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Posts tagged ‘suburbia’

Peripheral Vision

September 13, 2016



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



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.

What It’s Like to Live in a NORC in Your Thirties

April 1, 2015



The National Library of Wales/Wikimedia Commons

If you don’t know the acronym, a NORC is a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community. It can be on the scale of a whole neighborhood or a single apartment building. Whatever its size, a NORC has a preponderance of older residents. But it’s not the same as a retirement home or a “55 plus” development—NORCs become NORCs organically, over time.

I live in a NORC, a suburban condo complex with 160-odd units. I don’t have data to back me up, but I’d guess that 60 percent of my fellow residents are over 55. Some of them are “original” residents, i.e., they bought their homes back in 1980, when a developer converted the buildings from garden apartments.*

They weren’t seniors then, but that was 35 years ago. They aged in place, which is how many NORCs form.

I moved here on my 30th birthday (almost nine years ago, but who’s counting?). I didn’t realize that so many of my neighbors would be older; if I had known, I doubt I would have cared. Since then, I’ve learned that like anything else, living in a NORC has its good and bad points.

Let’s start with the good. Many of my neighbors have lived here for decades. They know the area and each other (sometimes very well). They also know how everything works: who to call when a light on the footpath burns out, what the rules are for home renovations, how to get a guest parking pass.

Another great thing about having retired and semi-retired neighbors is that they’re around a lot. Older residents walk their dogs or work in their gardens during the day. They are quick to spot when something’s amiss—like if someone has thrown their junk into the nearby woods, or if a car with expired plates has been abandoned in the parking lot. Eyes on the street—or in our case, on the pathways and the parking lot—are an important built-in safety measure.

Older residents give their time to the community. Some serve on the condo’s board of directors and committees. One of my neighbors, who loves gardening, has completely revived the landscape around our homes. On a more selfish level, seniors are far less likely to be the nuisance neighbors who drive you nuts. I’ve never been woken up by a wild party or had to ask someone to turn their music down.

So there are a lot of positives to living in a NORC. But there are downsides as well. Most of them stem from generational differences. As a thirty-something homeowner who’s not going anywhere, I have a wish list for making the community better: What about hosting a bike-share station, or building a bike storage shed? Why don’t we have a small playground on site? Or a Zipcar parking space? The planned Purple Line light rail will pass very close to the condo, and I’m excited about the redevelopment that it will spark—fingers crossed—in the neglected retail district up the road.

Seniors, understandably, have different priorities. Few of my older neighbors ride bikes; they don’t have young children (although some have grandchildren who visit). Many oppose the Purple Line. In some cases, it’s out of a fear of “over-development” ruining a neighborhood they chose for its peace and quiet; but the main worry is having to put up with years of construction-related noise, road closures, and the like. Older people have to tolerate the pain of big development projects without, frankly, getting to enjoy the advantages for as long as younger generations.

It’s a cliché that the one thing all homeowners care about is property values. Living in a NORC, though, I’ve found it’s not true—or it’s true only up to a point. People here care much more about keeping their monthly condo fees low. If you’re on a fixed income and past the life stage of “moving up the ladder,” that makes sense. And since a new amenity would have to be paid for by everyone, through higher fees, my wish list is likely to remain just that. Fair enough.

The danger is a lack of long-term investment. For a period before I moved here, fees were kept artificially low by deferring essential maintenance and letting the reserve funds dwindle. This was popular at the time, but it led to major problems. And fees went back up again—way up. Infrastructure is something we have to pay for, like it or not.

*Note: There are very few residents in advanced old age, however. Almost all are mobile and live independently.

Variations on Charles Goodman

September 14, 2014


photo-5Last week I decided to swing by Hammond Wood, the Silver Spring development of 58 mid-century modern houses designed by Charles Goodman and built from 1949 to 1951. I had driven through once before, but this time I parked and walked around most of the neighborhood.

It’s no Hollin Hills (Goodman’s masterpiece of a subdivision in northern Virginia), but Hammond Wood is still, its listing on the National Register of Historic Places says, “historically significant as an intact, architecturally cohesive example of Charles Goodman’s merchant builder subdivisions in Montgomery County.” The listing also notes that the houses “are largely intact and the Goodman ‘form’ can be clearly distinguished; alterations generally conform to Goodman’s Contemporary palette.”

