Thursday, July 15, 2010

"silver springs" mentioned in TED talk on suburban retrofits

Retrofitting Suburbia is a book about readying suburban places for the social, economic and environmental problems of the future. Last fall, I got the chance to lead author June Williamson on a tour of downtown Silver Spring - a place that she and co-author Ellen Dunham-Jones consider a prime example of suburban redevelopment.

Twenty years after my mother moved here to be somewhere "quiet," we have a vibrant, bustling town center. There's some grumbling about the quality of the buildings and the traffic and a few very unfortunate incidents, but if you think what we've done here is a failure, you're quite mistaken. Silver Spring has the makings of a great place, and it's no surprise that places all over the D.C. area - and all over the nation - look to us as an example.

Prof. Dunham-Jones gave a TED talk earlier this year on the book and places like "Silver Springs." (I know. Hopefully Prof. Williamson knows better.) During the photo rights protest in 2007, our new downtown gave us a chance to see "democracy at work," she explains.

Fast-forward to about 17:00 to see a picture of friend of JUTP Chip Py (or at least, the rear of Chip Py), whose protest on "the Turf" three years ago is still making waves. Here's what Prof. Dunham-Jones had to say about it:
"This is a protest that's happening in a retrofit in Silver Springs, Maryland, on an astroturf town green. Now, retrofits are often accused of being examples of "faux downtowns" or "instant urbanism," and not without good reason. You do not get much more phony than an astroturf town green . . .

They are new, but trying to look old, they have urban streetscapes but suburban parking ratios. their populations are more diverse than typical suburbia but they're less diverse than most cities . . . they are public places that are managed by private companies . . .

I'm glad that the urbanism is doing its job. The fact that a protest is happening really it does mean that the layout of the blocks, the streets and blocks, the putting in of public space, compromised as it may be, is still a really great thing. But we've got to get the architecture better."
Hopefully, the authors will get a chance to see our new Civic Building and Veterans Plaza - a real public building and a real public town square in the middle of a suburb.

Thanks to GGW for the heads-up.


Patrick said...

Silver Spring gets mentioned a lot by the national media and academics for how to retrofit the suburbs correctly.

Here is a NY Times article from a few years ago:

Silver Spring has made a few missteps and consider me one of the people who agrees that the AstroTurf was funny and quirky, but ultimately not good urban design (and most people who visited thought it was rather embarrassing). I'm happy to see it gone. The plaza is a step in the right direction. Let's build a skate park to get the skateboarders out of it (and give them something to do) and then it will really shine.

The new library looks good too, especially if the Purple Line does get built. A pedestrian bridge, however, would not help our image or our community. Almost no one is building them anymore, because they are anti-urban, anti-walking. They are a suburban solution that has proven not to work. The whole reason to build sky bridges is to get people off the streets, so that cars can go faster, with less impediment.

Silver Spring is doing well, but for it to keep up the momentum, it has to focus on what has worked (building a vibrant downtown that attracts people on foot to do all sorts of activities) and get away from what isn't working (City Place, managing traffic and not enough mixed-use development).

If Silver Spring plays its cards right, in a few decades it could be the new Arlington (one of the biggest darlings for proponents of smart growth). If not, people will look to move to other better, designed urban areas.

My generation wants walkable neighborhoods with mixed use. Silver Spring has the potential to attract a lot of people and investment moving forward, but only if they county planners can keep reactionary tendencies at bay.

Terry in Silver Spring said...

Peterson has taken a lot of hits over the years, but he deserves a huge amount of credit for developing or redeveloping the right places.

He took on an alley and vacant lot and created DTSS, as you say, an example to the country.

He took a rundown area by PG Plaza Mall and turned it into University Town Center, an attractive and neat area with apartments, restaurants, offices, and things to do.

He took a gravel mining area beside the Potomac in Oxon Hill and created a showplace with GREAT restaurants, concerts, shopping, and a waterfront that people really seem to love to spend time along.

I'd like to hug this man. I grew up in Oxon Hill/Ft Washington, went to undergrad at UMd, and now live in DTSS. He took areas that were run down, and saw their potential.

Terry in Silver Spring said...

The Oxon Hill development is National Harbor, of course. My folks still live near there. Dad loves to see a reviewer, especially in the Post, have to admit that there is something wonderful in Oxon Hill.