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It takes a village: why walkable urbanism is good for adolescents

The March edition of GQ features a 12-year-old budding food critic, David Fishman of New York, NY. One of Fishman's favorite activities is to visit local restaurants and write critiques. Due to his age, his parents limit him to restaurants within walking distance in his Upper West Side neighborhood. While such parental ground rules would amount to house arrest for children in car-dependent subdivisions, it provides David with a balance between safety and freedom while leaving plenty of restaurant options.


Photo by VickyvS on Flickr.

In conventional suburban neighborhoods, meanwhile, there is simply nowhere for a preteen or teenager can explore within walking distance. Fishman would While proponents of a car-dependent lifestyle often argue that the subdivision is a better environment for raising children, they forget that children's needs change when they become pre-teens and need to socialize and explore their surroundings. Quite simply, David would not be able to explore his passion for critiquing restaurants if he did not live in a vibrant walkable urban place.

David's story, while unique in its national magazine coverage, is not unique to the Upper West Side of Manhattan. In downtown Wheaton, pre-teens and teenagers walk around, go to and from the Metro, eat at cafes, shop at the Westfield Wheaton mall, the local comic book store, or the grocery store. In neighboring Silver Spring or Bethesda, many pre-teens and carless teenagers shop at the stores and eat at the numerous restaurants. The same scene repeats itself in Tenleytown, Friendship Heights, Georgetown, and Ballston. In these walkable places, teens can learn valuable social skills and enjoy a measure of freedom.

I spent last Thanksgiving at a friend of a friend's house. The host's parents and their friends grew up in a walkable neighborhood in Norfolk. The boys could walk to the local ball field and see who was around for a pickup game. (At that time, I guess, girls weren't welcome in the boys' pickup games). If any of the kids made a misguided, immature decision, their neighbors would walk over and tell their parents. As much as they hated it then, they now wish they had raised their children in such an environment. Their raves about the old neighborhood sounded just like my dad and my aunts describing their old neighborhood on the South Side of Pittsburgh.

Now, the host's parents own their "dream house" in a subdivision in Upper Marlboro. They can't walk over to a local field for a pick-up game. It's much harder to get to know your neighbors without a sidewalk leading to a local park or other destination where you might run into each other. If they ever saw a neighbor's child doing something they shouldn't, would they even know whom to call? It takes a village to raise a child. What happens when there is no village?

The subdivision I grew up in had a couple other kids that were in my age range. I was lucky. Outside of the subdivision, there was nothing else in walking distance. The roads to get there had no shoulder, either. As much as I liked the other guys in the subdivision, they weren't my best friends. If I wanted to see friends from school, my parents had to drive. Once again, I was lucky that my parents had time for frequent trips to friends' houses, as long as I gave them ample notice and they talked to my friends' parents. However, that's a lot of big "ifs." It's silly that a parent must devote time, energy, and money from gasoline, insurance and car depreciation every time two kids want to play video games or kick a soccer ball together.

A pick-up soccer, football, or basketball game was even more complicated. We couldn't just go down to the local field and play with whatever kids were hanging around looking for a game. Instead, we had to call guys who lived in distant subdivisions and talk to their parents about car transportation. If anyone's parents weren't around, or were too busy to take an hour out of their day to drive their child to a pick-up football game, we couldn't play. Since organizing required effort, we'd only call our friends. This deprived us and other adolescents of a major social lesson: getting along with people other than your friends.

Between college and graduate school, I taught ninth grade math. Many of my students would go home after school, fire up the video game console, eat dinner, and then play more video games until they went to bed. Would I have been any different if there weren't other kids in the subdivision, I wasn't into playing sports, or my parents couldn't drive me to the games? Obviously, there are plenty of couch potatoes around the world who do live in walkable urban places. However, without other options, children have few alternatives to a sedentary lifestyle.

