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Remaking Suburbia

Why we need to redevelop out-of-date suburbs into more urban, sustainable spaces.

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Last summer, as gas prices hit the $4 a gallon mark, employees at MLGW started talking about a way to save money on their daily commute.

This June, several of the utility's departments began a pilot project: a four-day, 10-hour-a-day workweek.

"The economy drove the discussion and ways to deal with escalating gas prices," says Glen Thomas, supervisor of communications and public relations at MLGW. "For the individual employees who live a little ways out, they're paying less in fuel costs."

The program is optional and isn't offered to some departments or positions. But Thomas says the advantages include longer hours of operation at MLGW and employees getting an extra "weekend" day to run errands.

"I don't want to portray it as a huge environmental thing, but our carbon footprint is a factor," he says.

But MLGW is hardly the only company whose employees have a long commute.

"People are saying their employees are willing to work four 12-hour days if they don't have to drive to work," says Ellen Dunham-Jones. "Suburbia is based on the premise of cheap oil. I think we can all agree that oil is not staying cheap for that much longer."

Dunham-Jones, director of the architecture program at Georgia Tech, spoke at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art last week as part of the local American Institute of Architects' sixth annual Architecture Month. Other events include the annual chalk-art competition and Dining by Design, a dinner at Ballet Memphis.

Dunham-Jones, who wrote Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs with June Williamson, spoke about the need to redesign suburbia.

"The reality is that [the suburbs] are getting kind of old, and they weren't designed to be sustainable," she says.

Instead of abandoning them, remaking suburban areas with more urban streetscapes and zoning could help lessen the nation's dependence on foreign oil, mitigate the effect of climate change, and maybe save people money.

Housing is generally considered affordable when it costs less than 30 percent of the area's median income. By that standard, much of the Memphis metropolitan area would be considered affordable.

But cheap housing is usually farther from the city core. What happens when you add in transportation costs? In most areas of the city, housing plus transportation costs equal more than 45 percent of the area's median income.

Similarly, graphs of pollution generally show cities more polluted than their suburban counterparts. But suburbanites drive more and the buildings are generally smaller and less efficient.

"If you draw graphs on a per capita basis, you get a much different picture," she says. "Urban dwellers have a third of the carbon footprints as suburban dwellers."

The way to change that is to make the suburbs less car-dependent and more energy efficient. But how do you do it?

Dunham-Jones looked at examples of grocery stores converted to libraries, Wal-Marts into megachurches (they've definitely got the parking lots for them), empty lots into gardens, and dead malls turned into new main streets. Dunham-Jones even found an example where an entire neighborhood organized and put themselves up for sale.

Redevelopment experts often talk about widening sidewalks, planting street trees, and getting rid of parking lots, but "it's not going to be quite that easy," Dunham-Jones says. "We had 50 years to specialize suburbia."

Dead malls are often a common trigger for suburban retrofits, because of the large parking lots that surround them and because, due to development patterns, many are relatively centrally located.

"It's not about bulldozing entire neighborhoods," she says. "It's about finding an area that's large enough and well-situated."

It's not without its challenges. Zoning often prevents urban-type development — the mixed uses, the pedestrian-friendly frontages — in suburban areas.

In Memphis, the city school board recently learned that the former retail space near Mendenhall and Winchester leased for a charter school needed an additional $350,000 to bring it up to code.

In the meantime, there are other options.

"In my department, people who participate in the pilot program love it," Thomas says. "With most companies cutting back on employee benefits, this is one that doesn't cost the company anything."

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