Retrofitting at the Scale of the Block

Retrofitting Suburbia is an interesting discussion that has been widely discussed in the architecture and planning groups for the past decade. This has been the era that we have been able to see, too often, the failures of our development patterns since World War II. Products of the discussion include a few very good mall and strip mall retrofits, most notably and locally, Belmar in the suburb of Denver.

Of course there were also two amazing books that were the product of the discussion: Retrofitting Suburbia and The Sprawl Repair Manual. I have provided links on the titles of these two books to make ordering even easier if you have not already read them.

Something that has not been implemented at quite the frequency necessary is the idea of retrofitting entire blocks of abandoned, or dilapidated, single-family residential. This is a very tedious process with not only layers of red tape, but also several property owners to purchase the lots from to assemble the block. This begs the question though if we really need to have sole possession of a block to assemble a large-scale retrofit.

La Familia Community Garden in Pueblo (Image from Garden Facebook Page)

There has to be a minimal quantity or percentage of homes that can be effective at a block-scale or even neighborhood-scale retrofit. One is rarely enough to make a difference, but the power of one lot can be enough to excite the others. In the instance of the La Familia Community Garden project in Pueblo, Colorado, one lot was all that was necessary to re-energize and unite a distressed neighborhood.

Steve Mouzon presented his 12-Step Program for Sprawl Repair at a CNU Colorado event a few weeks ago. The first step in Sprawl Repair, according to Steve, is to provide the necessary civic space. He added that a single foreclosed lot could add value to a neighborhood by providing a small park or community space. Many subdivisions are lacking this small pocket park feature at a walkable distance. Generally, the acceptable rule-of-thumb is 5-minutes or 1/4 of a mile. Of course, as I have previously pointed out in the post: The Five Minute Walk: Calibrated to the Pedestrian, this 1/4 mile rule of thumb is only a guideline. Steve swiftly and accurately points out that it has much more to do with the Pedestrian Propulsion of the area than the actual distance.

In Denver, Living City Block is an organization who is considering retrofits in a different vein. Instead of focusing on the two ends of the spectrum, single-family home vs the large high-rise building, Living City Block is attempting to assist the small to medium-sized buildings in between. The idea, which is summarized beautifully by Emily Badger in this Atlantic Cities article (Greening an Entire Block Instead of Just One Building), is to compile the utility bills for several users into a single account with the utility company. This provides a cost-effective means to make retrofits with a greater Return on Investment, or ROI, that may not be feasible for the sole building owner.

This is very fascinating to me, because it makes me wonder how many other things are possible at the neighborhood scale. Could we take this idea to another level in our own neighborhoods? Is it possible under our own homeowners associations? Could we combine the partnership opportunities presented in Living City Block with Steve’s notion of scraping an abandoned home in favor of civic space? How does the neighborhood as a whole benefit?

Off of the top of my head, the most fundamental retrofit is to combine the exterior lawn maintenance of a neighborhood under the same entity, but hey that’s coming from a landscape architect. Even if it is just the front lawn, there is a great deal of money to be saved in a landscape retrofit, especially with appropriately managed irrigation systems with sensors installed.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Please comment below or send me an email at john@evstudio.com.

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