Green Urban Planning: Retrofitting the Suburbs

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Source: my.deviantart.com via Christine on Pinterest

Lately I’ve been writing about urban renewal, but having been based mostly in rural areas for the last 40 years, I’ve found the information to be foreign! It’s taken a bit of energy for me to read and understand it all, and during that process, I’ve had a lot of questions.

As cities sprawled out into the countryside to become suburbs, downtowns were neglected and fell into disrepair and decay. Many cities around the world are recreating vibrant urban centers with a target date of 2020. Municipalities are reducing emissions, passing green building codes, implementing renewable energy, adding recycling programs, increasing density, improving public transportation, adding green spaces, and building efficient and affordable housing. The final goal is to make downtown livable and desirable again.

Will this attract people to move back into the city from the suburbs? Why hasn’t anyone thought of turning the suburbs into small, centralized urban neighborhoods? Why draw those people back to the city if you can bring urban amenities to them?

Suburbs and Boulder, CO

Today, I ran across an article about Boulder, Colorado doing exactly that.

Boulder has a compact and efficient downtown. I spent a couple of summers there and did not need my car. Restaurants, the library, the theater, parks, the university, shopping and Alfalfa’s food store (the forerunner to Wild Oats and Whole Foods) were all within walking distance. To go places that were miles farther out, I had a bicycle, and Boulder has extensive bike paths that don’t cross any streets. I only used my car for getting up into the mountains to go camping or hiking. It was ideal!

But Boulder has been subject to sprawl like any urban area. To the east is subdivision after subdivision far removed from the center of town and all it has to offer. City planners want to retrofit these areas for walkability and high density. Cul de sacs would be transformed into through-ways to connect people and create a sense of neighborhood and community. They want to recreate Boulder’s downtown with its low carbon footprint in the outskirts. I think this is a great idea!

Suburban living: does anyone really like it?

When I think it through, though, I have to wonder how the people living in those subdivisions would actually like it. Maybe they like being far from town. Maybe they like driving to work. Maybe they want to separate home and work. Maybe they like the space the suburbs offer. Would a move like this by the city make them move farther out or to a new area altogether?

I spent several winters in Tucson usually living right downtown where I could walk everywhere – the food co-op, the library, shops, restaurants, and even places I could sell my jewelry. There were a couple of years, though, that I couldn’t find a house close in. I ended up farther out and had to drive to all my regular haunts. I did notice, though, that each area has a semblance of a ‘center’. There were retail and offices convenient to each area in the city. I have always wondered why these were not further developed to be higher density and more walkable. I think it could be done with progressive city planners, good funding and cooperative residents.

Source: via Johnny on Pinterest

 

Suburban planning: buy-in needed

Resident approval is key. The designers of the Boulder plan agree that changing the minds of the skeptics will be the toughest part of the project. Many people are still in denial about climate change and don’t care about the need for municipalities to curb emissions via their infrastructure. Funding depends on it, and it will be more and more important in the future.

If suburban residents can be convinced that emissions must be reduced, they might accept the zoning that will create high density and walkable neighborhoods. I’m curious to see how this project pans out over the next ten years! I think it’s the model of the future.

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Nan Fischer

Nan Fischer has been living and building green for over 35 years. Nan’s emphasis on the BuildDirect blog is about how to make your dollar stretch further, while also moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle, as well as upcoming and existing technology to help us live in an ecologically-friendly way. Nan also authors posts on the website of her seed business, sweetly seeds.