Rethinking Suburbia

Sustainable Hamilton County conference examines how to retrofit, improve sprawl

Deciding to build sustainable, Earth-friendly communities because it’s the right thing to do ethically is flawed. Instead, we need to build more compact, greener communities because we won’t be able to get around otherwise. America is becoming fatter and older, and the sprawl is too burdensome for our sagging flesh.

That biting point was made by M. Scott Ball, an architect who addressed the region's city and suburban planners at the Sustainable Hamilton County conference in Anderson Township on Oct. 22.

“We’re reframing in a way that has more traction with families,” Ball said. “We’re framing it as an aging issue, as a children’s issue.”

Ball's goal is to take the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), which is mostly used in building codes to make individual structures accessible, and expand its use to include zoning regulations.

Casting ADA as a civil rights issue when the push began in the late 1960s was a critical mistake, he added. Civil rights typically focus on a specific population that has been generationally oppressed. Yet disability is an issue that most everyone will face as they age; those of us who live long enough can expect to be counted among the 19 percent of Americans who are classified as disabled.

Because ADA violations are identified after they occur, via complaints, that means we’re cleaning up a problem rather than being proactive in planning.

The method in which communities currently do planning — through building codes that regulate access to a particular structure — isn't holistic. As a result, communities often are left with a series of ADA-compliant buildings in a city or town that has inadequate sidewalks, little or no public transit and in which housing might be miles away from retail, hospitals or places of employment.

“We will be a grayer population moving forward,” Ball said. “That’s a permanent change and that’s got to impact the way we think about cities.”

Ann Sutton Burke, director of aging and caregiver services for Jewish Family Service Cincinnati, said the perspective of those in the field of aging has been largely focused on individuals — in hospitals and long-term care facilities. But over the past decade, she has observed a shift to thinking about aging in place and aging in communities, seeking ways for people to stay in their home communities as they grow older. The jargon for this is NORC: “Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities.”

“The key to this is naturally occurring,” Burke said. “We're not talking about planned senior housing here. We’re talking about neighborhoods, buildings, condominiums, rental properties that have a cluster of seniors.”

Most elderly people want to stay in their own homes, she added, and mixed-use communities accomplish this goal.

“We know we’re not going to have the finances to take care of the Baby Boomers,” Burke said. “It’s going to rely on a lot of us to look at low-cost efforts, going kind of retro, helping each other.”

“The fact is the United States is a suburban nation,” said June Williamson, co-author of Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs. “So, we contend that retrofitting suburbia is the big project for this generation of planners, architects and urban designers.”

Williamson said suburbs — which are particularly resistant to adaptation — have to be made pedestrian friendly, climate sensitive and more compact.

As a climate issue, the impact of suburbs is huge. Suburban dwellers typically have three times the carbon footprint as their urban counterparts, she said.

Planners need to focus on creative reuse by moving streets and sidewalks closer to the front of buildings and repositioning parking in the rear. Also, defunct malls can be refitted with small business storefronts and apartment units on second floors.

The current recession is an ideal environment for “incremental metropolitainism” to flourish — there isn't money readily available to build new structures so planners are forced to adapt the old.

“The larger goal is remaking the metropolis into a polycentric system where you have downtown but you also have a series of transit-served mixed use nodes,” Williamson said.

The conference was held at the Anderson Towne Center in suburban Anderson Township. The site was chosen in part because the township is dealing with many of the challenges that were discussed, said Anderson Township Trustee Russ Jackson.

“Much of what is now built around us didn’t exist just a few short years ago,” Jackson said. “Anderson grew up without a central gathering point or sense of place. In fact we didn’t get our own zoning code until 1988 and most of the damage had already been done.

“We’ve spent a whole heck of a lot of time working backwards to clean it up. As recently as the 1990s we found ourselves dealing with a moribund Beechmont Mall and a struggling retail corridor on Beechmont (Avenue).”

Leslie Oberholtzer, director of planning at the Chicago-based architectural firm Farr Associates, said it’s no accident that suburban America became the disconnected hodgepodge of single-use zoning that it is today. Zoning codes across the nation have forced single-family homes into one area, and retail and green spaces into others.

“The thing that everybody’s been talking about today, mixed-use buildings, you really can’t do that with most codes,” Oberholtzer said. “Lots of people are doing little Band-Aids to their codes, saying, ‘You can have a couple of units above,’ but really what happens with these kind of buildings? What you end up with are strip malls. So everybody wonders, ‘Why is this happening? Why are we getting all these strip malls?’ Well, the zoning code says all you can do is one use. Form-based codes can start to address that.”

Local developer Bobby Maly said he was excited to hear about a neighborhood focus on sustainability.

“You can talk about LEED for buildings and Energy Star and energy efficiency, but I think we’re missing the mark if we don’t start with what is real sustainable development, talking about land use,” Maly said. “Maybe more to the point, we’re talking about land reuse.”

[Photo above: Chad Edwards (left) and Ann Sutton Burke spoke at the Oct. 22 Sustainable Hamilton County conference. Photo by Stephen Carter-Novotni]

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