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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.

City or suburb, fake or authentic? It doesn't matter. Photo by the author.

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.

Bombay & Quarry House
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.

Moonlight Trail Drive
An "authentic" suburban street, lined with two-car garages and trim lawns. Photo by the author.

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.

Dan Reed is an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard. He writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. All opinions are his own. 


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Well said, Dan. I closed that article about two paragraphs in. The only consolation about such a poorly informed article is that it will mean absolutely nothing in the long term.

by Cavan on Sep 25, 2012 10:37 am • linkreport

Great post. You nail it. The idea that suburbs must be relegated to strip malls and cul-de-sacs is as outdated and inaccurate as the idea that cities are only for criminals and poor people.

by Falls Church on Sep 25, 2012 11:01 am • linkreport

Well said, it's worthless to essentialize about the differences between a suburb and city because it ignores how we need to be paying attention to the form of both. And then you can quibble about the scale (and when "the city" begins).

We need to start regularly defining the features of sprawl that color our perception of what a suburb is (things like large setbacks with pad sites for restaurants, lack of rear access alleys, and such) and reorienting our suburbs back towards smart growth principles (and these need to be rigidly defnined to keep from being diluted) so that everyone can walk, drive, bike where they choose and we can avoid stupid culture wars about forcing people into high rises or "war on drivers".

tl;dr the things that people like about cities can, should, and have been recreated in the suburbs.

by drumz on Sep 25, 2012 11:01 am • linkreport

Great article. I think this brings to the fore the issue what constitute "good places." My instinct is to always laud "organic" places with rich histories and and an independent feel and decry suburban sprawl and homogeneity. However, I think this misses the point of what makes a good place, and overlooks diversity within both suburban and urban places. I think a good place is one that best fulfills its community's economic, commercial, and social needs. Perhaps secondary objectives include promoting diversity and sustainability could also factor into what makes a good place.

What fulfills peoples needs and desires is debatable but it's not always a simple as old urban = good and suburban = bad. Both urban planners (Urban Renewal) and suburban developers (no sidewalks) have made their share or mistakes. Finally, I don't think exchange between the two is always bad or fake. There are a lot of people in DC who will greatly benefit from saved time and money from the new Walmarts, which are as emblematic of suburbs as anything, just as many folks in the exurbs benefit from new urban-feeling town centers in which they can gather, shop, and dine.

by Adam on Sep 25, 2012 11:08 am • linkreport

Of course, places like Columbia Heights were "the suburbs" 100 years ago; it took a few decades after the Organic Act before people came around to the idea of the whole District being "the city", so if you read early 20th century local newspaper articles they still tend to refer to everything outside the L'Enfant Plan as the 'burbs. (They also tended to take it on faith back then that kids going to the city's public schools had a huge advantage over kids in the suburbs because the suburbs have lousy public schools and the city has great ones -- i.e., just the opposite of what people nowadays treat as a law of nature.) It makes me wonder what people 100 years from now will regard as "the city" and "the suburbs" and their alleged fundamental characteristics.

by iana on Sep 25, 2012 11:21 am • linkreport

As a European, I'd consider Columbia Heights an inauthentic, inorganically created "jury-rigged" "urban simulacra". It's all a matter of perspective. The important thing is that if you live in Reston Town Center, you can live, work and play without using a car. Wasn't that the goal?

by NoVa on Sep 25, 2012 11:25 am • linkreport

To refine my earlier thought. I think that's why we need to make sure our urban (and subburban) form is correct and then we can worry about the autheticity.

by drumz on Sep 25, 2012 11:31 am • linkreport

Well said Dan. I think of a suburb as having no center. Wether that's becasue there litterally isn't one or becasue the basic functions of a center like commercial, governmental, and indtitutional functions are so atomized as to not be readable as a coherant whole. It's a very semantical discussion, but worthwhile getting straight becasue a lot of perceptions and funding realities will hinge on these definitions.

