Retrofitting Suburbia

This is the updated version, the Ottawa library has an older version (2007-ish or so), but just as good.
This is the updated version, the Ottawa library has an older version (2007-ish or so), but just as good.

One of the books I have been reading lately is “Retrofitting Suburbia”. Authors Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson are making the case for urban design solutions for older office areas and the large aging (and already dead) shopping malls from the 50’s and 60’s (and the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s eventually).

Changing demographics

The authors promote retrofitting those old malls and edge cities to urban cores, in order to reduce VMT (Vehicle Miles Travelled). The authors believe that creating an attractive walkable area, with cars being pushed to perimeter, will create more attractive places in the burbs for people to go to. Innovative thinkers who see the writing on the wall know that the old style mall is doomed, due to changing demographics, a creative class that wants to live in a urban core environment (note: they are not saying ‘downtown’), seniors who’d like to walk to the corner coffee shop and youth who have no desire to own a car.

The former Villa Italia Mall in Denver, that has been retrofitted into the Belmar mix use town centre. Lots of these examples in Retrofitting Suburbia.
The former Villa Italia Mall in Denver, that has been retrofitted into the Belmar mixed use town centre. Lots of these examples in Retrofitting Suburbia.


Changing a mall to a mixed use town centre is not easy. Developers are often either specialised in malls or in homes, not both. The new mall’s (err, town center’s) streets are on private property. How do you deal with the rights of the citizens (there is an example of a photographer who was reprimanded for taking pictures of buildings), there are a lot of zoning issues and the city really needs to cooperate to allow changes. There are many design rules that need to be rewritten. The City of Ottawa did indeed cooperate to make changes in the bylaw to allow narrower streets for Chaudiere Island, now slowly getting known as ‘Zibi’ (Algonquin for ‘River’).


I found the book a fascinating read. The many examples that the authors describe make me feel a bit more optimistic about the future of our cities. The book shows designs where large parking lots are disappearing, replaced by housing and parks. Car parking disappears in multi storey parking garages that are lined with stores or even apartments and condos along the outside.

From the book:

Unfortunately most potential suburban retrofit sites are not on transit lines. (…) There are two principal strategies on the horizon:
The first is to add transit to improve access, encourage even greater differentiation between nodes and reduce VMT (Vehicle Miles Travelled). In fact, examination of over eighty retrofits reveals that the arrival of a rail system is one of the strongest triggers for large scale suburban redevelopment.
The second strategy is to retrofit corridors themselves. The argument is that if commercial strips are made more attractive and safer to pedestrians they can better attract redevelopment.

More streets, more walking

The emphasis is mostly on walking and slow vehicles speeds in those new town centres. Current planners actually often suggest adding more streets cutting through those properties. That might sound counterintuitive, until you realise that these streets are mostly designed for pedestrians: wide sidewalks, smaller blocks, narrower streets, squares and parks. Current malls often have the large retailer chains only whereas the variety comes from local retailers, so some malls do set aside very small spaces for ‘start up retailers’: Old Main Street is the new Main Street.

The authors describe a number of projects like Belmar, Lakewood, Colorado, University Town Center, Prince George’s County, Maryland and Cottonwood, Holladay, Utah and many others. Some projects were built a few years ago; others are in the process of being converted. Google Streetview is really helpful to get a better idea. Look them up.


When reading the book, “”Merivale Road” and “South Keys” was constantly going through my head. Everything they describe as ‘wrong’ can be recognised in those malls. Large foot prints, large parking lots, low employment, low walkability scores, emphasis on the car. Train Yards and College Square are not much different, despite built 40 years later.

The blind wall is prepared for condos, see below. (image: Google)
The blind wall is prepared for condos, see below. (image: Google)


Your liner home bolted on blind wall facing 100 year old houses across the street.
Your liner home bolted on a blind wall facing 100 year old houses across the street. (photo Hans Moor)

The future is the Lansdowne model, where you see elements of the new ways of thinking in urban planning: the condo towers, the liner condos (bolded on a concrete wall) on street level at Holmwood, the several entrances to the property, the park and the multifunctional square.

Surface parking lots passé

One thing is sure: large suburban surface parking lots will be a thing of the past. Even the Park and Go parking lots are dismissed by the authors as being old thinking. The land around our new LRT train stations will become way too valuable for Saturday afternoon shopping only. A recent string of retailers closing down is only the beginning of a much larger process of refitting suburban malls. Throw online shopping in the mix and you can see that developers are starting to rethink the mall as we know it. The Byward Market better gets it act together with that plan that was written up a few years ago by PPS.

From the book:

Legacy Town Centre

The retail developer, Fehmi Karahan, initially tried to lure national retailers with an upscale version of a strip mall The Shops at Legacy, facing a six lane Legacy Drive with surface parking in front… However, in 2006 the Wall Street Journal reported: “Retailers that pushed for surface parking turned out to be wrong. Today the hottest location is not Legacy Drive but the narrow Bishop Road, where the stores are a sidewalk’s width from the curb”

The authors finish the book with a peak into the future, by looking back in 2050 to what happened in the first half of our 21st century.

From the book:

“While a few cities pioneered the return of the street car or light -rail to the arterial in the early twenty-first century, the momentum for mass transport in the suburbs accelerated sharply in 2015 after gasoline prices topped $10 a gallon”.

In April 2015, the gas was around $2,20 a gallon. But gas prices are not the only factor in the drive to move to urban living.

In the next post, we are going to check out a potential Ottawa mall make over and look to the ideas that come straight from ‘Retrofitting Suburbia’. We’ll compare it with a mall in Florida, I (accidentally) visited this winter. Read that next post here.

Useful links:

Book Available at the Ottawa library. Publisher’s Page is here. If you don’t like reading, here is a 20 minute TED talk by one of the two authors (but the book is far more interesting):


5 thoughts on “Retrofitting Suburbia

  1. I suggest my article: on how to get the transition going in terms of urban design. Most arterials are wide enough to actually have a complete street and a set of higher density 2-4 story buildings, or at least some rowhouses or 50 m2 apartments if nothing else, about 27.5 metres is the minimum edge to edge. An of course those parking lots, strip malls and big box stores can be rezoned and when it’s time to rebuild, they can be made to be better pedestrian friendly spaces.

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