Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same.
There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.
One day in 1962, songwriter Malvina Reynolds was driving through Daly City when she became inspired to write a song after spying rows and rows of look-alike houses alongside the freeway. The song, “Little Boxes,” was made famous by Pete Seeger. The ticky-tacky houses that inspired her? The suburbs.
Ah, the suburbs. The domain of the middle-class. An escape from urban ills to sprawling neighborhoods with tidy lookalike tract houses, where families kept up with the Jonses’ and all, at least on the surface, was well. It made us drive more; it did not help greenhouse gas emissions, either.
Although not all ‘burbs were (and are) the same, in a nutshell this was largely the cliché used to describe residents and attitudes of the post-World War II suburban boom. But suburbs aren’t new—they go all the way back to ancient Rome. The word suburb first appeared sometime in the early 14th century, when it was used to refer to the village or area outside of a larger town or city.
These days, the suburbs are changing. Architects and engineers are being challenged to plan greener, more sustainable places to live, which means creating pedestrian-friendly, bikeable city centers for people to work, shop, and play.
Why? The standard family model in the United States has changed from the Mom + Dad + Jack + Sally template to one of single people, one-parent families, and multigenerational households. Aging Boomers desire close access to services, and Millennials have no desire, and no way to afford, the split-level ticky-tackies in which they grew up. Plus, many big-box stores (think Sears and Fry’s) and large shopping malls are closing for good, leaving huge, empty spaces.
This situation has caused both an inversion—more people moving back to urban living—and, since not everyone can fit, or would want to move, back into the city, a retrofitting of suburbia. Ellen Dunham-Jones, professor of architecture at the Georgia Institute of Technology and June Williamson, architect and professor of architecture at the City College of New York and authors of Retrofitting Suburbia, present strategies for retrofitting that include:
- Re-inhabitation, or various forms of adaptive reuse,
- Re-development, or urbanization by increasing density, walkability, use mix; and
- Re-greening, from small parks and plazas, to restoring wetlands ecologies.
In California, changes are already happening. Caltrans’ Smart Mobility and Active Transportation Branch introduced the Toward an Active California program in May 2017. The City of Sacramento is making progress in being one of the first cities in the country to reform single-family zoning, which will allow for more duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes—and more much-needed and affordable housing—in the city.
Dunham Jones and Williamson state that, at this time, more than 2,000 retrofit projects are in progress across the United States. Of course, it cannot all be done overnight. Or, as the authors of Retrofitting Suburbia put it, “We spent fifty years building and living in these suburban landscapes, and we must spend the next fifty retrofitting them for the new needs of this century.”
Want to help plan the future?
What kind of experience and education does it take to be an architect? Did you know there are many classifications of engineers? Find out more at the California Architects Board and the Board for Professional Engineers, Land Surveyors, and Geologists.