Before the "convenience" of the automobile and related technological advances, almost every human habitation had urban qualities out of necessity. With technology's limitations to fulfill our every need becoming more self evident, hopefully we'll forge a middle path where we keep and refine the best lessons of the past while trying to integrating our technologies without a counter productive outcome. That would be the truly modern course.

by Thayer-D on Sep 25, 2012 11:38 am • linkreport

Dan, you're certainly right about this. Maybe a charitable reading of Doig might conclude that he isn't fully aware of the DC metro are (or Leinberger's work) and has something like a lifestyle center in mind when he thinks of walkable urbanism in suburbia. There is some threshold you pass, after which you are simply building mall with a clock tower in a parking lot.

by Daniel on Sep 25, 2012 11:57 am • linkreport

And let me pile on the agreement, and add some concerns.

Who is maintaining the urban suburban binary? As I see it, its both city dwellers (almost never urban planners or architects) with a vested emotional interest in their "superior" status as urban dwellers (and often with ignorance of realities beyond the city limits) and, perhaps more significantly, opponents of urbanism/TOD/etc with a stake in minimizing the size of the change (see for example Joel Kotkin), and "NIMBYists" defending cul de sacs et al on the basis that "we are suburban and people like it suburban" the binary reinforces their arguments for resisting change.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Sep 25, 2012 12:03 pm • linkreport

More piling on: I live in the City of Fairfax, which has been inhabited at least since the county seat moved there in 1800, when it was known as Earp's Corner. It's a bit of a hybrid between urban and suburban layout, with more suburban than urban features. But not so much that as the city redevelops, it can't reconfigure the denser parts of the city in a more urban way. Which is what the master plan calls for -- with steps in that direction already in place at the city center.

Even as it is configured now, I can (and do) walk to shopping in the Kamp Washington neighborhood where I live, and I can (and do) and make use of public transit to get around the city and to Metro. This was part of the reason I chose to live there instead of in nearby parts of the county.

A similar transformation is farther along in the City of Falls Church, which already has a much more urban vibe on W. Broad Street than many neighborhoods along Connecticut and Massachusetts Aves. in DC.

by c5karl on Sep 25, 2012 12:40 pm • linkreport

"city dwellers (almost never urban planners or architects) with a vested emotional interest in their "superior" status as urban dwellers (and often with ignorance of realities beyond the city limits)"

Indeed. 5 minutes on PoP will make clear the air of superiority way too many people have about living within the magical lines as opposed to outside the border. Bonus points if you live in a neighborhood where there's been a shooting that week.

by jag on Sep 25, 2012 12:45 pm • linkreport

The "Alexandria is out in the suburbs" things has long driven me nuts. Alexandria is its own city that was on its sixth or seventh generation of inhabitants when the Federal government built next door. Washington is our contrived fake city suburb!

by Another Nick on Sep 25, 2012 12:52 pm • linkreport

I agree that Doig is unclear when he isn't inconsistent, but I also think that there's some non-trivial observations lurking in his essay.

Maybe one point is that urbanization is hard to 'do' well when starting from scratch-- sometimes urbanizing development works, sometimes it doesn't. Bethesda is a good example of both-- Bethesda Row is regarded as a success, but its success overshadows earlier, IMO unsuccessful attempt to develop the area around the Metro station.

by MattF on Sep 25, 2012 1:17 pm • linkreport

I think plenty of areas in the "suburbs" are more urban feeling than much of DC, even in 'urban' neighborhoods of DC.

I'm thinking specifically of places like NOMA or Navy Yard, they are neighborhoods full of huge, flat walled, new buildings with the latest materials used for facades and streetscape design, but few signs and awnings (and when they do exist they are all the same color and shape/size), sterile landscaping, and no easy way to offer a fix for the boringness and blandness. The Silver Spring or Alexandria cityscapes are far more interesting and genuine feeling. Except, if I live in NOMA, I live in 'the city' and can turn my nose up to someone who lives in the rural crossroads of Silver Spring (you'd think it's a miracle we have electricity and running water the way some people react when I tell them I live waaaaayyy out there).

