Date of Graduation


Document Type


Degree Name

Bachelor of Architecture

Degree Level





Billig, Noah

Committee Member/Reader

Smith, Carl

Committee Member/Second Reader

Shannon, Jeff


The majority of the United States population is living in the suburbs, and yet the suburban built fabric has developed with spatial conditions that have failed to prove their efficacy on environmental, social or economic terms. Most contemporary architectural and urban theorists agree that the suburban condition is inherently problematic. In a 2010 Ted Talk, architect and urban designer Ellen Dunham-Jones discusses the problematic state of the suburban built condition, citing dependence on the vehicle, sparseness of built form, environmental costs, transportation costs, and even increased obesity rates (Dunham-Jones 2010). Because the suburbs comprise the majority of our “urbanized” areas in land-use, population, and economic activity, it is important that designers are able to rectify this American man-made landscape and build public spaces that are worth caring about.

Dunham-Jones indicates that there have been demographic shifts in our culture that are calling for more urban lifestyles in the suburbs. She calls for the re-habitation, re-development, and re-greening of areas in the suburbs that have failed in their pursuits for sustainable human habitation. This capstone discusses a specific type of re-development: suburban retrofit, or the urbanization of a suburban area through the development of walkable built form as a means of generation of activity.

Walkability is central to this capstone and serves as a generator of activity and performance of public space. This capstone seeks to answer two main questions. First, what are the constructs of walkability based on the writings and works of urban theorists, designers, and experts regarding suburban and urban built form? Second, in the suburban retrofits of the Washington DC area, how have these constructs of walkability been executed and what is the experiential quality of their built form? Thus, this capstone offers two main contributions. It establishes a set of urban form constructs to quantitatively analyze and qualitatively assess walkability. Second, it uses some of these constructs of walkability to assess three case studies of suburban retrofits in the Washington DC area—Bethesda Row, Mosaic District Fairfax, and Arts District Hyattsville. This metropolitan area is one of the most active markets for suburban retrofit in the United States (Dunham-Jones 11, 2009). It’s mass-transit system and internal urban structure have encouraged the development of high(er)-density nodes of walkable neighborhoods in the ring of suburbs outside the city.


In the context of this capstone, the concept of walkability has been subdivided into four principles: density, edge condition, integration, and diversity. These principles have then been subdivided into the nine constructs of walkability. The principle of density involves (A) density of dwelling units and (B) density of built form. The principle edge condition involves the (C) definition of public space, (D) permeability of the built edge, and (E) the transparency of the built edge. The principle of integration involves the (F) integration into surrounding context and (G) access and block size. The principle of diversity involves both the (H) diversity of building age and the (I) diversity of program. These constructs are defined, diagrammed, and operationalized in this capstone. ­­­


Some of these constructs of walkability are used to quantitatively analyze and qualitatively assess three case studies of suburban retrofits in the Washington DC area—Bethesda Row, Mosaic District Fairfax, and Arts District Hyattsville. The theoretical background of the constructs of walkability are taken into consideration and critical in the on-site assessment process, which includes sketching, diagramming, photography, and descriptive writing. These methods also deliver insight into the qualitative character and performance of each case study. The case study analysis offers an immersion into three suburban retrofits and aims to answer the following questions: What is the experiential quality of the constructs of walkability as established in this capstone? How are suburban retrofits living up the walkability promised in their development? The importance of the qualitative constructs emerged as a takeaway of this capstone, especially integration into the surrounding context.

An unexpected finding of this capstone is the importance, value, and validity of on-site qualitative analysis in a study of urban form. Using the skill set of a designer of urban form and an understanding of the constructs established within this capstone, the experiential quality of the studied areas can be fully comprehended through sketching, photography, and descriptive writing. This capstone is intended to contribute more than the establishment of a simple checklist for walkable design that can be quantified and replicated. The qualitative results of the case studies reinforce the importance of the perceptual character of the qualitative constructs and the validity of on-site analysis. These qualitative constructs can only be understood in a deep immersion with the site.


Walkability, Architecture, Urban Planning, Suburban Retrofit, Washington DC