Car-dependent places design each area for one single land use. They also seem to design for single life stages, too. A large yard may make sense when a child is just learning to walk. However, what happens when children outgrow the yard and want to interact with their peers and explore the world around them? While it is clearly possible to raise children who become successful adults in car-dependent places, it clearly has its shortcomings for pre-teens and carless teenagers. Why does so much "conventional wisdom" claim that suburbia is inherently a better place to raise children? Suburbia has its advantages, but also more than its fair share of shortcomings.

I'm probably going to get a lot of negative feedback in the comments for this, but I suggest that the myth about suburbia being a better environment for children arose from a combination of suburban marketing and our collective attempt to rationalize the divestment and abandonment of our cities and towns. Amazingly, our society continues to collectively embrace the idea of car-dependent suburbia being best for children while, simultaneously, the baby boomer generation pines for the walkable towns and neighborhoods of their youth.

Cavan Wilk became interested in the physical layout and economic systems of modern human settlements while working on his Master's in Financial Economics. His writing often focuses on the interactions between a place's form, its economic systems, and the experiences of those who live in them. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. 

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I am compelled to comment on the coincident rise in childhood obesity with the car-dependent form.

by Bianchi on Mar 2, 2009 11:06 am • linkreport

The key is to emphasize the diversity of walkable urban places. They can be everything from the Upper West Side to the kind of 1920s era streetcar suburban form that I grew up in back in Minneapolis. That area featured mostly single family detached houses, backyards, and the like - yet the area was still substantially dense to have a few shops and restaurants within walking distance from my house. Add in Minneapolis' excellent park and parkway system, and a kid on a bike could access a whole lot of stuff.

Anyway, as Chris Leinberger always mentions, there are many different shades of walkable urbanism.

by Alex B. on Mar 2, 2009 11:08 am • linkreport

Alex B., the places in our region that I mentioned are excellent examples of the "different shades" of walkable places. Great point.

by Cavan on Mar 2, 2009 11:17 am • linkreport

As I grew up, my "bike boundary" increased. At first the limit was just a few blocks within our interconnected suburban neighborhood, but the biggest change was when I was allowed to cross the four-lane arterial next to our neighborhood. That opened up the whole city to me, and actually let me ride to retail. There were many trips to the convenience store, the comic book shop, the library, the arcade and all those other landmarks of growing up.

The place we live now is somewhat similar to where I grew up, so my son and daughter will probably get the same deal. It's going to be hard to figure out when I can trust them to cross a four-lane, but once they're over that barrier (and can pedal themselves up the hill!), they'll have two libraries, at least two shopping centers and the Broad Street area in Falls Church within easy reach.

It helps a lot that Arlington, like San Ramon where I grew up, does not have a lot of cul-de-sacs and is an interconnected faux-grid, as opposed to newer developments where each development essentially has a wall around it.

by Michael Perkins on Mar 2, 2009 11:51 am • linkreport

Don't forget some "car-dependent" places are actually okay to get around on a bike. Not where I grew up, though, since everything required crossing/riding on 6+ lane highways. I was the car-dependent HS loner you describe, and then some, since I resisted learning to drive.

by Scott on Mar 2, 2009 11:59 am • linkreport

Hear, hear!!!!

I had more independence as an eight year old in a small town than as a car-less 17 year old in miserable suburbia. Now I am an adult looking for a place to raise my own kids, and I WILL NOT raise my kids in a place with no access to good transit.

by Elizabeth on Mar 2, 2009 12:07 pm • linkreport

Regarding obesity:

Do not forget High Fructose Corn Syrup and MSG.

It would be helpful to have charts of youth obesity over the years, though ITRC it jumped after the mid 1980s mass introduction of HFCS.

Also, I will second the last comment by Scott) though add that in NY such bike riding is easier because the right lane of many of the roads in suburban NY are extra wide, whereas those in Maryland are not.

by Douglas Willinger on Mar 2, 2009 12:14 pm • linkreport

when i was a little kid in red hook (brooklyn), the whole block kept an eye on the street and the kids playing in it. more often than not you'd hear the daisy-chain of women calling down the street that someone had done something they weren't supposed to do. you'd catch hell from your friends' parents, and then from your own when you got home.

i'm willing to bet suburban neighborhoods aren't the only reasons this isn't the norm anymore - fear of litigation has also chilled community child-rearing.

by AJ on Mar 2, 2009 12:32 pm • linkreport

Well said, AJ. I have to wonder if fear of litigation has to do with not knowing your neighbor. It is much easier to sue someone who you don't really know or see than it is to sue someone who you see on the walk to the Metro or at the grocery store multiple times a week.