The real issue that people have mentioned is the 'newness' of things, along with the age spread of buildings. Even places that are 30-50 years old that were all built at the same time have a sterile feeling,and that is leading to the boringness of NOMA and Navy Yard IMO. whereas newer places that happened to have construction occur over a 10-15 year window from different developers already has a more organic feeling (Parts of the Ballston-Rosslyn corridor). Developers try to deal with this homogeneous look in places like Rockville Town Square where each building has a different architectural treatment. It didn't quite work, but it's nicer looking and will probably age better than a lot of 'suburban' 'towne centres' with their mono-color pink brick and concrete paver sidewalks.

by Gull on Sep 25, 2012 1:30 pm • linkreport

Except, if I live in NOMA, I live in 'the city' and can turn my nose up to someone who lives in the rural crossroads of Silver Spring (you'd think it's a miracle we have electricity and running water the way some people react when I tell them I live waaaaayyy out there).

I think this statement encompasses why I closed the page of the story that Dan is talking about after reading two paragraphs. Mr. Doig clearly had no education about urban form, placemaking, economics, tax revenue flows, transportation infrastructure or anything that goes into making a successful walkable urban place. His perspective is completely about bragging about what political jurisdiction you reside in, not about accomodating a growing metropolitan area in the most fiscally and environmentally sustinable way possible. That infuriates me because all my grassroots work has been about fiscal and environmental sustainability, not about some sort of social experiment.

On another note, Gull, I have gotten that same silly response about how far away I live since I'm a whopping three blocks from the D.C. border. I've gotten it from people who live in Petworth (a whopping three neighborhoods away from Silver Spring) and even from a clueless individual who lived in Clarendon. This clueless individual made a comment about "how hard it must have been to get here since I live far away" while we on U St!!! I just calmy pointed to 16th Street and said that I actually live just up the street and that they need to get out more.

Yet another reason to never brag about where you live or denegrate someone else's neighborhood. Also, yet another reason why people with that perspective like Mr. Doig should not get pieces about urbanism published.

by Cavan on Sep 25, 2012 2:39 pm • linkreport

5 minutes on PoP will make clear the air of superiority way too many people have about living within the magical lines as opposed to outside the border. Bonus points if you live in a neighborhood where there's been a shooting that week.

Darn those urban dwellers with their false sense of superiority! What right do they, living in their crime-ridden Hell-holes have to feel that way? Heh.

by oboe on Sep 25, 2012 2:54 pm • linkreport

AWalkerInTheCity: "Who is maintaining the urban suburban binary? dwellers ... with a vested emotional interest in their "superior" status as urban dwellers"

I agree, and have experienced it first-hand. I grew up in a 1960s development in Prince Georges County off Branch Ave. I went to HS in DC where I ended up with a lot of friends who grew up in 1960s developments in SE DC off Branch Ave - and let me tell, even all these many (many) years later those friends are quick to point me out as the suburbanite, although their neighborhoods were nearly as car-dependent and inconvenient to urban amenities as mine was. Maybe the kids took metrobus to school (wth a long walk to the bus stop) but their parents and my parents were equally unlikely to go to work, shopping or any where, by any means other than by car. Even today, there are large sections of SE and NE DC which have equally suburban feel to them, but people seem to feel there is magic in being with in the DC borders.

by PGtoDC on Sep 25, 2012 2:58 pm • linkreport

Since I am mainly interested in policy and related issues, I am actually less concerned with urban snobs in hellholes, than with the "this is a suburb and people here like suburbs, so don't charge for parking, dont do incremental increases to density, dont limit cul de sacs, dont give priority to bikes, dont build transit, etc, etc" stuff that you hear in parts of FFX, MoCo, Loudoun etc. They use the binary to impact the day to day debates over tangible changes. That some snob writing in Salon (or on a message board or blog) reiterates the same thing (but with a different value judgement) does not help the policy discussion I think.

Whether someone who lives in a higher crime area deserves kudos or not is not something I have a settled opinion on. I do think its entirely orthogonal to whether a given area is urban. Is Capital Heights more urban than Clarendon because it has a higher crime rate? There are some folks in the suburbs who will insist that Reston Town Center, say, is not "urban" because its "nicer" than urban areas. Urban meaning gritty, crimeridden etc.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Sep 25, 2012 3:12 pm • linkreport

"Darn those urban dwellers with their false sense of superiority! What right do they, living in their crime-ridden Hell-holes have to feel that way? Heh."

