Do we want to “retrofit suburbia”?

March 12 18:02 2017 Print This Article

At the March meeting of the West Ashley Revitalization Commission (WARC), Dover Kohl planning consultant Emily Glavey posted the goals sought by the City of Charleston in developing the West Ashley Master Plan. Among them included the term “retrofitting suburbia”, which I had never heard before. I asked another planning consultant, Dena Belzer of the Berkeley, CA-based Strategic Economics firm what the term meant. The goal is no longer listed on the project planning website

I learned that the term “retrofitting suburbia” was coined by Georgia Tech architecture professor and urban planner Ellen Dunham-Jones, who published a book on the topic.  Dunham-Jones is concerned that suburban residents have a much larger “carbon footprint” than urban dwellers because they live in detached homes (single-family) and prefer to drive their cars rather than walk, ride bicycles or take mass transit.   The “carbon footprint” refers to carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.  CO2 represents only 0.04% of our atmosphere and has no adverse impact on health.  Urban areas actually have much worse air quality than suburban areas when it comes to real pollutants, such as particulate matter (soot) and ozone (smog).

Dunham-Jones also implies that the suburban lifestyle is responsible for health problems ranging from obesity to heart disease.  Yard work in suburban subdivisions is actually a healthy form of exercise not available to urban dwellers.  She also laments the high cost of living in the suburbs, based on the $4/gallon price of gasoline in 2010.  High American oil production in recent years has held gasoline prices to around $2/gallon.

There are some very positive aspects of Dunham-Jones’ research.  She calls for restoring dilapidated shopping centers like West Ashley’s Citadel Mall by transitioning from retail uses to office space, medical facilities, exercise studios and loft apartments.  Her plan also calls for redeveloping abandoned parking lots.  Wouldn’t it be great if we re-developed the eye sore formerly known as Church Creek Plaza before placing more development in the wetlands along West Ashley Circle?

Dunham-Jones also has the goal of establishing 1000 ft. vegetative buffers along waterways, which is not possible in most of the Charleston area.  I love the concept if it were workable.  It would beautify the area and reduce flooding by absorbing runoff stormwater.  Unfortunately, our urban planners are going in the opposite direction by pushing for more pavement and apartment complexes in the wetlands.

The concept of “retrofitting suburbia” aims to make our suburbs more like the cities.  It also has a social engineering component of moving low-income residents into middle-income neighborhoods.  The big question on the development of the West Ashley Master Plan was asked by Shadowmoss resident Elisabeth Pickelsimer at the March WARC meeting.  She said, “Who asked us what we want?”  When she hears about high-density development, she envisions more traffic and flooding.