That’s mostly true. I didn’t see anything spectacularly out of character, but Hammond Wood has only been on the Register since 2004, and Wheaton has never been a destination for the kind of people who rave about mid-century design. In other words, I get the feeling that ordinary middle- and working-class people still live in the neighborhood and have added their own touches to the houses, reflecting their varied tastes, over the years. I don’t love all the alterations, but paradoxically, I find this more heartening than if every house were to exhibit faultless, Dwell magazine-approved Good Taste. The homes really are as beloved and adaptable as Goodman hoped they would be.

Here are some of the Goodman variations I spotted on my short walking tour.

photo-1Stained glass. The architect tried to give the front glass wall of every house a southern exposure, to maximize daylight.

photoPergola. The house gains a semi-sheltered outdoor space, but loses some of the horizontality of Goodman’s original design.

photo-7Solar panels (plus satellite dish).

photo-2The electricity meters stuck onto the houses aren’t attractive. Training ivy to grow over it is one solution.

photo-8A sympathetic second-story addition.

photo-6Wait, what happened here? An architect who once worked in Goodman’s studio, Harold Esten, apparently had a Philip Johnson moment and extensively redesigned the house. It’s no longer seen as contributing to the historic Goodman district. But it does have its charms. 

photo-13I call this one the all-American. It has an expanded parking pad, an altered entrance with a Home Depot-issue front door, and of course, a flag.

photo-9Where the neighborhood ends: Goodman’s house inflects to the topography and landscape. Its neighbor, not so much.

Columbia and the idea of the civic mall

August 27, 2014



The American City Building once housed the American City Corporation, a Rouse Company subsidiary devoted to improving life in cities.

After snooping around the Frank Gehry-designed Whole Foods last week, I couldn’t resist a walk through Columbia’s small downtown area. In the heart of his new town, which broke ground in 1967, founder James Rouse put a manmade lake, Lake Kittamaqundi, where residents might listen to concerts or stroll on a warm day. So far, so town center-ish.

Columbia lakefrontBut Rouse had another idea for the commercial hub of his community, and that was an enclosed shopping mall. (If Wikipedia is to be trusted, not only did Rouse build the first enclosed mall east of the Mississippi, he also popularized the term “mall” to describe such structures.)

Columbia MallToday, we dismiss malls as junk spaces, byproducts of an era of auto-oriented sprawl that we’re desperately trying to reverse. We assume they’re hostile to walkers and anti-civic by definition. Not so Rouse. It’s fascinating that Rouse viewed both the mall and the lakefront area as essential civic spaces, and complementary ones.

I suspect he took a similar view of walking and driving–that cars and people could happily coexist in a low-density suburban town. What struck me most on my brief walk was this massive concrete stair, rising from a parking lot to a pedestrian walkway over Little Patuxent Parkway that links to the mall area. No one was using it.


image-2It is serious infrastructure. It would not look out of place in Boston’s City Hall Plaza or a London council estate. Yet here it still is, in the land of the Cheesecake Factory and Clyde’s sports bar.

Today, Columbia doesn’t look any different from other auto suburbs in Maryland–until you look harder. What’s left from the original town-building era is sometimes a little hokey (foreshadowing New Urbanism?) but also self-consciously modernist. Perhaps the self-consciousness is what makes it seem hokey, almost 50 years later.


The Dealings: a sculpture of James Rouse (R) in conversation with his brother Willard

It’s easy to write off Rouse’s vision as naive. Car suburbs were still new; the experience of walking amid lanes of 50-mile-per-hour traffic had not yet proved miserable. But with his mall, Rouse was on to something. It was, and is, Columbia’s center of gravity. Just a few years ago, locals howled in protest when the mall’s management tried to end the tradition of a holiday “poinsettia tree.” (They prevailed.) The mall remains busy and profitable, which is worth remembering as developers prepare to demolish it piece by piece.

From the parking lot, I admired a JC Penney store with a striated concrete facade–not long for this world–and looked over to the new development massing on the horizon. Columbia is getting a suburban retrofit du jour. A mixed-use, walkable town center will gradually replace the mall. If that means more affordable housing in a growing metropolitan area, then I’m all for it (especially if transit improvements follow).

But let’s not call this a cure for a “dying mall.” Malls are the suburban commons. Some have failed, but others are thriving, and of course developers want to maximize their profit by creating more square feet to lease. The current generation of developers in Columbia is building on Rouse’s success, not correcting his failure.

Columbia redevelopment