Just to clarify, I wasn't bashing the city. I was bashing PoPers who think because they live in Shaw or wherever they're more "real" city than Cleveland Parkers. A number of people over there disdain half of DC, along with 100% of anything across the border.

by jag on Sep 25, 2012 3:13 pm • linkreport

For people who are interested,

it's really well written, a joy to read.

2. iana -- interestingly, the suburbs you refer to like CH or Mt. Pleasant, were developed during the period of the Walking City - Streetcar City eras and so they have a distinctly different form than those communities developed for the automobile.

- Muller, P.O. “Transportation and urban form: Stages in the spatial evolution of the American metropolis,” in Susan Hanson and Genevieve Giuliano, eds., The Geography of Urban Transportation (New York: Guilford Press, 3rd rev. ed., 2004), pp. 59-85.

That's really what the issue is, plus newness vs. oldness as other people mentioned. Yes, parts of DC are very 'suburban" but outer parts are also developed with small blocks and sidewalks and typically are served by transit (bus or subway, previously streetcar). And yes, parts of DC being built up now like NoMA or Capital Riverfront are pretty similar and "boring." (Although really it's all about the ground floor and how to make it vital. E.g., U St. or 14th St. have plenty of new buildings but are still pretty interesting despite the newness, although this is for a variety of reasons.)

3. FWIW, while my focus is on the center city, I would never argue that all of the walking cities or walking neighborhoods are center cities, it has to do with the time they were developed and their development vis-a-vis transit. I'd happily live in a place like Alexandria. Instead I live in the vicinity of Takoma Park, and I get a variety of urban advantages, I just don't live in the core (or pay those prices for access). Granted it limits my ability to do things (e.g., if it rains, I'm less likely to go out), but all in all between transit, biking, and other more sustainable transportation options, people like me do ok.

by Richard Layman on Sep 25, 2012 4:00 pm • linkreport

Great post! Independent newspapers are mostly bad at writing about urbanism. The neighborhood NIMBYs are always the salt of the earth, and the developers are always money-grubbers, when the truth is much more complex. Doig's writing on "false urbanism" seems to come from this school of thought. Part of improving urban debates (which GGW is doing) is confronting pieces like this and adding nuance.

by CityBeautiful21 on Sep 25, 2012 4:08 pm • linkreport

@jag: Well, I don't read the comments in PoP that much, but the posts themselves certainly do not, IMO, consider any neighborhood, even Petworth, more ""real' city" than any other; the Prince finds his interesting balconies, gardens and architectural details in Cleveland Park as well as Shaw. I also don't get any sense that the Prince himself "disdain[s]...100% of anything across the border" but simply that the riches inside it are more than enough to keep him occupied full time.

by A Streeter on Sep 25, 2012 4:20 pm • linkreport

FWIW. Takoma Park is as far from downtown DC as Falls Church.

by NoVa on Sep 25, 2012 4:25 pm • linkreport

I live 5 miles from downtown (in Manor Park, technically, although .75 mile from the Metro/Old Town Takoma). According to mapquest, it's 5.1 miles to where Suzanne works. To the same place from the State Theatre (which is the only place that I've ever gone to in Falls Church) is 10 miles. It's faster to get to that place by bus or subway from Takoma Park than from E. Falls Church Metro. By bike, it's about 30 minutes.

by Richard Layman on Sep 25, 2012 5:15 pm • linkreport

but I also think that there's some non-trivial observations lurking in his essay.Maybe one point is that urbanization is hard to 'do' well when starting from scratch

True but I don't know if it's a non-trivial observation. I'm pretty sure this has been known since L'enfant built a city from scratch....called DC.

by Falls Church on Sep 25, 2012 8:51 pm • linkreport

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.

