The personal, healthcare, and economic costs of COVID have been staggering. But one positive story that has persisted through the crisis is the environmental benefits of reducing how much we travel—and the emissions that come with it.
Lockdowns and other restrictions on travel have at times brought local and long-distance travel to a virtual standstill. In 2020, the emission of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the United States dropped to levels not seen since 2005. GHG reduction is good for the planet and, in the long run, for the survival of our species. That begs the question: what can we do to safeguard and prolong some of the climate gains achieved during the pandemic?
Retrofitting our suburbs to enable a less car-dependent lifestyle is one opportunity we should seize. We can provide more mobility choices and enable the shift to less carbon-intensive forms of travel. We can make this possible by creating more compact, walkable communities in strategic suburban locations. Hybrid workers can commute to the office some days and stay local on other days within their amenity-rich neighborhoods, traveling on foot and by bicycle.
Suburban retrofit is the transformation of underutilized, car-oriented assets like malls, shopping centers, industrial areas, and office parks. They can then become compact, walkable, mixed-use “activity centers.” Suburban retrofit also reduces the carbon footprint of the suburbs and builds community. This helps people get out of their cars and get to know each other—including across social classes and ethnicities.
The National Capital Region (NCR)—where I live—is famous for its diversity. Suburban retrofit can help us make it central to our identity. With the right planning and policy framework in place, these refreshed communities can give residents and employees the opportunity to live lower-carbon lifestyles, while achieving higher quality of life and greater social inclusion.
New federal funding provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to green our infrastructure. Through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), the federal government has dedicated massive amounts of grants and loans. That funding will help build broadband, renewable energy, electric vehicles, and bicycle and pedestrian facilities, among other programs.
This is a great time to broaden our concept of suburban retrofit. Now is the time to include smart, low-carbon, district-level infrastructure that can shrink our carbon footprints even further.
COVID-19 boosted demand for higher-quality suburban environments
Increased teleworking has greatly reduced commuting for most professional and technical workers. The impact of fewer commuting miles and the sharp decrease in air travel contributed to an overall drop in GHG emissions of more than 10% in 2020 compared to 2019.
Hybrid working is poised to remain a key part of our work culture into the future. Most expect that technical and professional workers in North America will work from home 2 to 3 days per week, on average. Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research found that 55% of US workers want to balance working in the office with working from home. Most of those workers live in suburban areas.
What will hybrid workers ask of their suburban neighborhoods as they spend more time there? Participants in planning workshops in the NCR routinely cite the desire to access walkable, mixed-use activity centers—especially when they are reachable on foot or by bike. These are destinations where you can have a family outing, get together with friends, or meet up with colleagues. In our increasingly decentralized, tech-dependent working world, these centers can host some of the face-to-face interaction that builds relationships and boosts productivity.
Suburban retrofit projects can meet some of the demand for local activity centers. This requires the creation of an activated urban node—a main street for the community. We can do this by repurposing shopping centers and malls into new places that provide high-quality pedestrian and bicycle connections from existing residential areas. Improving access to bike/ped facilities also enables healthy living choices. These investments can help extend carbon-positive walking trends that began during the pandemic, when people across the country walked more than ever in recent history, based on route search data published by Apple. This was led by the Midwest, with a 122% walking increase!
Suburban retrofit is not so much a change of direction as it is a speeding up of an existing trend. The share of US households with two or fewer members has been rising for years and is anticipated to reach about 80% of all new households by 2040 according to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. This trend will increase demand for smaller dwelling units, including apartments. At the same time, lifestyle choices have been changing since the 2000s. Many segments of North American society—including Gen Z, millennials, and empty nesters—now want to walk or bike to vibrant neighborhoods where they can eat, shop, or grab a beer with friends. That demand is being met in city centers, which are already compact, and in suburban areas through retrofit projects.
