False city vs. suburbs debate ignores real issues
In a recent column for Salon, Will Doig laments the "invasion" of new, suburban downtowns that he calls a symbol of white flight. But "city" and "suburb" aren't as clear-cut as he makes it out to be, nor should suburban town centers be anything to worry about.
Doig cites a recent report from George Washington University professor Christopher Leinberger on the growth of "walkable urban places," or "WalkUPs," in the DC area. The study identifies 43 WalkUPs in the region, more than half of which aren't in the District. To Doig, this is bad news:
Fact: People want to live in walkable urban places. Problem: Walkable urban places sometimes have attributes (bad schools, high costs, crime) that people don't like. Solution: Build new walkable urban places out in the suburbs. Result: A whole new type of place that offers the city experience without the actual city.
Doig falls prey to the same mistake a lot of writers make on urban issues. For starters, he presents "city" and "suburb" as mutually exclusive entities with no middle ground. A place can either be like Doig's former neighborhood, Columbia Heights in the District, or Reston Town Center in Northern Virginia. One represents "urban authenticity" where "scrappy entrepreneuralism and
creativity" can occur, the other's a "jury-rigged" "urban simulacra" that's just a "marketing tool."
Left: Columbia Heights: "Urban authenticity"? Photo by the author.
Right: Reston Town Center: "Urban simulacra"? Photo by jsprague2020 on Flickr.
This false dichotomy doesn't allow a middle ground. It says that a place like Alexandria, which predates the District, is "a suburb" because it's outside the city limits. The reality is that development patterns usually don't conform to municipal boundaries, rendering terms like "city" and "suburb" meaningless.
Just look at Eastern Avenue, which forms part of the border between the District and Montgomery County. On the District side are single-family homes with leafy yards, while across the street in Maryland in "suburban" Silver Spring are high-rise apartment towers. Take a few more steps into Maryland and you'll find the punk houses, dive bars and ethnic restaurants that Doig would call emblems of urban grit and authenticity.
Doig's other mistake is to conflate "suburb" with "wealthy and white." Greater Washington may be home to 7 of the nation's wealthiest counties, but we're also one of the country's most diverse regions. Our suburban downtowns don't represent white flight; in fact, whites are moving into the city.
The Quarry House Tavern (shown in 2006), a dive bar below an Indian restaurant in "contrived" downtown Silver Spring. Photo by katmere on Flickr.
Meanwhile, 4 of the suburban counties are now majority minority, with others to soon follow. Take a walk in the downtowns of communities like Germantown, Wheaton or Annandale, and you're as likely, if not more, to see Indians, Salvadorans or Koreans as you are whites. And we're not alone: integrated, diverse suburbs are are now common across the country.
It's these changes, not white flight, that will drive the creation of more suburban downtowns in the future. A study from University of Maryland professor Dr. Shenglin Chang found that many Asian and Latino immigrants are drawn to these places, which combine the idyllic suburban lifestyle America is known for around the world with the conveniences and community life they were accustomed to at home.
That said, suburban downtowns aren't perfect. Doig rightly points out that many have serious issues with urban design, can be difficult to reach without a car, and often cater to the affluent. These issues can and should be corrected.
However, writing these places off as "inauthentic" is not only unfair but lazy. As Scott Doyon on the Placemakers blog notes, this suggests that the only "authentic" suburban places are the strip malls and cul-de-sacs that fit our mental stereotypes. Not only is that a disservice to the people who might actually enjoy places like Reston Town Center, but it ignores power these places have to make better communities.
Suburban downtowns, however flawed they may be, serve as a public realm for gathering and even protesting, even when they're privately owned. They also can be what I call "Green Day urbanism," a sort of introduction to urbanism. Visiting a place like downtown Silver Spring isn't just about buying shoes, but taking a walk instead of getting in the car, being exposed to different kinds of people, and participating in a larger community.
These places won't be new and pristine forever. With time, they'll mature and evolve. In the 1930's, a developer in Princeton, New Jersey basically built a downtown from scratch in the 1930's, but today it's a beloved part of the city.
As Dan Malouff (who was quoted extensively in the article) points out, the demand for "walkable urban" places far outstrips the supply of existing walkable urban places, necessitating the creation of more of them. The DC area and America as a whole continues to grow, and many of them will choose to live in the suburbs for a variety of reasons. Our country may be undergoing an "urban renaissance," but much of it will happen beyond the city line.
The "city versus suburbs" slant is tired and inaccurate. It's time we got rid of it and instead focused on whether we're creating good places, no matter what side of Eastern Avenue or the Potomac River they're on.
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