Civilizing suburbs as we retrofit


Humans are social beings. We generally thrive in groups. As urban planners and architects, we are problem-solvers and focused on “health, safety and welfare.” However, our design solutions throughout history have not always put human nature at the forefront. The function of public civic space still needs to be provided, regardless of the density of a place.

While the fundamental nature of human beings has not changed, the way we interact and communicate has. Technology and digital communication are an inherent part of life and society. As shown in multiple global examples of the Arab Spring and the use of Facebook, the Occupy Movement’s connection through blogs and online comments, and even Food Trucks tweeting locations for lunch, we are less isolated due to technology and still seek opportunities to come together.

At the same time there needs to be further discussions about how we provide physical opportunities for interaction. The public use of the privately owned Zuccotti Park (the Occupy Wall Street location), brings into question our definition of public from physical, legal, and social perspectives. Parks and plazas that are “given” (especially in exchange for any type of development bonus) to the public realm as open space should function as a civic amenity — open, accessible, communal.

Public play areas that children can safely reach walking or bicycling, with or without parental accompaniment, should be available in every neighborhood — and accessible via local streets. Not all parks have to be regional as is the land use approach in many jurisdictions. Neighborhood associations could partner with city and county park departments to raise money and acquire foreclosed properties for playgrounds or dog parks. A play area doesn’t have to be complex or expensive: Remember when you were a child — didn’t you and your friends create “forts” out of nothing more than a sparsely leafed shrub?

Backyard playgrounds

In Chevy Chase, Maryland, an inner-ring suburb of Washington, DC, where children can’t cross a state highway to get to school grounds or a recreation center — a backyard functions as a neighborhood playground. When the family is at home and their own children are playing outside, the private land becomes a destination for the local kids with a swing set, jungle gym, and room to run — legs and imagination. If this creates liability issues, maybe it is time to redefine “public.”

We also need to embrace the physical manifestations of technology. Computers are not going to take over our physical lives like some B-grade science fiction film, so technology should no longer be blamed for the insular nature of today’s society. (As we know, Euclidian zoning is the primary culprit which segregates land uses and forces people into their cars for every aspect of daily living.) Those very same digital connections that have been criticized for keeping us apart have created new opportunities for people to come together.

Opportunities to meet or assemble IRL (“in real life”) are perhaps now of more importance as we, as a society, undergo changes driven by environment and economics. Think about some of the most interesting conversations you have had — likely with individuals you have just met and may have little in common with your background, profession, or lifestyle. Coffee shops fill a niche for many, or neighborhood bars, like Cheers where “everybody knows your name,” but a true Third Place shouldn’t necessarily be tied to a commercial enterprise, especially given the recent economic conditions for many.

Each generation faces new problems — either unresolved from previous generations or that have arisen due to technological advancement and social change. Technology is one of the tools that can bring us back together as human beings. If the physical built environment doesn’t encourage walking down the street to a “hang out” destination, then we are going to remain glued to our computers at work and home, with little opportunity for new interactions.

Within this generation, “Suburban Retrofit” has become a popular issue — an expressive and easily understandable term for transitional infill growth of intrusive subdivisions. Given the low density of existing development and the need to increase density for sustainability, it is easy to overlook the need for open space. We need to remind our government officials and citizenry of the definition (and civic use) of “public space” and we need to make sure our professional work provides it, regardless of land ownership.

Sarah Lewis is a partner with Ferrell Madden Lewis in Washington, DC, and starting in February, 2012, she will be an associate with Fuss & O’Neill — an East Coast full-service engineering firm.