It is also more likely that someone would fear being sued by someone they don't know.

by Cavan on Mar 2, 2009 12:43 pm • linkreport

Douglas, your absoultely right. The nutrition landscape has changed as dramatically in the last 40 years as the built environment. Diet and excercise are the two modifiable risk factors contributing to the obesity/diabetes epidemic. Cavans post is about the car-dependent form so that's what I commented on. For more information here are some links:

1: data trends on childhood obesity (CHO) 1963-2000

http://www.iom.edu/Object.File/Master/22/606/FINALfactsandfigures2.pdf

2: Data trends on CHO and proportion of kids walking/biking to school. This is directly related to the built environment.

http://www.rwjf.org/files/research/researchhighlight35.4.pdf

2; data trends on CHO and farm subsidy policies including a chart on the rise in HFCS intake. http://www.iatp.org/iatp/publications.cfm?accountID=258&refID=80627

by Bianchi on Mar 2, 2009 12:59 pm • linkreport

The diversity of walkable urbanism is something I've internalized lately. When I first moved to DC from my small town, I had my first taste of big city life by living in Dupong for six years, an area I loved. After I got married and decided to buy a condo, I found one I could afford near Clarendon, another area I loved. Now that I have a growing family, I've been looking for the past several months for near walkable urban areas in Northern Virginia with little luck at my price range (for a family of five). So I've expanded my searches to include anything near suburbantine metro stations such as Dunn Loring or Vienna, so that I'll at least have mass transit within reasonable walking or biking distance. It would be great if I could live near Clarendon where I used to live, but that's not in the cards for me with my income level and family size.

by Joao on Mar 2, 2009 1:07 pm • linkreport

The fact that kids today are stuck in the house and not out exploring the neighborhood is more complex that walkable/car-dependent premise of this piece. Although walkable communities would allow kids to get around more, it is not the only factor.

As a parent who has kids in High School and grew up in the 60's I have some observations:

First, today’s average parent is too protective and the thought of kids doing something out of their sight is considered child abuse.

Second, kids just don't organize themselves to play any kind of game. All sports are organized by adults from a very early age (5 years old) and today’s kids, as brilliant as they are, are not skilled in self organization.

Third, every kid has his own video game set-up and really doesn't need to organize with friends to pass the time.

I blame it on the culture of fear that has gripped our society. Parents, especially professionals, are scared to death of randomness. The idea that something could happen to junior is unthinkable. I'll bet the freedom that David Fishman enjoys in NYC is not shared with many of his friends. I'm guessing he is spending his time going to restaurants (an adult activity) because he doesn't have any kids his age to play with. They are all probably at violin lessons or some sort of supervised enrichment activity.

I live in an area where there are plenty of kids and they don't live that far from each other. The thought of walking or riding a bike over to a friend’s house is just out of the question. It is not the distance that is holding them back.

by Tom on Mar 2, 2009 1:11 pm • linkreport

I wasn't so lucky when I was a kid growing up in the suburbs. There weren't any kids my age within walking distance of my house. Every time I wanted to do something with friends a ride had to be arranged. Sometimes plans couldn’t be made if parents were working or otherwise busy. My family had a modest-sized yard, and yes, I did play baseball on the grass occasionally when I was a kid. But by the time I turned 12 or 13 the yard just became a burden. One of my assigned chores was to mow the lawn at least once a week; it wasn’t particularly fun.

There was such a strong anti-transit attitude among parents during my early teen years that taking the bus or (god forbid) train to visit friends was unacceptable. Parents told us that it was dangerous and the routes traveled through too many “bad” neighborhoods.

