Beyond Drive-by Design

aerial suburbs alienation

The suburbs are crying out for love and attention. Fifty years of car-centric design intended to be driven past as quickly as possible has taken a visible toll. Scarcity of interesting, safe places for walking, bicycling and social activities is increasingly seen as a root cause for escalating chronic diseases and mental health concerns.

Meanwhile, changing demographics and focus on resource conservation are stimulating a growing demand for suburban revitalization. In other words, the time has come to re-imagine unhealthy, underperforming acres of asphalt, retail and office parks as sustainable, diverse, walkable communities.

More than eighty examples of imaginative suburban transformations are presented in Retrofitting Suburbia by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson. Their case studies include the site of a former 100-acre mall in Lakewood, Colorado that has been redeveloped over a ten-year period into twenty-three walkable urban blocks, publicly owned streets and LEED-certified buildings. This successful venture has inspired eight of thirteen area malls to move forward with plans for applying urban design principles to their suburban settings.

However, Dunham-Jones reminds us that technical specifications for walkable communities are not enough. Design quality must also be seen as  a vital ingredient of healthy places.

As we reflect on historic failures of infamous urban renewal projects we are reminded that walk-able planning does not guarantee walk-motivating reality. Boring, nature-free streetscapes will lead to bad investments in suburban renewal.

Through our work with clients and the public we’ve developed five diagnostic questions – known as Vital Signs – to help people understand some of the most basic elements of design quality. We created these plain-language (non-academic/ architect lingo) questions so that citizens can look at their built environment with a critical eye, rather than settle for a monotonous “walkable” scheme:

1.  Nature: Does the design make connections with the natural world?

2.  Authenticity: Does the design convey locally-inspired character?

3.  Variety: Does the design provide visual interest and support diverse activities?

4.  Vitality: Does the design convey energy and stimulate social interaction?

5.  Legacy: Are we creating a design that is beyond “sustainable” in terms of advancing long-term health and prosperity?

NOTE: There will be a Retrofitting and Planning Sustainable Suburbs conference in Toronto Dec 9 & 10.


  1. Bravo on keeping the diagnostic questions so simple. A question I got recently from someone in the railroad business about what a Livable Community really is reminded me that design principles can be hard to grasp by people who are not immersed in it. It will be interesting to see post-suburbia take shape. Does it lend itself to renovation or does it need to be rebuilt? That mall in Lakewood sounds like it does not resemble a mall anymore.

    • Sharon Vanderkaay

      Thanks for your feedback on keeping the diagnostic questions simple – a real discipline! I think we will see a wide variety of responses to re-thinking the suburbs. Some change will probably happen incrementally, in some cases maybe we won’t recognize what was there before.

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