Federal infrastructure financing can spur suburban retrofit
The supply side for implementing suburban retrofit projects is also improving. ARPA and IIJA have been passed into law. These programs include a lot of new funding for the kinds of infrastructure needed to build and connect new activity centers. ARPA has funding available now for broadband and water/wastewater projects. In Virginia, for example, some of the water funding can be used for public open space projects if they contribute to stormwater absorption.
Other measures include financing for electric vehicles, public transit, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, and renewable energy, among others. Local governments can bring these funds to bear on suburban retrofit projects to finance the infrastructure and public realm portions of these projects. Developers can focus more on the buildings. In practice, managing the level of exactions or proffers that developers must provide is often the key to financial success of mixed-use real estate projects.
Infrastructure grants and loans offer another possibility—we can push suburban retrofit projects to higher levels of energy performance and lower carbon footprints. The standard approach to suburban retrofit includes compact urban form, walkable streets, and mixed land uses that include cultural and entertainment amenities. What if suburban retrofit projects were conceived as eco-districts? What if the menu also included smart, district-based (as opposed to building-by-building) infrastructure, which lowers GHG emissions per household?
Smart microgrids, integration of renewable energy sources, electric vehicles, district heating and cooling, small dwelling units, and high-performance building envelopes can all contribute to lowering carbon footprints. It is time to stop seeing these as optional “add-ons.” They must be core features in making new climate-compatible communities.
How to promote low-carbon living through suburban retrofit
The following program is one way local governments can take advantage of the current window of opportunity. Promoting more walkable, mixed-use urban centers will not only reduce carbon footprints but also create unique places and enhance the local tax base.
1. Survey residents. It is critical to understand what residents want in the way of local amenities and services. Recent community outreach by our suburban retrofit team in Arlington, Prince William, Prince George’s, and Loudoun Counties points to a clear uptick in demand for local activity centers. That said, it always helps to clarify the breadth of support for change and the shape of the demand profile in any given community. A household survey can provide answers at a low cost. Existing data sources on the preferences of knowledge-economy workers moving into these suburbs are also useful for planning new urban centers.
2. Prioritize geographic areas and identify opportunity sites. To provide some geographic focus to the effort, local planning departments can evaluate the potential for suburban retrofit at several locations and prioritize a few for short-term actions. In addition to the findings of the household survey, feedback from developer interviews can be used to assess redevelopment options. Equity is also important. Suburban retrofit initiatives can bring public realm improvements and active transportation to historically underserved areas.
3. Push the envelope on climate mitigation. Broaden the suburban retrofit program to include development of district-level infrastructure systems and other features that can lower carbon footprints. The most impactful interventions are district heating and cooling, electric vehicle chargers, and smart microgrids that integrate renewable power. Map the capital program against new federal financing programs. Then pursue grants and loans that will enhance financial viability of suburban retrofit efforts.
4. Lay the regulatory groundwork. Make advanced changes to the zoning code to speed approvals of suburban retrofit projects. Change processes to shorten the time and lower the cost of project approvals. Lower or eliminate on-site parking requirements. Change street design standards and guidelines to encourage more transit, more pedestrians, more cyclists, and fewer cars.
5. Shop it around. Take the ideas to the market. Meet with developers, landowners, and community associations. Build awareness of the opportunity—including federal funding for infrastructure—and collect feedback for the shaping of individual suburban retrofit projects.
Measuring the impact
How much of a difference can all of this make? Could suburban retrofit make a serious dent in the total amount of GHGs in coming decades?
The positive effects of increased walking and biking are known, as are the effects of reduced reliance on fossil fuels. But to answer these questions thoroughly, we need to link comprehensive suburban retrofit efforts to existing carbon emission monitoring programs.
Now is the time to start connecting the dots for a holistic approach to carbon reduction. Future generations can’t afford for us to wait any longer.
About the author
A Senior Principal and Practice Leader for Stantec's Community Development team, John Bachmann designs and plans vibrant smart cities with low carbon footprints and a focus on walkability. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.