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Retrofitting suburbia: Tips for Northeast Ohio

Marc Lefkowitz  |  10/17/16 @ 10:00am  |  Posted in Reuse, Vibrant cities

We wrote last week about what can be done (globally and locally) to fight climate change. We looked at an article published in Nature, where the authors argued to spend resources making the outer suburbs and small towns more environmentally friendly.

<br />A dead mall featured in Retrofitting Suburbia. Efforts to turn dying malls into new town centers feature prominently.

Clearly—as this map shows—the post-war suburbs are much higher producers of carbon emissions than cities like Cleveland. So, how would they begin to deal with both a lack of density and being largely built out?

A comment on the post from Sam Bell touches on this dilemma. Bell pushes back that resources for fighting climate change will be better spent in areas that already have higher density, transit and a culture of walking and biking. Looking at the disproportionate amount of carbon emissions that come from outer suburbs compared to inner-ring suburbs like Cleveland and Shaker Heights and Lakewood and the neighborhoods of Cleveland, raises the question: opportunity but at what cost? Even if suburbs do take steps to eliminate exclusionary zoning in order to add density, where should limited resources go? Should they go into making existing areas in the city where density exists more attractive?

* * *

Put Ellen Dunham-Jones in the camp that suburbs have prime opportunity to become more environmentally positive places. Dunham-Jones and June Williamson wrote in 2011 of the great examples already happening in their book, “Retrofitting Suburbia.”

In it, they write how even the most iconic of suburbs, Levittown, which seemed frozen in time as the “first suburb” initiated a green program to reduce carbon emissions. The town created local incentives to replace old, inefficient boilers, add solar panels, and replace light bulbs.

Since nearly all of Cuyahoga County’s 58 suburbs have been built out, this list of “Retrofitting Suburbia” ideas from Jones and Williamson may prove useful.

  • Where communities are built out, the aggregation of single-family-house sites is unlikely, except in conditions of extreme disinvestment or decay (note: this may apply to suburbs in Northeast Ohio that were hit by the foreclosure crisis). Any new development, especially for multi-family housing, must come from redevelopment. (Likely) underutilized school and retail parcels or from legalization and encouragement of accessory apartments. This is an important tool for achieving greater residential density, affordability, and housing choices.
  • Median age (in suburbs) has risen more than national norms. Options must be provided for the many long-time residents who are choosing to age in place. These include support for adapting their homes, enabling granny flats, and building new senior apartments and assisted-living facilities in socially supported central locations with access to mass transit.
  • Retail parcels are failing, even when the residential sector remains strong, creating blight and a significant loss of tax revenue. Local government will continue to step in, especially where private developers and national retailers, which remain put off by a high percentage of nonwhite residents regardless of income, are not willing or able.
  • Another strategy to attract new retail is by diversifying and modernizing the housing stock to increase the median home price—a very important indicator to national retail location scouts. This may or may not be combined with attempts to retrofit retail parcels into mixed-use town centers.
  • Although these places never were exclusively “bedroom suburbs,” attempts to diversify and expand workforce opportunities will help them better serve future generations’ needs. Opportunities include the conversion of vacant big box stores to back-office use, permitting live/work use, and encouraging telework and incubator office use.
  • Ethnic minorities will increasingly become the majority. Yet studies show that all else being equal (household income, level of education, quality of housing stock), property values are suppressed where middle-class minority residents, especially African-Americans, have increased in number. Efforts must be made to understand and counteract the bias attached to demographic diversity.
  • Regional alliances are being formed to address issues of shared concern, such as retrofitting commercial strips and improving mass transit. Expanded transit options can help revive town centers by improving accessibility and improve community sustainability by making these early post-war settlements, which are already more structured, connected, and compact than contemporary residential developments, into viable, affordable options.

Ellen Dunham-Jones will address “Retrofitting suburbia for 21st century challenges” at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History on December 9. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets.

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