Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Place Review: Return to Suisun City

A few weeks ago, I reported on a visit to Suisun City.  The city had undergone broad redevelopment efforts and seemed to offer helpful insights about the redevelopment process.  The visit on which I reported had been cut short by inclement weather, so I promised to visit again.

Recently, the next opportunity arose.  My schedule was again constrained, so I couldn’t look around as much as I would have liked, but I was able to take a good amble through the Waterside District on the west side of the Suisun Slough.

(Last time I visited, the weather was cool, rainy, and windy.  This time, it was hot and windy.  The wind seems to be only constant in Suisun City.)

I remain impressed by the redevelopment efforts in Suisun City.   And I was particularly impressed by the incremental approach that the City had taken toward redevelopment.  Except for the Victorian Harbor residential development on the east side of Suisun Slough, the redevelopment improvements seemed to have all been relatively small in scale.

As a visitor unfamiliar with the pre-redevelopment town, I couldn’t even be sure where the redevelopment efforts had stopped and started.  An art deco movie theatre stood next to a historic mansion which stood next to a public plaza. My guess was that the theatre was refurbished, the mansion restored, and the plaza newly built, but I wasn’t sure.

Along the fringes of the downtown, the redevelopment merged seamlessly into the walkable urban residential neighborhoods.  And within the neighborhoods, newer homes, which seemed to date from the redevelopment era, stand cheek-by-jowl with older historical homes, daring observers to tell the difference.

Daniel Burnham (1846-1912), mastermind of the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition and founder of the City Beautiful movement, once said, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood.”  I appreciate his point.  However, the big plans of which he speaks should be long-term visions.  Actual implementation of urban redevelopment is better if taken in small steps, following Jane Jacobs’ concerns about “the cataclysmic flow of capital”.

Working in smaller steps, as Suisun City seems to have done, allows the next redevelopment efforts to be fine-tuned as the previous improvements are absorbed into the fabric of urban life.

Landscape architects have a rule about public improvements that functions as a corollary to Jacobs’ proscription against cataclysmic flows of capital.  Landscape architects know that the public will find ways to use a project that they hadn’t anticipated.  Therefore, many of the best landscape architects will insist on holding back a portion of the construction budget to facilitate what the public teaches them.  Sometimes, it’ll be the addition of a footpath where the public has been cutting through the shrubbery.  Sometimes adding a garbage can where the public has begun using a quiet nook for lunch.  But the crowd wisdom always finds something the designers overlooked.

Urban redevelopment and landscape architecture have a common need to watch how the public integrates a new site into their daily lives.  It’s a lesson that Suisun City seems to have learned well.  While having a Burnham vision, Suisun City has implemented small, incremental steps that were building toward that vision.  It’s too bad that their successes have been temporarily suspended by the dissolution of redevelopment.  More than any city I know, Suisun City deserves to continue toward their vision.

I don’t want to oversell Suisun City.  Please don’t book a week of vacation to sample the local urban delights.  There’s not that much to see.  But if you want to spend a day looking about, enjoying the dining options in the Waterfront District, and chatting with the locals about the changes that have come to their community, I recommend it highly.  I know I’ll be visiting again.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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