Book Review: Suburban Transformations

Review by Guest Blogger, Dave Atkins

How can we transform our suburbs and edge cities into memorable and sustainable places? This is the central question behind architect Paul Lukez’s book, Suburban Transformations, in which he uses five case studies of proposed suburban renewal to introduce the Adaptive Design Process.

Lukez considers what has made great European cities memorable by examining how cities like Florence and Cologne evolved into unique, distinct places. Traces of the old such as the amphitheater, the Roman aqueducts, and the medieval walls, and are now juxtaposed with modern functionality. He concludes that a community’s identity is a function of the successive transformations of a site over time.

In our suburbs, we have typically erased history with each successive development. Even new urbanist and smart growth projects generally begin by wiping out the old. As a result, suburbs have no identity; the developments reflect the popular design theories of the day but often tell us nothing of what came before. Eventually, the development becomes old and stale and is demolished to be replaced again.

The Adaptive Design Process describes a fairly technical toolkit for considering how incremental and adaptive development might proceed to transform instead of replace a region. As a lay person, I am not sure how I would make use of this to improve my community, but I think the approach lays out a framework for talking about alternatives to the typical either/or development practices. I would love to hear, from developers and planning professionals, how this approach could be translated into practical, local action.

Key characteristics of the Adaptive Design Process

The adaptive process aims to bridge the past and future by breaking development into six phases:

  • mapping,
  • editing,
  • selecting tools and typologies,
  • projecting,
  • simulating, and
  • recalibrating

The case studies illustrate how a redevelopment might proceed–instead of making one master plan and implementing it, the development of a location adjusts.

Key tools of the Adaptive Design Process

A symbolic representation of development helps model history. Lukez describes a coding notation to signify how structures have changed over time. For example, he describes the operations of “erasing” and “writing” on a site to support the formulation that Identity = Site + Time. This can be expressed as a “spatial-temporal typology” with a string of symbols like “(WpT1)(WiT2)(EexT3).” These operators describe how a piece of land was divided into parcels (Writing/Parcelling at Time=1), then various buildings were built on each pacel (infilled at Time=2), then a connecting parkway/walk path was cut through the middle of the development (excised at Time=3). This notation could allow the story behind a particular site to be “coded” as a series of operations that could then be analyzed. Having such a coding sequence would make it possible to record large amount of data for software analysis and ultimately rendering in visual models.

Mapping and cross-mapping can be powerful tools to understand history and plan the future of a place. The case studies illustrate specific examples such as how the Burlington Mall (northwest of Boston) was built over a major aquifer, or how noise patterns, sight lines, and traffic patters are all interrelated and should be considered in redevelopment. Part of the difficulty of evolving suburbs in the way that great cities have evolved is that it has been easier to simply start over, believing nothing significant was already there. But mapping and cross mapping can help to uncover a history that might be quickly bulldozed away.

Use what works. Lukez is not arguing that a site should be reduced entirely to a matrix of numbers and maps. But the use of these tools can open up design possibilities that were not otherwise apparent. Suburban development has typically required action within a very limited window of economic opportunity and there were no systemic tools to consider other approaches to the massive, generic development. I believe Lukez is providing a toolkit that will not automate planning, but will give planners who want to do better the tools to articulate and calibrate their vision.

In the end, this book raises many questions–chief among them whether the process I have summarized is something that could be actualized in a real economic setting. My sense is that this toolkit is most useful to the progressive planner who allies with a technical architect and can use it to sell a vision of progress that is substantively credible to developers and the general public.

I had the opportunity to meet the author at a presentation of his book in Boston last week and was able to ask a couple of questions. Clearly, the big question is how can this be made attractive to planners and developers. Part of the answer might be in sustainability–the idea that with the right vision and process, we could develop properties in the suburbs with much longer lifetimes. Instead of constructing a mini-city that will be good for 15-20 years perhaps this process would enable a longer time horizon so that lifetime economic value would be greater. But are there any developers who dream of starting a city that will last 1000 years?

My main question though was how the adaptive process might relate to my own community where the massive Westwood Station project is going to create a mixed-use, smart growth development of 135 acres, bringing 1.5 million square feet of office, 1.35 million square feet of retail, 1000 apartments, and 60,000 cars a day to my town of 14,000 residents. The short answer is that it is probably too late; this project has been planned by one architecture firm to be the ultimate smart growth project in the country. Perhaps if multiple firms were involved, there might be some opportunity for adaptation.

I think the greater value of the ideas in the book are for communities that are trying to improve themselves from the ravages of past development. One case study in the book talks about the Dedham mall (about 2 miles away from me) and presents a creative plan to transform the landscape and community. In town after town, we have seen segregated development, where we have a classic town common in one part and a big mall somewhere else to capture the tax dollars to pay for fixing up the town. No matter how “smart” the growth is it will not provide identity when it is segregated to a corner of town.

Visionaries are often discounted as impractical, but it seems to me Lukez has made a substantial effort to provide a level of detail and workability to these ideas that, in motivated and skilled hands, could begin to translate vision into reality.

Reviewed by Guest Blogger, Dave Atkins


  1. Mike Harmon says:

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    Mike Harmon

  2. Book Reviews says:

    [...] harmonybookreviews wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptReview by Guest Blogger, Dave Atkins. How can we transform our suburbs and edge cities into memorable and sustainable places? This is the central question behind architect Paul Lukez’s book, Suburban Transformations, in which he uses … [...]

  3. Crazy84 says:

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