Sprawl Repair is Essential, Unavoidable


A vision of suburban retrofit in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Steve Price, Urban Advantage.


Suburban retrofit has been a hot topic in planning and development in recent years, and Retrofitting Suburbia was one of top books in the planning field in the last decade. Coauthor of that book Ellen Dunham-Jones has accumulated a database of more than 1,200 suburban retrofit projects under construction or in planning.

Each of those projects signifies people working independently across the US to transform single-use, automobile-oriented suburbs into more diverse and—often—more walkable places. The suburbs are vast. Opportunities to repair them include converting commercial strip arterials to complete streets, turning shopping centers into towns squares, finding new purpose for empty big-box stores, and inserting homes and other uses in single-use commercial areas.

It was surprising, then, to hear debate at CNU this year on whether sprawl repair is worth the trouble. Long-time new urbanist architect Kevin Klinkenberg and development expert Lee Sobel argued that new urbanists should avoid sprawl retrofit and focus their attention on redevelopment of cities and historic towns.

Klinkenberg explained in a blog that sprawl repair is a “fools errand” and new urbanists should “just say no.” He said: “Suburbia, or sprawl as we interchangeably call it, is all about bigness and mass production.” Put simply, “it’s outside the DNA of walkable cities. Embracing sprawl retrofit is like saying we can transform fast food culture into healthy food.”

He’s saying that sprawl repair is the Chicken McNuggets of urbanism.

Klinkenberg concludes: “I do believe that sprawl retrofit is not a wise approach for new urbanists. I’d say, let’s keep it simple—let urbanism be urbanism and sprawl be sprawl.”

I appreciate a good debate: Questioning the core assumptions of New Urbanism is good from time to time—so, hats off to Klinkenberg and Sobel. But abandoning suburban retrofit isn’t going to happen.

New Urbanism was launched a quarter century ago by a committed group of multidisciplinary professionals seeking to reverse the worst social, economic, and environmental impacts of sprawl. New urbanists, as a group, will never “let sprawl be sprawl.”

“Drivable suburban,” areas, otherwise known as sprawl, make up about 95 percent of the land in US metro areas (built, amazingly, in less than a century), according to research by Christopher Leinberger. The rest, about five percent, is “walkable urban” — historic neighborhoods and street grids.

Improving walkable urban areas and revitalizing run-down neighborhoods are critical projects for new urbanists, but we can’t leave the other 95 percent alone. It has too much impact on people’s health, social lives, and the economies of communities. The Charter of the New Urbanism speaks to the entire built environment—not just historic street grids.

The anti-suburban retrofit arguments boil down to the points, in bold, which I answer one by one:

  • Sprawl repair is too difficult. New urbanists never shied from a challenge. Modern planning opposed everything the new urbanists promoted. To fight the tide of planning and development may be foolish, yet new urbanists turned the tide around. Sprawl repair is hard, but so is building Main streets and town centers, which hadn’t been constructed for 70 years.
  • Even when suburban retrofit projects are built, the urbanism is far from great. Granted, you can’t transform a fading commercial strip lined with single-use buildings and parking lots into a walker’s paradise immediately. The outcome may not equal historic Charleston, but turning a lousy place into a decent one improves people’s lives. The next generation can make a decent place great.
  • People like sprawl. Many do—but fewer than before. We have too many “drivable suburban” places while “walkable urban” neighborhoods are in short supply, propelling their value upward. Many suburbanites oppose change—but not all of them and not everywhere, especially now that educated workers flock to walkable urban communities and employers are following. The future of suburbs is in jeopardy unless they change, and leaders are starting to realize that.
  • Existing urban places are plentiful, so just work in those areas. I support the revitalization of cities and towns, but the finite supply of 19th and early 20th century street grids causes prices to rapidly rise in economically strong cities with “good bones.” Values will relentlessly increase unless we transform some of the drivable suburban areas.

Another problem with relying on historic street grids is that it offers little help for regions that are consumed in sprawl. Without sprawl repair, urbanists have few options in places like Charlotte, Atlanta, Los Angeles, or Northwest Arkansas.

So how do grow walkable neighborhoods to meet market demand and the needs of 21st Century communities? Klinkenberg suggests: “Creating entire new towns, built with true urbanism, is not at all a sprawl retrofit tactic—that’s a time-honored way to expand metropolitan regions or growing areas.” Without addressing surrounding context, however, new towns remain isolated enclaves of walkability that are poorly connected to communities as a whole.

Repairing the suburban fabric—incrementally, through proper channels and Democratic means—is necessary and can’t be avoided. Not everyone will be happy about it and it won’t happen everywhere, but that’s to be expected.

The best opportunities for retrofit are in the Postwar Suburbs—the 26 million homes built from  1946 through 1965. Streets in these areas are not so wide and they are relatively well connected because the laws, standards, and practices had not fully transitioned to out-and-out sprawl. An increase in suburban streets widths can be traced to 1965, when the Institute of Transportation Engineers hiked its minimum from 26 feet to 32 feet.

The commercial strips of the Postwar Suburbs have faded and can be rebuilt as mixed-use main streets and complete streets. The economic and social upside is potentially tremendous when a community invests in this transformation—as shown in Lancaster, California.

Other opportunities will arise when strip shopping centers and malls die. In Lakewood, Colorado, the Villa Italia Mall transformed into Belmar, a new downtownwith thousands of residents plus workplaces, shops, and public spaces. This one development changed the image of Lakewood—a suburb of about 150,000 that won an “All-American City” award in 2011.

New Urbanism is a broad movement, with adherents in communities coast to coast—many of them sprawling suburbs. As opportunities arise, urbanists will improve those communities according to the principles of the Charter of The New Urbanism, using the new urban toolkit such as form-based codes, the Transect, and complete streets.

The key word is opportunity—because nobody proposes to put pedestrians first in every subdivision, strip mall, and office park.

The issue of “bigness” that Klinkenberg raises is a legitimate concern—especially in the transportation network. The condition that I call “Big Asphalt” is difficult to repair, but not impossible. Policies that created Big Asphalt such as the aforementioned street width standard can be identified and reversed.

This “bigness” has invaded our cities, too, in the form of superblocks and freeways and the widening of roads. We can’t avoid the task of sprawl repair—not even in cities.

As appealing as it may sound to some, we can’t retreat to historic cities and towns and “let sprawl be sprawl.” A quarter century into the New Urbanism, many of the worst social, environmental, and economic impacts of sprawl still need to be reversed.