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In Defense of Drive-to Urbanism

August 8, 2016



Yesterday, I was scrolling through Twitter when my eye snagged on a tweet by Alex Steffen, an environmentalist, futurist, and popular thinker in urbanist circles.

Steffen’s tweet points to a post on the website of the nonprofit Strong Towns—a project of the traditional-cities evangelist Chuck Marohn—titled Drive-to Urbanism. Its author, Kevin Posey, takes aim at today’s developments built on New Urbanist principles but in isolated or disconnected places. He cites a project called Old Town Columbus in Georgia, which is not only 100 miles from the closest big city (Atlanta) but nine miles outside of the town of Columbus itself.

This creates a paradox: a development carefully planned to be navigable without a car once you’re inside it, but that you have to drive to get to in the first place.

Posey finds little to appreciate in such developments, whether in terms of their environmental impact or residents’ quality of life. “True, residents will likely walk to shops and restaurants once they get home in the evening, but before that, they will be part of the hordes of single-occupant car commuters jamming the highways and polluting the air,” he writes. He blames developers, politicians, and planners for making it hard or unpleasant for people to get to the train station even when it’s right on their doorstep, like at Northern Virginia’s Mosaic District, separated from the nearby Metro station by nine lanes of whizzing traffic.

It’s true that many examples of “drive-to urbanism” fall short of urbanist ideals—but talk about making the perfect the enemy of the good! Places like the Mosaic District, Pike & Rose in Rockville, Md., and my own local downtown of Silver Spring, Md., represent a vast improvement on the usual chaotic strip-and-box sprawl.

Yes, people drive and park in the garages on the periphery of these developments. But then they get out and walk. If they can do three errands while they’re in the walkable zone, that’s three car trips reduced to one. More than that, the experience plants a seed that grows in people’s minds. Suburban weekends don’t have to be spent breathing in traffic fumes between each activity stop. A coffee break compares pretty well to getting back on the road. What if this were the norm rather than the exception?

My friend Dan Reed has another name for this kind of gateway environment—“Green Day urbanism,” i.e., a slightly cheesy, populist version of something (punk music, in his analogy) that can hook people on the whole genre.

The developments that Posey and Steffen object to (the latter going so far as to call them “toxic”) are crucial stepping-stones to a general attitude shift. When people have the choice to go to a town center—even an ersatz one—over a “power center,” the sheer waste of time and enjoyment caused by bad land use becomes glaringly obvious, and they tend to reject it. Today, we are already voting with our checkbooks, choosing walkable suburbs over sprawling ones and pushing up property values and economic development in the denser parts of metro areas. The biggest problem with drive-to urbanism isn’t that it looks fake or is ringed by stroads. It’s that there’s nowhere near enough of it.

Posey is right when he complains that suburban transportation planners often make wrong-headed decisions and developers and officials don’t prioritize urbanity. Retrofitting suburbs isn’t easy. After 60 years of auto-based planning, everyone is still climbing a learning curve. It will take a while to change the culture inside local governments, just as it has taken a while for early experiments like Seaside and the Kentlands (and the New Towns that came before them, such as Reston, Va.) to percolate in the public consciousness. Give it some time.

I’m thinking about drive-to urbanism this week as I ferry my son back and forth to his tennis camp. Our route passes through a great, organic example of the type. The Kemp Mill neighborhood in Wheaton, Md., is characterized by Sixties-era split-levels and ranch houses. It has a dendritic street pattern and you can’t walk there from the Metro. It has a strip mall with a big parking lot. So far, so bad, according to the usual urbanist math. (Its Walk Score: a so-so 56.)

Joe Schlesinger

Kemp Mill Shopping Center (Joe Schlesinger)

Yet the neighborhood has other ingredients for walking. Very large apartment buildings stand next to the strip mall, leased by everyday businesses like a grocery store, a bank, a bakery, and a dentist. Houses of worship dot Arcola Avenue, the main drag. Montgomery County’s biggest park, with sports facilities and an adventure playground, is close by. It’s a cliché that no one walks in suburbia, but on a typical weekend, families are out strolling Arcola in force.

Kemp Mill has a large Orthodox Jewish population, and Orthodox Jews don’t drive on the Sabbath. Walkability isn’t just desirable for this community—it’s essential. Kemp Mill grew up around its first synagogue, established in 1961, and has evolved to serve residents’ needs. It shows that a walkable and “complete” neighborhood—graced with a mix of housing types, businesses, religious centers, schools, and green space—does not need a street grid or overall high density to thrive over a long period of time.

This all reminds me of research by Nico Larco, an architect in the Pacific Northwest. Larco’s recent book (with co-authors Kristin Kelsey and Amanda West) has a how-to format and the dry title Site Design for Multifamily Housing, but couched in it is a convincing argument for the inherent urbanity of suburban apartment complexes. Such buildings have been blotted out of the popular conception of suburbia, yet millions of Americans live in them (Larco counts nine million units) and they offer, he writes, “great potential for increasing livability and promoting smart growth goals.”

Fairly small tweaks to street and landscape design, like lowering fencing and extending sidewalks, can have a major impact. A study that Larco did in 2010 found that residents of well-connected suburban multifamily developments walked to their local commercial area 60 percent more than those who lived in less connected developments.

Larco’s research makes clear that there are already plenty of islands of urbanism in suburbia. Connecting them is difficult, but possible. The more of them there are, and the higher the proportion of Americans who live in them, the sooner that cautious politicians and developers will bow to public pressure and make it happen. Then they’ll be “drive-to” no longer.

One Comment

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  1. @morgenpeers #
    August 8, 2016

    Great piece!

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