Even when I finally had a drivers license, my life didn’t instantly improve. A lot of my friends lived in subdivisions on the complete opposite side of the city, and what parent is going to be comfortable letting a newly licensed teen drive 50 miles round trip to catch a movie? I’m fairly convinced that the combination of my experiences as a kid and a teen has led to my extreme distaste for suburbs. My parents’ generation probably can’t see from my perspective because they didn’t have the first-hand experience growing up and genuinely believe they did what was best.

by Rob on Mar 2, 2009 1:18 pm • linkreport

In the article, David told the author that he heard about his favorite place (a hummus place) from some older teenagers. He also talks about places he has gone with his friends. David has friends his age within his Upper West Side neighborhood. The article didn't talk about his friends' ground rules.

I agree that the culture of fear is a big part of the puzzle of sedentary children. I think that the culture of fear is greatly fueled by a living arrangement where you spend most of your time alone in a metal box on wheels, in a subdivision where you don't know your neighbors. In a walkable place, there are casual interactions with other members of the community through the local shopkeeper, walking on the way to the Metro, etc. I have found that it helps create a subconscious sense of belonging and intimacy. While your neighbors are not necessarily your close friends, you're familiar enough with them to say hi or talk about local news. If you only go somewhere in a metal box, you don't get that interaction and familiarity. Less familiarity = more fear.

by Cavan on Mar 2, 2009 1:20 pm • linkreport

I have an example of that disconnected fear-of-contact-culture. My mom taught pre-sch, 1st & 2nd grade for ~35 years. The sch. she taught at for the last 20 years started out as mostly a farming communty but had changed to a suburban type; the farm parcels right outside the city were being sold off and subdivided. Just as that proces hit critical mass the new younger Principal asked my mom to stop hugging her students so often for liability reasons. She retired the next year.

by Bianchi on Mar 2, 2009 1:37 pm • linkreport

Excellent blog. Having a walkable community developes independance and self-esteem by being able to get aroung oneself. Beyond which it encourages socialization which ironically is eroding with our supposed interconectedness. These arguments for walkable communities deserve more attention and have been backed by scientific studies, but unfortunatley still suffer from a form of sexism whereby emotive issues take a back seat to more quantifiable issues.

Having grown up in Rome and Bethesda-Chevy Chase, I remember when one of my friends moves out to Springfield. Needless to say we got into a lot more trouble because of shear bordom which in the old Bethesda hood was taken care of by walking around. We also had Atari's so the Internet-Video game argument is somewhat blunted. Reality is a thousand times better than artificial life, unless reality is treating you badly, in which case, the friends you're more likely to have made in a pedestrian oriented community will come in real handy.

by Thayer-D on Mar 2, 2009 1:44 pm • linkreport

I grew up in Lambertville, a small city in central New Jersey. It was a great place to grow up. There were probably 30 kids my age in my neighborhood "up on the hill". There were tons of shops and restaurants downtown, and even more across the river in nearby New Hope, PA. I'd roam the neighborhood with my gang of friends, riding bikes, skateboards, building treeforts, etc.

When I was 12, my parents sold our little Victorian rowhouse and moved into their dream home in rural Bucks County. Looking back on it, it was the prototypical McMansion. More space than we needed, a big empty lawn that we'd never use, and no neighborhood to be found. I had friends in school but none within walking distance, so my social life was suddenly dependent on my parents, both of whom worked. I learned to grow up in a much less social way than I was used to. Legos and Nintendo were my friends.

