"Smart growth"

click on images for full-size:

Empty space in a dying mall in Texas

Vacant ex-Wal-Mart in Maine. Imagine it made into a school or community center. In reality, they built a larger Wal-Mart across the street, and this was torn down and replaced by a Kohl's big box.

Empty stores in a fading outlet mall in Virginia. Imagine it converted to housing or a school.

Space for smart growth

Existing automobile suburb of Albuquerque

Efforts to improve existing suburbs can also learn from discussions on improving the urban quality of cities. Rather than opposing sprawl to the city, why not try transferring positive features of city life into suburbia, changing them from spatial contiguity to other kinds of interrelation?

For instance, there could be a sprawl analogy to the tactic of confining growth within urban boundaries, reflecting it back on itself to increase density and interaction. (See Duany 2000, 183-214.) Laws could be altered to make it more economical to reuse old malls and retrofit old industrial parks. Subsidies could be revealed or dropped, to ensure that decisions about infill versus greenfield development were made in view of the true costs involved for utilities, infrastructure, roads, school expansion, and the like. There have been a few cases where a dead mall has been replanned with housing in the parking lots and the mall buildings converted to a neighborhood center or school. Tax laws could be changed to facilitate suburban infill and creative reuse of older residential facilities such as garden apartment blocks. Municipal and state investments could be targeted to areas that already possess a built-up utility infrastructure. Varieties of public transit could be encouraged. These and a variety of other tactics have been suggested as "smart growth" policies, which accept that there will be continuing growth of suburbs, but try to make it more spatially compact.

Sprawl is automobile-based. It is not the gasoline-burning car as such that is crucial to sprawl, but the idea of being auto-mobile, self-moving, with freedom to move yourself and your goods when and where you want. Some device that did this better and more ecologically than a gasoline car could win out in the end, as long as that principle was sustained. (See Lynch 1981, 419-36.) Where there is effective mixed use planning, walking can be the original auto-mobile.

Public transit cam be combined with new spatial patterns, such as the experiments with transport oriented developments that integrate pedestrian sized pockets of development with light rail, such as Orenco Station outside Portland, Oregon. (For more examples and discussions, see Calthorpe 1989 and 1993, Calthorpe and Fulton 2001, and Kelbaugh 1997.)

Still, in the end, there are too many already existing suburbs that cannot be rebuilt according to smart growth, nor connected by public transit. For them the suburban analogue of public transport will have to be better communications systems. Once networks are widespread enough, sprawl may offer more of what before was only possible in a city, a combination of local loyalty and wide encounters.