Studying Suburbia: From Development to Redevelopment

A woman in a blue shirt

William Staffeld / AAP

October 17, 2017

A Profile of Suzanne Lanyi Charles, from the Fall 2017 Issue of AAP News.

"I never had any doubt about what I wanted to do when I was younger — I wanted to be an architect," says Assistant Professor Suzanne Lanyi Charles of the Department of City and Regional Planning (CRP). After completing a master of architecture degree, Charles spent nearly 10 years working professionally in the field of architecture, first at Renzo Piano Building Workshop in Paris and then at Booth Hansen in Chicago, where she advanced to the position of vice president.

"It was while working on large projects in Chicago that I began to realize how very different a developer's concerns were from most architects, which was often frustrating," says Charles. "It was common to struggle with developers every step of the way, defending our intent, the building, and design decisions we had made because, as architects, we had little awareness of or access to the information developers used to make crucial, often market-driven decisions. I was fascinated by why — and even how — that could be."

Charles's interest in the relationship between form and development finance expanded as she became intrigued by the larger context operating around growth and change in the built environment. Her singular career path began to officially diverge in 2003 when she enrolled at Harvard GSD to study practices in finance, real estate, and planning, which she saw as separate yet essentially linked in inseparable ways to the field of architecture. Charles received a master's degree in design studies in 2005, and a doctorate in urban planning and design in 2011.

"At the GSD, I studied phenomena related to neighborhood change and gentrification, which we as planners most often think of as a specifically urban development problem," she recalled. "And because I had a substantial network in Chicago, as well as detailed knowledge of the city's organization, I was able to connect much of what I was reading to the data I was collecting in the inner-ring suburbs and I saw similar development patterns, both spatially and economically speaking, begin to emerge. My research also revealed how much we have to learn, particularly about the suburbs and the large populations of people who live in those areas. It was then that I took a deeper interest in the physical, social, and economic changes occurring there."

Charles is part of a relatively small group of planning professionals who, rather than focus on economics, policy matters, and development patterns within the strictly urban built environment, dedicate their research to studying suburbia — what Charles sees as a blind spot in the planning profession. She recalls beginning her inquiry of the suburban condition with questions that are standard to the study of most developing areas, for instance, "What are the forces at work? Or, why is this happening here?" Although typical, these questions, when applied to the inner-ring suburban areas of Chicago, revealed ground fertile enough to expand her research well beyond her doctoral study.

In 2015, after teaching urban planning at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan, and architecture at Northeastern University in Boston, Charles joined AAP as an assistant professor. Bringing to CRP what former department chair Susan Christopherson called "an unusual combination of knowledge and experience" and a "broad view of urban development," Charles has taught classes for graduate students in CRP and the Cornell Baker Program in Real Estate. While she often discusses design and form in her classes, she invariably emphasizes the importance of the study of social and economic systems as they relate to buildings, cities, neighborhoods, and suburban areas.

"I've always been interested in the built environment, and while my point of entry certainly centered on how buildings are designed and built — or what defines 'good design' — I have spent a great deal of time integrating that approach with one that allows students to meaningfully engage in the practice of real estate development," Charles explained. "In the classes, I offer in both planning and development, I include topics for discussion and information that I feel will cultivate a deeper understanding of the forces that affect the physical form of real estate and provide a greater sense of impact for different communities as the built environment affects how and where they live."

At Cornell, Charles continues to address processes of redevelopment in suburban areas with continuously expanding sets of questions and data. She has written several articles and book chapters on the specific phenomenon of "mansionization," attempting to understand what drives the phenomenon. Her research often draws on theories and literature outside of urban planning. Her current work explores relationships between development and socioeconomics, for instance, the theory of conspicuous consumption, an economic explanation for the culture of "keeping up with the Joneses." Charles's work and the sources she uses reflect not only why suburbs take the form they do, but also what is at stake for the people who live in areas where real estate values change dramatically as a result of not only redesign but redevelopment.

Charles recently received a grant from the Cornell Institute for the Social Sciences supporting her research project titled Housing Redevelopment and the Evolution of Suburban Immigrant Communities. At Cornell, as well as at the institutions where she taught formerly, she works toward larger programmatic development and curricular modifications that will support interdisciplinary exchange and learning in the fields of planning and real estate. Currently, Charles serves as a faculty advisor for the Cornell Real Estate Women student group, and frequently moderates panels related to her areas of expertise at conference events organized by the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning, the Urban Affairs Association, and the American Real Estate Society.

"There is always a more complete picture, an often hidden piece of the puzzle when it comes to the built environment," says Charles. "My combined fascination and frustration with this reality is what inspires me to continue seeking new models for research, teaching, and professional practices, both within and across planning and real estate. And I am consistently motivated by the idea that cultivating integrated knowledge of the form and finance of the built environment supports students in learning how to become professionals who create places that are economically viable, socially just, and environmentally sustainable."

By Edith Fikes

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