Thursday, 12 June 2014

Retrofitting Suburbia

This is the title of a TED talk given by Ellen Dunham-Jones about the need to re-use wasted suburban space in order to fight global warming, produce more housing and suit people’s changing need sets when it comes to their homes.

Although the talk is focussed on Atlanta in the USA, I think many of the things that the speaker says about housing problems are applicable to the UK. Her premise is that urban areas are already developed to make the maximum use of space. It would be wrong to further reduce green space in an urban environment to create more housing when suburbs have much more potential for re-fitting.

In urban areas everything is much nearer – work, shops, entertainment, leisure facilities etc. City dwellers tend to have a smaller carbon footprint because they don’t have to commute far to get to work or to the shops. In contrast, in the suburbs people tend to drive everywhere. The challenge is to make suburbia more ‘urban’ to reduce carbon emissions.

The reason people move to the suburbs is to find more affordable housing. The farther you get from the centre, the cheaper housing becomes. The case of people living farther and farther away from their workplace in order to get an affordable mortgage is applicable to the UK housing market.

Dunham-Jones points out that the saving is off-set by transport costs. She found that people living in the suburbs in Atlanta spend as much as 32% of their income on transport. And then there is the environmental cost too.

Part of the process of retro-fitting suburbia is to convert unused space into office space. And by doing so create local jobs to cut down on commuting.

She lists a variety of projects that have seen closed down shops, unused parking lots, scrub land etc. turned into buildings to serve the community such as shops, libraries, schools, social housing etc. By doing so jobs and facilities are bought into the suburbs that in effect makes them more like ‘urban’ spaces in that they are more self-contained, rather than being simply inefficient living space for city workers.

If we are to ever deal with the housing shortage in the UK we are going to have to look to academia and examples from other countries. One such source of ideas is the idea of retrofitting suburbia.