ideas in declining suburban retail and office parks:

  • Create a public park or green space with programmed activities. This can provide a place for people to relax and enjoy being outdoors, and can also help improve air quality and reduce heat island effects. Bringing renewed interest and attention to the area can also unlock economic development opportunities.

  • Convert an empty strip mall lot into a community garden. Community gardens can provide a space for people to grow their own food, and can also help bring the community together. Forging partnerships with local community organizations and non-profits will go a long way.

  • Turn a parking lot or underused public space into a farmers market or other local food source. This can help support local farmers and provide the community with fresh, healthy food options. If the location helps provide fresh food options to underserved residents (many suburban neighborhoods are 2+ miles away from the nearest grocery store): bonus points!

  • Use abandoned retail centers for recreational activities. Depending on the size and location of the space, it could become a pop-up or permanent spot for basketball courts, tennis courts, or a skate park.

  • Attract a developer who wants to build a mixed-use development or affordable housing. If the lot is large enough, it could be turned into a destination that includes residential, commercial, and recreational spaces at a variety of price points.

  • Create public art installations. This can help add some character and interest to the suburbs, and can also serve as a gathering place for the community. Public art can always be bundled with any of the other placemaking ideas!

  • Street fairs (open street events) can be held on a closed-off street and can feature food vendors, live music, and other entertainment.

  • Outdoor movie nights are a treat for all ages. Set up a screen and projector in a park or other open space and show a movie under the stars during that time of the year that people love being outside!

  • Offer fitness classes, such as yoga or pilates, in a park or other outdoor location. It’s important to cater to all audiences!

  • Cultural festivals will brighten any old retail or office park. Celebrate the diversity of the community by hosting a festival that showcases the culture, food, and traditions of a particular group. Be sure to invite the food trucks, and check local food truck policies!

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