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ASLA Live Blogging: Making Suburbia Walkable
Mixed-use developments can transform the suburbs into more livable communities. Photo by citta-vita.

Mixed-use developments can transform the suburbs into more livable communities. Photo by citta-vita.

Live blogging from the American Society of Landscape Architects 2010 Expo and Design Conference in Washington, D.C., held at the Convention Center on September 10-12.

The ASLA’s annual conference involves, tours, workshops, educational sessions, people trying to sell design-type stuff (like Crate & Barrel’s indoor sitting area in a hallway of the conference center), and well, lots of sitting. Majora Carter, founder of Sustainable South Bronx, is a keynote speaker along with Richard Jackson of UCLA’s School of Public Health.

I attended a session called “Retrofitting Surburban Corridors” that highlighted some of the mixed-use options for development in low-density, suburban areas. The planners and designers who presented — all based in the Baltimore region — discussed the conflict of malls and Big Box stores with smart design. They also discussed how to improve five-lane roadways that one presenter called “The Beast.”  The session highlighted a few case studies and techniques that can transform a space functioning as a corridor for cars into development that attracts people and incorporates county and state master plans for smart growth.

The major ways to reform such a multi-lane road corridor, the speakers said, are to re-envision the streetscape through the following ways:

  1. Develop a wider sidewalk
  2. Put parking in the rear of buildings
  3. Bring buildings closer to the street so that their entrances are right along the sidewalk
  4. Focus on 3- to 5-storey buildings that encourage multi-use, as opposed to a 1-storey sprawling building.

The discussion on Big Box stores focused on their inevitably and some of the methods architects and planners might employ to create a sense of place. Although hard to finance and find a willing developer, these designs are becoming more common:

  1. Focus on connectivity: Strip malls can link to other strip malls so people are easily able to walk from one to the other.
  2. Establish mixed-use zoning: Apartments above a grocery store might seem unusual but it encourages clustered development and stronger communities.
  3. Be creative about design: There are examples of Big Box stores integrating themselves more sensitively with their surroundings. For example, a Wal-Mart could be located behind and restaurants placed in front. And the store could have a smaller, less visible entrance with parking in the back, not the front. Rather than a blank wall, it’s possible for these stores to have a more varied relationship with their surroundings.

The speakers at the conference included:

Matthew D’Amico, Design Collective, Inc.

Arnold F. Keller, Baltimore County Office of Planning

Marsha McLaughlin, Howard County Office of Planning and Zoning

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  • @Nancy Thompson, thanks for the thoughtful response. I think a number of planners are totally in line with your thinking, but the question is how to incentivize “big box” stores and developers to think about design and mixed used developments. I think it’s interesting IKEA has such wonderful designs within its stores, but the outside…

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  • I might just be an optimist needing to go to rehab, but I really think that big boxes aren’t inevitable. If and when cities insist that the chain stores that usually build big boxes build something better, they sometimes oblige. “Something better” might include multi-story buildings with windows, actual articulation on the elevation instead of the flat panels, and construction materials and methods that will outlast the 15-year life cycle that some of these stores typically exhibit. Not to mention actual architectural thinking to blend in with the rest of the environment, if it is of merit, or to set the new pace for architectural interest on that road or in that district.

    Incidentally, even the big boxes appear to be starting to think they might be boring–now they’re incorporating Starbuck’s and other smaller businesses within their walls. That’s lame, if we’re thinking of urban design, but it shows that creative solutions are possible if we demand them.

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