By Drew Allen, AIA, chair of the AIA Colorado Member Voice Committee
At this year’s Practice + Design Conference hosted by AIA Colorado in Breckenridge, one of the most intriguing talks that I attended was titled “Suburban Remix: The Urban Future of America’s Suburbs” by David Dixon, FAIA of Stantec.
David is a thought leader in Stantec specializing in urban design and creating sustainable and livable communities. In his talk (based largely on his book, Suburban Remix: Creating the Next Generation of Urban Places), he focused on the fact that America, for all its suburban tendencies, gravitates more towards urban places; that North America is a suburban continent with an urban population. He argued that as populations continue to increase and resources become scarcer, one of our best opportunities for a sustainable future is to turn our attention to the suburbs.
During his presentation, David made the argument that the suburbs are ideal prospects for increased walkability and strategic infill. Not only have they been the primary areas of poverty growth in recent years, but their lack of density currently allows for many infill opportunities without the constraints of already dense urban centers. He gave several examples of transformed areas, particularly in big box shopping areas surrounded by parking, that show how this transformation can take place in areas that seem to be beyond hope. By creating strategic nodes of infill, built around high concentrations of homes/apartments (approximately 1,000 residents within a five minute walk of the main center/corridor), efficient transit and infrastructure, and a focus on highly walkable, diverse, and lively areas, these sprawling and dull places were transformed into dense and walkable areas with an emphasis on a quality for all people.
The focus of this talk brought me back to a recent visit to the Royal Seaport development in Stockholm, Sweden. My wife, Meg Schubert Allen, and I received an Architectural Education Foundation travelling scholarship to travel to Scandinavia to study how cities have handled growth and how they have focused said growth around public spaces and buildings. The Royal Seaport became the district that encapsulated the most of what we had set out to study and was driven home through David’s talk.
Royal Seaport is a four-kilometer-long brownfield development that stretches from a natural river area (situated across the river from a national park) around to the industrial harbor. Within the district there is a focus on creating dense housing mixed with office space, schools, event centers and retail. The entire district is knitted together through a network of nature focused pedestrian corridors that reflect the commitment of Swedes to preserving and elevating the landscape in order to give the district a sense of place.
Located near a major metro stop, one of the most striking aspects of Royal Seaport was the focus on the pedestrian, which gave the area a slower and very inviting feel. Vehicular traffic was limited to a main road (which was also shared by busses and a separated bike and pedestrian path) while the rest was given to people on foot. There were still the usual fire lanes and accessways, but these were disguised as plazas or as extra wide sidewalks. While cars were allowed along the accessways for unloading, there was no parking allowed (or possible, as one edge of the “road” was undulating in such a way that wouldn’t allow it), the speed limit of this pathway was that of a person walking. Parking was available; however, it came at a premium as the parking maximum for the development was capped at one parking space for every two units. In fact, the most striking thing we noticed on our walk through the area was the sheer number of children and families using the shared spaces and walking along the river and other park areas, while elements such as cars and other seemingly necessary elements fell to the background. By putting the focus back on people and creating a sense of place first, the development has created a dense and walkable neighborhood outside of the city center, but with the same priorities (dense living, diverse uses, visual interest, limited need for a personal vehicle, etc.) as an urban core.
Attending David’s presentation at P+DC a little over a month after returning from our trip was ideal, as I struggled to articulate the principals that we had observed and how this could translate to Denver or even much of America. It was heartening to see how the strategies that we observed in practice abroad could be applied to areas that are generally overlooked here. As people continue to gravitate back towards city centers, it’s critical that we grow in smart and sustainable ways. Fortunately, like generations prior, we can turn our attention towards the suburbs for these solutions. But, instead of creating sterile and automobile-centric sprawl, we can focus on shared infrastructure and walkability to establish lively and sustainable districts that appeal to our truly urban senses.