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AIA Baltimore lecture: Suburban Migrations

March 21, 2017

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On March 16, I gave a talk for AIA Baltimore’s 2017 Migration lecture series. I shared the stage with Garrett Dash Nelson, a geographer at Dartmouth College known for his research on megaregions (which has produced some seriously cool maps). Garrett talked about commuting and megaregions, and then I talked about immigrants in contemporary suburbia, and the presentations complemented each other well. My slides are up on Slideshare if you want to take a look.

 

Sarah Booth Conroy Prize

March 11, 2017

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I am deeply honored to have won the annual Sarah Booth Conroy Prize from the American Institute of Architects’ D.C. chapter. Conroy (1928-2009) covered architecture, city history, and high society during a long and storied career at The Washington Post, and the prize named for her recognizes journalists who write about the city’s architecture and urban design. I’m grateful to AIA|DC for setting up this program (which is only two years old) to support local architectural journalism.

More on Conroy and the prize:

Sarah Booth Conroy (The Washington Post)

Sarah Booth Conroy Prize for Journalism and Architectural Criticism (AIA|DC)

Amanda Kolson Hurley wins AIA|DC architectural journalism prize (Curbed DC)

Peripheral Vision

September 13, 2016

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I’ve started publishing a monthly digest of good writing on suburbia via tinyletter. It’s called Peripheral Vision, and I promise to keep it concise, fun, and surprising. You should sign up!

In Defense of Drive-to Urbanism

August 8, 2016

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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.

Low Density as Viagra: Joel Kotkin’s ‘The Human City’

June 21, 2016

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The Human City

Joel Kotkin

Agate Publishing

304 pp. / $15.99 (hardcover)

Joel Kotkin, who teaches at Chapman University in California and writes about cities for a variety of publications, gets under urbanists’ skin like a bad case of poison ivy. All the beliefs they hold dear—that dense cities are more desirable than sprawling suburbs; that cul-de-sacs and SUVs are complicit in climate change; that suburbia itself is a broken dream, on the verge of collapse—have been rebuked by Kotkin in his voluminous writing. The way some of his articles are titled (“The Triumph of Suburbia”), you get the impression that he enjoys tweaking this crowd, who are well-meaning but tend to live inside an urban bubble.

I ought to be Joel Kotkin’s ideal reader, or pretty close to it. I’m keenly interested in urban planning and other city-related issues, but I’m also a confirmed suburbanite, having been pushed out of my nearby city (Washington, D.C.) by a combination of unaffordable housing and wildly uneven school quality. So suburbia it is. And since moving to my suburb 10 years ago, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by its diversity (it is majority non-white), its cultural offerings, and the attitude of the county government, which has enacted some truly progressive policies and looks set to tackle more. If I received a sudden windfall and could buy a house in D.C., would I? Probably not, at this stage.

As I’ve been putting down roots in my inner suburb, though, I’ve also been irked by the fixity of a suburban stereotype that has hardly changed in 50 years. You know it: the white picket fence, the blond mom in her minivan, the mall as a temple of mindless consumer culture. These don’t describe my life or my neighborhood at all. Too often urbanists accept these stereotypes at face value and perpetuate them, which has led to a stubborn binary: suburbs bad, city good. Never mind that it’s wrong.

The suburbs need a defender in the urbanist camp, which is where Joel Kotkin comes in. So why do his articles sometimes drive me (mildly) bonkers? I decided to read his new book to figure it out.

The Human City is a manifesto for an urbanism “for the rest of us,” an argument against both urban densification and the transformation of so many downtowns into luxury shopping and entertainment areas. Kotkin sees those two trends as interrelated, reflecting an impulse to make cities into what he calls “glamour zones”—busy yet sterile places dominated by the wealthy, young, and childless. Instead of holding up high rises and Burberry stores as the measures of a successful city neighborhood, Kotkin says, leaders and planners should forge a more inclusive policy that recognizes the importance of lower-density neighborhoods, which families invariably prefer.

Wait. Who says families don’t like denser neighborhoods, and will always choose the house on the cul-de-sac over a city apartment? Kotkin musters a fair amount of evidence to back up his claim that this is a strong and immutable preference. In city after city around the developed world, families tend to pull up sticks when they have the option of more space (and better schools, usually) in suburbia. Even Millennials, hailed as a city-loving generation, say they’d rather live in a single-family home in the suburbs, according to surveys. Only 20 percent of Millennials live in urban-core districts now, by Kotkin’s estimate, and as they start to marry and have children, that number could well drop.

The reason for this, Kotkin believes, is that people innately value “human-scaled” environments over those produced by “cramming” (his term for high density), and gravitate to them. He could be right, but he doesn’t convince me. First, despite summoning the “human scale” countless times in the book—and nodding to it in the title—he never attempts to define what it means. (He’s far from alone in this, the term being one of the fuzziest and worst abused in urbanist discourse.)

What are the key environmental factors drawing families to houses in the suburbs? Is it not having to share a wall with a neighbor, or is it having your own front door? Does living in a detached home feel “big” in a way that even a huge apartment doesn’t? Is there a minimum living area per person that feels adequate to most people? What about our psychological responses to building heights, open spaces, and greenery? There is a lot of research on environmental psychology out there, and anyone writing a book embracing “human scale” as a core principle should at least try to define it.

