Suburban Tissue Analysis & Retrofitability: Creating a Catalogue and Scoring System for Potential Retrofit Sites
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In their book, Retrofitting Suburbia, Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson argue that the big project for the next 50 years will be the redesign and redevelopment of existing suburban properties – particularly shopping malls, big box stores, and office parks – into more sustainable, walkable places. In addition to providing case studies of suburban retrofit projects, Dunham-Jones and Williamson discuss the concept of suburban tissues, a term coined by Brenda Case Scheer to describe the shapes and patterns of the different streets and parcels of the suburbs. Scheer says that suburban tissues range from smallscale single-family residential parcels connected by winding streets to large-scale commercial properties connected by busy arterial roads. This understanding of suburban tissue is important because it provides a clearer picture of the dynamics of the built environment of the suburbs, where different tissues change at different rates and scales. According to Scheer, the smaller-scale parcels of single-family subdivisions undergo subtle changes over short periods of time, while the larger-scale parcels of shopping malls undergo major changes but over longer periods of time. The purpose of this applied research paper is to utilize Scheer’s concept of suburban tissue to create a cataloging and scoring system for potential retrofit site areas. To demonstrate this scoring system, I selected three areas in the Metro Atlanta region to serve as examples of typical shopping mall sites conducive to retrofitability. I then categorized the tissues of each site area and applied a scoring system based on the argument that large-scale sites offer the greatest potential for the large-scale change necessary to redevelop a site into a more sustainable, compact, mixed-use community. While there has been a recent trend towards redesigning and redeveloping suburban properties into sustainable, compact, walkable places, there has been a lack of systematic ways to determine which properties have the greatest potential for redevelopment. The purpose of this applied research paper is provide developers, architects, planners and urban designers with a standardized cataloging and scoring system to help determine which sites have the highest potential for the large-scale change necessary for suburban retrofit projects. In order to create a standardized cataloging and scoring system based on the analysis of suburban properties, it is first necessary to understand the physical form and shape of cities, a concept known as urban morphology. Brenda Case Scheer, an architect and planner who specializes in the study of urban morphology, has come up with a new way of looking at the physical form of suburbs. While architects and urban morphologists of the past, such as Gianfranco Caniggia and M.R.G. Conzen, break down the built environment into the elemental forms of buildings, lots and streets, Scheer goes a step further and identifies the elemental parts of the site, superstructure, infill, buildings and objects (Conzen 1960). According to Scheer, these elemental parts come together to form the basic shapes of the city: the grid, the strip and the master planned community, with the latter two forming the shapes of the suburbs. The suburbs, according to Scheer, can in turn be broken down into three distinct “tissues” that change over time at different rates and at different scales. She labels these tissues as static, elastic, and campus tissue. According to Scheer, static tissue is comprised of relatively small parcels similar in size that undergo slight changes due to the restrictive nature of the multitude of owners resistant to change, as well as the strong relationship between building and parcel (Scheer 2001). Elastic tissue is comprised of parcels that vary in size and shape and that are found along suburban arterial roads. These tissues change rapidly over short periods of time due to change in ownership and change in market conditions. The third tissue, campus tissue, is comprised of large parcels with multiple buildings owned by a single entity, such as a university campus or an apartment community. Campus tissue changes infrequently due to the difficulty in obtaining ownership of such a large parcel and difficulty in initiating change at such a large scale. However, suburban retrofit redevelopment projects have typically utilized campus tissues, such as large shopping mall sites, by converting acres of underutilized asphalt into an urban block structure with a mix of uses and relatively higher densities compared to nearby commercial and residential properties. This type of transformation serves as a premise to my proposal. By utilizing this type of tissue classification, I have come up with a scoring system that analyzes potential retrofit sites based upon their physical make-up of static, elastic and campus tissue. The purpose of this paper is first to provide an overview and analysis of urban morphology and the concept of suburban tissues, then to provide a thorough breakdown of a possible scoring system based on the concept of suburban tissues. Finally, I hope to apply this scoring system to potential retrofit sites in the Metro Atlanta region. The overall goal is to create a scoring system that can be used as a tool for developers, planners, architects and urban designers in order to identify potential redevelopment sites in the suburbs.