I've already decided that I want city kids. If I still live in DC and the schools have not improved, that so be it- I'll do what it takes to put them in private school. City kids are more socialized, well-adjusted, and just plain cooler.

by Chris L on Mar 2, 2009 1:57 pm • linkreport

the reason i care anything about all these issues is because I grew up totally dependent on cars and rides and minivans.

i don't want my own children to have to deal with these issues on the same scale.

by DG-rad on Mar 2, 2009 2:06 pm • linkreport

I had a similar experience to what several others have described. Grew up in the quasi-rural burbs at a busy intersection. Wasn't allowed to bike anywhere until I was almost driving age. I had a pretty pathetic social life and generally felt pretty socially stunted until I was in college, simply because I didn't live near anybody and it wasn't easy to hang out.

by Nate on Mar 2, 2009 2:08 pm • linkreport

Cavan touches on one of the core issues with everything this blog is about. Washington can be greater with the dispensation of two issues. The first is a truly viable public eduction system for all of its residents, and the other is the ability for children growing up to have these kinds of touchstone experiences that urban dwellers in other places already enjoy. To an extent, some neighborhoods already have this infrastructure in place, Cleveland Park, Woodley Park etc, but there can be SO much more. It is great to see everyone chiming in on this most important issue.

by Andrew on Mar 2, 2009 2:44 pm • linkreport

Don't forget that some jurisdictions make it illegal to walk or ride bikes to school because, that's right, they MIGHT GET HIT BY A CAR and sue the school.

Also, just because you're in a walkable community downtown doesn't automatically make you healthy. The Metro downtown and crosstown busses are always filled with overweight kids drinking sodas and munching potato chips. You subsidize the HFCS and snack food industry, you get cheap calorie-laden food and NO fresh vegetables.

by monkeyrotica on Mar 2, 2009 2:50 pm • linkreport

Yeah, what everybody else said. I grew up on 7 acres in a place with a WalkScore of 3. (The one place that was within walking distance - the public library - isn't even there anymore.) Playing in the woods by myself, or with my brother or parents, was all right when I was little, but as I got older, it became a lot less exciting. I remember some really dreadfully lonely weeks during the summers when I was 14-16 when my brother was away at camp and I wasn't, and I had nobody at all to even talk to.

I've heard a really incredible argument on another blog that it's better to raise kids in the country than in the city because growing up in the country teaches you not to complain about not having anything to do. But which is better: learning not to complain about not having anything to do, or actually having something to do? People mystify me sometimes.

by Johanna on Mar 2, 2009 3:15 pm • linkreport

I grew up in a car-centric suburb in Fairfax County. There were plenty of people to play with in the neighborhood and we used the sidewalks, trees, etc for play. We often preferred to use the cul-de-sacs for sports since there would be fewer car interruptions. I did notice that the kids born in the 1990s and later played outside less than those of us born in the early 1980s and before. The area I grew up in only became more densely developed (not the subdivision but number of neighborhoods in walking distance and a few more stores etc). I think the answer to a lot of this is the rise of video games, the internet, etc. This causes a lot more teen socializing to go on indoors.

Also, I currently live in Dupont Circle. I'd guess maybe somewhere between 1-5% of the apartments and condos near me have children. Whereas about 40-60% of the SFH in every suburuban subsdivision I have been to have families. So I think kids are more likely to have people to socialize with in the car-dependent suburbs than downtown DC.

by disagree on Mar 2, 2009 5:16 pm • linkreport

Great Post. Really hits home for me. Up until midway through 8th grade (in the late 80s) I lived in a dense inner suburb of Hartford CT with a population density of ~3000/mi^2. The area was mostly single family houses and duplexes on small lots with a good grid based street network. Every street had sidewalks. Similar to Del Ray or Brookland. I was < 3/4 of a mile from two of the town's main retail clusters.

My childhood hometown wasn't necessarily the most walkable place but it was very bikeable. I could bike to school, a public pool, several parks that had summertime staffing, a grocery store, bike shop, pizza parlor, pharmacy, Portuguese bakery, best greasy spoon in town, a Dairy Queen, and most importantly dozens of friends houses in < 10-12 minutes. The cinema multiplex was only a 20-25 minute bike ride. The topography of the town was fairly flat and no bike ride posed much of a physical challenge for anyone of any age. We could reach all these destinations biking primarily on back streets and well traveled short cuts through meadows. Contrary to Tom's comment, the neighborhood kids did often self organize pickup games of baseball, wiffeball and football. We had social mobility and we were independent. Hell, from the ages of 10-12 I was also economically independent with two paper routes that helped me earn $80-100/wk.

