In this weekend’s Washington Post, Jonathan O’Connell writes about the increasing urbanism of the suburbs. The Post‘s editors title the piece: “Can city life be exported to the suburbs?” serving as yet another example of how the term ‘suburb’ is increasingly worthless. The article generally discusses the trend of shopping malls and other greenfield development projects to take on explicitly urban characteristics, whether in terms of form or use.
The article’s main example is the Village at Leesburg, but also draws on other town center developments in the area such as Reston Town Center. Where things fall apart in terms of relying on the ‘suburban’ terminology is in citing Clarendon – an area that would be within the core city’s jurisdiction if not for retrocession.
The Village at Leesburg is about 33 miles from the heart of DC. The layout of the development is a fairly typical autocentric pod, adjacent to a grade-separated freeway interchange and high volume arterials that separate it from cul-de-sac residential developments. Grade it on the basis of the characteristics of the development, and the changes towards a more urban condition might seem merely cosmetic.
O’Connell asks: “But can a city be a city if it’s built in the middle of a cornfield?” Sure it can, if it actually has the characteristics of an urban place. A place like Reston takes a much stronger step in the direction of urbanism than the lifestyle center depicted above. However, the thrust of the article isn’t wrong by any means. As Richard Layman notes, ‘urban’ places need not be in big cities alone. Even the smallest farm town can be urban, if you define urbanism in terms of the characteristics of the built environment.
Part of this seems to be a mindset of pitting ‘urban’ and ‘suburban’ as opposites, despite the fact that they are anything but. Perhaps the true foil for ‘urban’ is ‘rural,’ but it certainly is not suburban – whatever suburban might mean.
The end of the piece gets at some of the key differences, speaking less in terms of the hype about a place or how cool it might seem, but about the fundamentals of the underlying city. What our current urban places have is character thanks to their age (all else being equal), and an ability to adapt, evolve, and change:
The buildings were erected over decades, when different architects and designers were in vogue. Every owner has his own vision — one wants a bar, another wants an art gallery or a furniture store. Together, they create a chaotic mix that might not be as functional as what is dreamt up in a developer’s marketing office. But a city’s character, Lanier argues, will be a draw for much longer.
The real question is if the surrounding context allows a place like the Village at Leesburg to evolve or not.