Retrofitting Suburbia: Communities Innovate Their Way Out of Sprawl

Photo: Andrew Penner / iStock.

Retrofitting Suburbia: Communities Innovate Their Way Out of Sprawl

 The future for suburbanites, who now have twice the carbon footprint of city dwellers, seems to be pointing backward to pre-automobile, train-based living.

The suburbs have lost a lot of luster in the past 70 years. What was once hailed as a refreshing alternative to the grittiness of city living has been tugged and pulled and paved into a series of brownfields and vacant parking lots that stretch for miles and miles. Public planners have been predicting "the end of suburbia" for at least a decade now, saying that peak oil will starve out those towns and subdivisions that subsist on sprawl.

Saddled with traffic congestion and infrastructural erosion, can suburbia be retrofitted into a sustainable model of development and adapt to a post-oil world?

When they emerged 150 years ago, suburban developments sat on the peripheries of cities like New York and allured the wealthy, who commuted by train to enjoy fresh air and privacy. Suburban train stations brimmed with activity and fed commercial centers around them. But when the automobile rolled off factory floors in the 1910s, it quickly seduced an eager public and transformed suburban downtowns built around the trains. Car ownership exploded, the concept of the suburban downtown disappeared, and Americans designed new communities around driving.

Today, the cost of that so-called freedom is clear: Suburbanites have twice the carbon footprint as city dwellers; they spend more on housing and transportation combined; and they're more likely to struggle with obesity or die in car crashes. These realities paint a far less rosy picture than the days of early commuters. But today an enthusiastic network of designers, city planners, lawmakers, and longtime locals are envisioning a new era for suburbia.

Transportation, specifically automobile traffic, is the most important reason to retrofit, because it directly impacts public health, affordability, and climate change, says Ellen Dunham-Jones, professor of architecture at Georgia Tech and author of Retrofitting Suburbia. Between 1990 and 2013, the number of people who drove to work alone increased by 25 million, and, in 2013, highway vehicles used 83.2 percent of total transportation energy, with personal vehicles accounting for 71.1 percent, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

"Transit helps people walk more, and they spend less money.""Development is pushing us farther and farther out, sometimes 10 to 12 miles outside a city. Savings get eaten up," Dunham-Jones says. "Transit helps people walk more, and they spend less money. But [in the suburbs], those people who can't commute--who can't afford rising gas prices and car expenses--are out of luck because there's limited access to transit."

Most of this hasn't eluded city-flocking millennials--almost two-thirds would prefer to live where driving is optional--nor has it eluded more than half the country--54 percent of adults say it is too far to walk to shopping and entertainment, and 50 percent say that walkability is a top or high priority, according to a 2015 report by the Urban Land Institute.

But people live in the suburbs for many different reasons, despite the negative effects of sprawl. For one, rent is generally cheaper than in increasingly gentrified cities, especially in commercial centers; and two, it's more spacious and closer to nature.

Because so many people, both young and old, value walkability, communities must invest in smarter, denser infrastructure, Dunham-Jones says. How ironic, then, that the future of suburban development seems to be pointing backward--to the pre-automobile, train-based model.

The birthplace of modern suburbia is Long Island, New York, where the first mass-produced suburb, Levittown, started it all. Twenty minutes away in the town of Babylon lies a hamlet called Wyandanch. Conduct an Internet search, and you'll come across a pretty bleak scene there--stories of gang violence, poverty (13.4 percent), and unemployment (12.2 percent) run down the screen. But Wyandanch is more than a small, distressed suburb where even a McDonald's had to shutter. After all, it has a train station.

Businesses in Wyandanch, Long Island, are hopeful that the development around the train station will boost the local economy. Photo by Stephanie Keith.
The train ride from downtown Wyandanch to Manhattan is only 50 minutes long. That is an incredible asset, says former Babylon Township Supervisor Steve Bellone, because it allows lower- and middle-income residents to work in the city but live in the suburbs, thereby financing their communities and bolstering their local economies.

Bellone had worked with community groups, and knew that, despite its boarded-up buildings and deadened parking lots, Wyandanch had a lot to offer. But he knew they couldn't wait for private investors to swoop in and save the day.

"The only way to make this successful is to get the community involved," says Bellone, whose team partnered with nonprofit Sustainable Long Island to kick off a three-day weekend of meetings and workshops with residents, planners, and local government officials.

After years of losing their younger residents to Brooklyn or Manhattan, dynamic places with walkability and abundant transit, the community concluded that what they needed was an affordable, transit-oriented downtown. The transformation would center around their train station, which required major upgrading. The 19th century septic system begged for some serious attention too. So with a low-interest federal loan and a state grant, in 2011 the community began construction on a 2-mile-long sewer line, with hopes of eventually attracting more investment. The sewer was step one in a plan called "Wyandanch Rising." The $500 million project is backed by federal funds, state tax credits, grants, and low-cost financing and is expected to enhance the original business district, which dried up years ago.

Today, construction of the new train station is almost finished. Next door, ground has been broken on Wyandanch Village, a pair of five-story mixed-use buildings that will house 177 apartments, from studios to three bedrooms--123 reserved for lower-income tenants. The ground-floor commercial spaces will be no larger than 5,000 square feet each to discourage big-box stores, according to Sustainable Long Island's website.

There's still a long way to go--retrofitting doesn't fix poverty or gang violence overnight--but there is hope.

"We'll gain the benefits eventually," says longtime local Phyllis Henry. She's lived in Wyandanch for 43 years and has been actively involved with community development for much of that time. "But people are excited. It's come a long way, it really has. It's not just developing the brick and mortar, but also the people."

Bellone says he wants to see a community where innovation doesn't push people out but lifts them up. Whether Wyandanch can retrofit itself into a model of equitable and sustainable suburban development is uncertain, but one thing is sure: A new era has been born, and driving it is no longer the car but the community. Soon, rather than "the end of suburbia," planners may be predicting "the end of sprawl."

Erin Sagen wrote this article for Life After Oil, the Spring 2016 Issue of YES! Magazine.

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This article was written for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.