The Burbs

A Wall, No Matter How Pretty, Is Still…a Wall

by Michele Reeves on March 11, 2014

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During the summer of 2013, my husband and I took a very uncharacteristic vacation to a spa in Scottsdale, Arizona. I say “uncharacteristic” because a spa in the desert at the height of summer would not normally be at the top of our list of vacation destinations.

But, long story short, we were quite happy to find ourselves, sans children, in this suburban Arizona town in June. (And, may I say, it was a lovely location from which to watch the super moon!)

So, one of the things that jumped out at me about The West’s Most Western Town (yes, that is Scottsdale’s somewhat official nickname), is that the built environment of this relatively new, arterial-focused city is dominated by walls.

Undulating walls…walls made of different materials…short walls, long walls, tall walls, grand walls, pony walls. There are walls with embedded art. There are elaborate walls along freeways. One special wall, my personal favorite, had fish sculptures on it that glowed a deep, blood red in the night.

And I realized something by the end of my stay there: no matter how much you spruce ‘em up, a wall will always tell a story of division, of separation, of disconnection, of hinderance, and of restriction. They certainly lent an air of desolation while driving about the city, and made me rather desperate to penetrate the walls, so I could feel as if I had arrived somewhere.

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Easy to Build, Hard to Reuse

by Michele Reeves on October 28, 2010

Bridgeport Village

This faux downtown lifestyle center in Tigard, Oregon, called Bridgeport Village, has created a riotous cacophony of demand from various suburban communities throughout the Portland Metro region: “Hey, we want one of those malls in our town!!”

Aside from the fact that we are not going to see US consumer buying power expand any time soon, and aside from the fact that many of these places have real historic downtowns that are languishing and could use some love, the reality is that the proliferation of structures that cannot be adaptively reused easily is creating future headaches for property owners, city government, and the neighborhoods that surround them.

For the life of me, I cannot imagine why, in this economic climate, a city would pursue the construction of a large lifestyle center, since it would merely shift existing retailers from older malls or big box locations into these sexy new buildings, leaving difficult-to fill space behind. So, what do you do with dying malls and empty big box locations?

Below, Ellen Dunham-Jones shares a host of interesting suburban adaptive reuse projects based on her book: Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs. She has uncovered some very innovate approaches throughout the country, but I fear our supply of dying malls is going to far outstrip our ability to fill them.



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