Who among us can say that he or she was voted as one of the 100 Most Influential Urbanists of all time, a list that includes urbanists like Jane Jacobs, Frederick Law Olmsted, Rem Koolhaas, and Le Corbusier? The Answer: Georgia Tech’s very own Ellen Dunham-Jones, Georgia Tech School of Architecture professor and director of the School’s urban design program.
Planetizen, a popular website for planning topics, crowdsourced their 20,000 subscribers to follow up their 2009 list of Top Urban Thinkers with the new list of influencers. The diverse and comprehensive list goes back to Hippodamus in 498 BCE and includes politicians and rappers.
Georgia Tech is proud to see Dunham-Jones clock in at number 71. Dunham-Jones says she’s both surprised and extremely gratified to see validation of her pioneering work on retrofitting suburbia. “When I first started this work in the ‘90s, senior urbanists discouraged me and often told me I should really be working on Downtowns. To the degree that academics focused on the suburbs at all, it was mostly to critique them. But it seemed to me that there weren’t many good intellectual questions left about how to revitalize our downtowns. Whereas we’ve all been pretty clueless about how to fix the ill effects of post-war suburban development.”
Undaunted, she and June Williamson gathered previously unpublished examples of dead malls, big box stores, office parks, etc., that had been retrofitted into more sustainable places. In 2009 they published Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs, winner of that year’s PROSE award for best book in architecture and urban planning. Blair Kamin, architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune, calls it “the bible of the retrofitting movement. Its message was amplified by her 2010 TEDx talk that went viral and revealed the depth of interest in suburban redevelopment.
Retrofitting and the Urban Design Program
Dunham-Jones’ focus on retrofitting and redevelopment extends to her leadership of the Master of Science in Urban Design (MSUD) degree. “Across the globe our urban places are facing tremendous 21st century challenges that they weren’t designed for. Climate change and sea level rise, demographic change (both growing and shrinking populations), and technological changes – from autonomous vehicles to big data - are prompting a continuous need for rethinking infrastructure, affordability and public space.” She says that “the big design project for the next 100 years is retrofitting both our aging suburbs and downtowns.”
This requires integrated solutions and the MSUD deliberately brings together architects, landscape architects, and planners in a very collaborative studio environment. The program focuses on empirical lessons from existing cities that are beloved and work well while also tackling various contemporary challenges. Working with real communities and clients, Dunham-Jones’ recent urban design studios have focused on a 25-year vision for leveraging autonomous vehicles to revitalize Downtown Atlanta and retrofitting the damaging effects of urban renewal on Chattanooga’s Westside.
Dunham-Jones has become more locally active herself as a member of the Downtown Master Plan Working Group and with a recent guest column in the AJC. “Atlanta is really the perfect place to study and work on urbanism. We have every challenge – and opportunity- right here. I get to see suburban retrofitting in action. Plus, it’s extremely rewarding to be able to engage Georgia Tech’s resources and fantastic students in addressing Metro Atlanta’s communities’ needs and ambitions.”
A National Advocate for Walkable Urbanism, Well-designed Public Space, and Re-greened Parking Lots
Dunham-Jones does not only document and lead designs for these kind of improvements, but she has also been a long-time advocate through national leadership positions with the Congress for the New Urbanism, AIA and ULI.
Dunham-Jones’ national profile continues to grow as more and more communities, media outlets, and professional organizations seek her expertise on what to do with all those dead shopping centers and aging office parks. She identifies relevant successful case studies and trends based on her unique database of over 1500 retrofits.
She is excited about the follow-up book that she and Williamson are working on to tell some of those stories. “The new generation of retrofits are more ambitious and better designed. In addition to reducing automobile dependence – job one – the best of them are also helping their communities deal with an aging population, social capital, public health, jobs retention, stormwater and energy efficiency.” She adds, “Most importantly, they’re using good design to shape a better public realm and provide opportunities in suburbia to lead a more shared, communal life.”