Second—and again, not discounting that Kotkin may be right about people’s preferences—he fails to acknowledge the role of culture, the housing market, and personal experience in shaping those preferences. I.e., surely a lot of Americans choose single-family homes because that is the dominant form of housing in this country and has been for decades. When the supermarket sells only apples, most shoppers will buy apples rather than go elsewhere in search of bananas.

In the UK suburbs that Kotkin writes about as the antidote to crowded London, for example, most houses are terraced or semi-detached (what we would call townhouses) and hover around 1,000 square feet, and that constitutes the “suburban dream” for many Britons. Britain is a small island with high population density and expensive land; these things are relative. Yet Kotkin seems to assume that everyone around the world aspires to an American-sized home. I’m not buying it.

This assumption, and the accompanying belief that people are being stymied in their natural desire for space, leads to some strange claims. The strangest one comes in the book’s introduction, where Kotkin alleges that Chinese women practice “birth tourism” in America so they can escape high-density cities and raise their children in suburbs here. He devotes a chapter to the city as a “post-familial” place. That term is pretty accurate for cities like San Francisco and Washington, where young professionals sleep in close quarters between working 14-hour days and playing bocce at the beer garden. But his diagnosis of the causes is lacking.

To explain the demise of family life in central cities, Kotkin falls back on a conservative values argument (rampant individualism, secularism) and environmental determinism: Small, dense living spaces, he argues, act as contraceptives. The flip side of this is that suburbs are like Viagra, spurring population growth. So it is ironic when, near the end of the book, he scoffs at New Urbanists for believing that architecture shapes people’s behavior. Either it does or it doesn’t—you can’t have it both ways.

For all the valorization of family life, there is not much analysis of the long-term effects of a lower birth rate on the U.S. Kotkin talks about the “demographic winters” of prosperous Asian countries, but the American birth rate is healthier, and as of last year, demographers were expecting a possible “baby bounce” marking the recovery from the recession. Our aging population may be a ticking time bomb, but Kotkin doesn’t mount a vigorous argument to that effect, leading a reader to wonder why procreation ought to be at the center of (sub)urban policy in this country. Throughout the book, I got the sense that Kotkin was pulling his punches. It seemed like he wanted to make a full-throated conservative case for a family-centered urbanism but, for whatever reason, decided to tone it down.

As the parent of a young child, I found myself in agreement with his characterization of high-wealth cities as poorly suited to middle-class child-rearing. The reasons are complicated, though. I’d guess that social factors play a big part in nudging young families to the suburbs. City neighborhoods with few children may not feel friendly for parents. Is it really lack of space that drives them out, or is it seeing more dogs on their block than kids, year after year?

Living in a neighborhood with a high proportion of families enables the “weak ties” that prove invaluable for stressed-out parents. Finding a doctor or babysitter, gleaning information about schools, arranging an impromptu playdate when something urgent comes up—when these things happen organically through social contacts, it’s a godsend. But I see no reason why they couldn’t happen in a dense city neighborhood if the demographics and price point were right. Conversely, my own suburban townhouse complex is short on kids, and an elderly neighbor always yells at my son for splashing in the pool.

As families with young children make up a smaller slice of the demographic pie, they can’t expect to find as many neighborhoods geared primarily toward them. That seems fair enough to me. Also, much harder on parents than hipsterfied neighborhoods or small apartments are the spiraling costs of child care, especially now that support from extended-family members has declined, which Kotkin mentions in passing. And by the way, if you’re going to accuse younger Americans of being self-centered, as he does, it is only right to include Baby Boomers too, sitting on their piles of home equity as they fret about their student-loan-burdened offspring.

One-third of American children are now raised by a single parent, a fact that doesn’t get addressed. Although Kotkin never says that “family” here means a two-parent family, it’s implied. But isn’t it conceivable that a single parent, of whatever gender, might prefer a smaller home that needs less maintenance versus a large house in the traditional ‘burbs? One-parent families are a large and growing demographic group that shouldn’t be ignored.

As for the book’s policy recommendations, I’m on board with many of them: retrofitting suburbs to support seniors aging in place; creating and retooling suburban communities along the lines of the early-20th-century Garden City. But Kotkin’s dismissal of the link between suburban land use/housing and climate change is based on cherry-picked data. Quoting a researcher on making low-density environments greener, he suggests planting trees. Planting trees! The size of the average new American house has ballooned past 2,500 square feet, all of which will get heated and cooled, a massive energy expenditure and source of carbon emissions. Meanwhile, emissions have burst through the ceiling of 400 parts per million, seen by scientists as the point of no return.

I’m not sure why cities should adopt the planning approach that Kotkin advocates, or who his intended audience is. If it’s officials in cities like Houston and Nashville, those cities are mostly suburban in form and prospering as such—his argument seems moot. If it’s the leaders of places like D.C. and San Francisco, the middle class has already decamped, and the remaining suburban-style neighborhoods just jack up home prices further and deprive more people of housing opportunities. Suburban jurisdictions and developers, for their part, are attuned to the desires of Millennials—for suburbs with active, city-like downtowns and public transit—and building more of what they want, which is a good thing for them and the climate.

I’m guessing the real audience is urbanists, who are likely to remain unmoved by appeals to the evils of Corbusian planning. But Millennials are turning 30 and starting to settle down and have kids of their own. As young urbanists discover that it’s not so easy to do daycare drop-off on a bike and city school lotteries don’t always go your way, we might see a “new suburbanism” arise, and Kotkin will have the last laugh. Ultimately, though, The Human City does a better job at indicting exclusive cities and dispelling outdated myths about suburbia than presenting a compelling vision of the suburbs’ future.