The question came up over the weekend regarding retrofitting suburbia, due to the anticipated arrival of speaker, author and urbanist, Ellen Dunham Jones. My friend and colleague asked where in Colorado Springs would be the places that Ellen describes in her TED Talk. It was a question that really deserved more than a short response, so I offered this impromptu classification of ‘suburbia‘:

  1. Future Suburbia: Areas on the periphery of cities which market themselves as “outside the city“. These would include larger lots ‘away from the city‘, or even clusters of homes with a buffer of undeveloped land between them and the city. Residents here enjoy quiet evenings and low traffic. Most do not believe that their community will ever be a part of the city. Due to the high cost of maintenance infrastructure per tax dollar, a responsible city government would not choose to annex it into the city. Geographically and by association however, they are Future Suburbia.
  2. Marketed Suburbia: These are the shiny, new, clean areas of the community, which actually market themselves as suburban and away from the chaos of the city, but include the new amenities of a large city (big box retail, new restaurants, kid-oriented amenities, etc.). They often tout safety and great schools as a part of the marketing strategies. Market values are generally at their peak in the first five years of construction. If you can continue to ride the wave of living in marketed suburbia before the crash of the wave, you will enjoy the life modern adjacent amenities, albeit with an automobile dependent lifestyle. Franchises and retail businesses that plan for obsolescence (build with the plan of vacation in a specific range of years) do very well in these locations while the location remains in the marketed suburbia portion of the community. At some point, they will become the former suburbs, and even worst yet, the forgotten suburbs. Yes, I speak from experience, read Quantifying the Effects of Suburban Living for more.
  3. Former Suburbia: Former Suburbia flirts with the needs of a Suburban Retrofit, as Ellen references in Retrofitting Suburbia. They include homes, strip malls, and pad sites that are on their third or fourth owner/company/tenant. The strip malls are not completely vacant in the former suburbs, but close to it. They are basically doing well enough that the owner can offset the decrease in rent. Little to no profit is being made here. Tenants may include pawn shops, advanced paycheck shops, and as of a couple of years ago in Colorado, medical marijuana. The residents may be paying a low rent for a larger home, however the buildings and home materials are in need of repair in Former Suburbia.
  4. Forgotten Suburbia: The areas classified as Forgotten Suburbia are otherwise considered modern-day slums. They consist of strip malls, pad sites, and homes that people do not want to be in. Generally, they are in disrepair and are begging for a retrofit. Unfortunately, it is difficult for someone to develop these parcels because the adjacent properties are still a major negative. Ideally, these would be the first to be redeveloped, but on the other hand they become very difficult because there is large-scale decay in the areas.

So what could be concluded from this is that ideally, a suburban retrofit is most needed in Forgotten Suburbia. However, it may be more financially effective to conduct a retrofit in Former Suburbia. The decay of suburbia is quite powerful in cities. Suburbia moves swiftly with green horizons. It has a clean exterior skin with a slightly less clean layer inside of it. Inside of that is the decay. Even further in, at the core of the city, is the truly sustained downtown of a city.
The core, or in some instances, multiple cores, are the portions of the city, where decay is less likely. In Colorado Springs, we have one primary core, that is our Downtown. It must be nurtured and given the greatest level of priority. We also have other nuclei of places that greatness can radiate from: Old Colorado City; Manitou Springs; Fort Carson; Air Force Academy; Schriever Air Force Base; Peterson Air Force Base; Colorado College; University of Colorado at Colorado Springs; Pikes Peak Community College; US Olympic Training Center; and our loved parks and natural amenities.
Suburban retrofits can make changes to the pattern of this decay, creating interventionist pockets of positive energy. Occasionally, they can be incredibly strong and really improve the landscape of a larger region. These are the retrofits that Ellen and June Williamson speak of in Retrofitting Suburbia.