I too agree that this is a great post Dan and it reminds me that as people we have very different needs for space and perhaps even more important different resources to get some of our needs met. I love the comments reminding us of former suburbs that are now "city" like Brookland.

by BowieMD on Sep 26, 2012 9:51 am • linkreport

Dan, very much enjoyed reading your post. I'd welcome your reaction to one thing that seems to differentiate the new suburban downtowns -- the fact that they're often built either by a single developer or within an overall master template or vision for the project. I think that's what sometimes makes them feel different than traditional downtowns that are built, torn down, and built up again over the course of decades -- even centuries. I had that sense in a recent visit to suburban West Hartford, Connecticut's downtown development. See my post at:

How important (or not) is this difference? Do you think it will diminish over time as our new suburban downtowns gradually age?

by Wayne Senville on Sep 26, 2012 9:35 pm • linkreport


Thanks for your kind words! I read parts I and II of your post (which I recommend to anyone else) and found that what's happening in West Hartford is a lot like what's happening here. A lot of town center developments are built by one hand, which isn't automatically a bad thing. It can mean a unified "brand," which can be good for businesses (particularly local ones) and gives potential visitors a single, identifiable "place" to go to. It helps when buildings are done in different styles or by different architects, as that adds a layer of variety. (Personally I don't like when a single building is made to look like three, but why complain as long as it's well done?)

To that end, I think the town centers that will age best and continue to stay relevant are the ones that are tied to an existing place, like Blue Back Square in West Hartford, which is adjacent to and shares a website with the traditional downtown, or Bethesda Row and downtown Silver Spring, which are each part of a larger business district. Even if those projects are built at once by one person, they become part of a larger "place" that was built over time by lots of people, and will presumably just become another part of that community.

by dan reed! on Sep 26, 2012 9:53 pm • linkreport

"the fact that they're often built either by a single developer"

That may be good or bad, but its not uniquely suburban - look at Rockefeller Center in NYC, Grand Central Terminal and surroundings, and more recently WTC, WFC, and Battery Park City.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Sep 27, 2012 9:50 am • linkreport

Agreed that the "white, santized, contrived suburb" and "diverse, gritty, authentic city" is an odd trope that probably hasn't been true since the 80s, if even then. Suburban downtowns -- especially those that have made it a point to preserve/invent walkable, multi-use district -- are no less an expression of genuine culture and history than urban neighborhoods.

But the reverse is applicable as well -- shiny, new, redeveloped urban expanses are just as sanitized and an artificial as any suburban development, even if one walks from the 8th floor of an Archstone apartment to the Starbucks and back. DC might show the epitome of this -- yes, many might agree that Reston Town Center is contrived, but no more so than the area around Massachusetts and 4th NW.

Its an important thing to remember when backing than next slew of planned developments that clearcut an existing block and replace it with a prefabricated but "Smart Growth" mix of businesses and homes, with the intention of moving in a completely different set of residents.

by Vinnie on Sep 28, 2012 10:51 am • linkreport

"Its an important thing to remember when backing than next slew of planned developments that clearcut"

old buildings are not trees.

"an existing block"

as often as not new mixed use happens on parking lots, semi-industrial properties, or decayed storefronts.

"and replace it with a prefabricated"

prefabricated actually has a meaning. I dont know of any mixed use buildings that are actually prefab.

" but "Smart Growth" mix of businesses and homes,"

There are real benefits to that mix, and to the density, which is why it IS smart growth, scare quotes not needed.

" with the intention of moving in a completely different set of residents."

Rarely are they on former residental property, so its new residents. And in DC they have a minimum number of affordable units.

I SEE what you did there.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Sep 28, 2012 11:19 am • linkreport

"But the reverse is applicable as well -- shiny, new, redeveloped urban expanses"

most of the neighborhoods Jane Jacobs loved were shiny and new at one time as well.

They may not have been developed all at once I suppose - I dont know if JJ loved Grand Central or Rockefeller Center - but I loved those places.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Sep 28, 2012 11:20 am • linkreport

I dont know if JJ loved Grand Central or Rockefeller Center

Death and Life does praise Rockefeller Center — at least the urban design that breaks up a large block and allows pedestrian passage.

by RobS on Oct 3, 2012 2:00 pm • linkreport

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