In late 8th grade my parents moved our family further out along the interstate to a rural town with a population density of 125/mi^2. The appeal for them was more sqft/acres/privacy, less crime and a more reputable school system. All I saw was a total loss of mobility for me. No sidewalks anywhere. Many of the roads were referred to by numbers (i.e. Rt 85) and had 50mph speed limits. Closest retail was 3 miles and 2 monsterous hills away. Closest friend was 4 miles away. I had to spend 4hrs/wk times 30wks/yr mowing an unnecessary 2+ acre lawn with a push mower. Our High School served 3 towns because the individual towns did not have enough students to sustain a secondary school which translated to many of your friends living very far away. This existence offered zero mobility or independence until you could drive. On top of that, since cars were so important, what you drove often influenced to your status. Maybe I wouldn't have been so disappointed about the situation had it been all I'd ever known. However it felt like something was taken from me and I wanted it back. My interest in the urbanism took root at this time.

My old neighborhood certainly wasn't a utopia. My bike was stolen out of our backyard shed because I didn't lock it up one night and I was rather distraught. But I learned a lesson and saved up to buy a new one in 5 weeks. According to Zillow, the property values of that old house is only about 20% higher than it was when my parents sold it in 1989. On the flip side the exurb house is 2x what they bought it for. There are definite tradeoffs. But I can't see myself ever choosing sprawl again.

by Paul S on Mar 2, 2009 5:29 pm • linkreport

I grew up in Gaithersburg, but in a neighborhood adjacent to a strip mall with a Circuit City, pet store, craft/hobby store, book store, and McDonalds. My number one favorite activity between the ages of about 10 and 15 was to walk to the strip mall and hang out there.

I don't know what I'd have done with all that time if it had been too far. Probably more video games.

by BeyondDC on Mar 2, 2009 5:46 pm • linkreport

To "disagree": Also, I currently live in Dupont Circle. I'd guess maybe somewhere between 1-5% of the apartments and condos near me have children. Whereas about 40-60% of the SFH in every suburban subsdivision I have been to have families. So I think kids are more likely to have people to socialize with in the car-dependent suburbs than downtown DC.

Dupont Circle is one of the most expensive areas of the city so of course is less likely to have young families. Go to Columbia Heights, Petworth, Brookland, and you will see many children who live in cheaper but still walkable areas and hang out together informally (quite loudly most of the time... but I digress). Second, even if only 5% of apartments have kids, the apartments are about 20 times denser than suburban McMansions, so the number of kids within walking distance is twice as many. That's not even taking into account how much the social options increase once they're old enough to Metro.

I can only say Amen! to this post. I grew up in isolated suburbia and it felt like living in a jail compound much of the time. Literally, the closest structure that was not a single family home was about three miles away and I was totally dependent on my parents to go anywhere. Afterschool activities were a nightmare of advance planning, spontaneity impossible. Even though their houses were smaller and not as "nice," I was so envious of my friends who lived downtown and had freedom. I would have traded our fancy living room for a social life (there were few kids my age on our block) in half a heartbeat.

If and when I have kids, they will live in a walkable place. I will never make a child of mine go through such loneliness and isolation, nor do I want to take on a second job as chauffeur and social planner.

by Erica on Mar 2, 2009 5:50 pm • linkreport

Walkable communities are great for children, but as several previous commenters have noted, these desirable communities tend to be very expensive. Even though much of DC is walkable and served by good public transit, the schools are awful; unless the family can afford private school, it's off to the 'burbs.

While we wax nostalgic, let's keep in mind that money drives these personal decisions. Until the DC government stops shoving middle-class families out of the city, don't expect an influx of children anytime soon.

by Capitol Dome on Mar 2, 2009 6:37 pm • linkreport

> Even though much of DC is walkable and served by good public transit, the schools are awful; unless the family can afford private school, it's off to the 'burbs.

1. Luckily we have places in this region that are both walkable and in good public school districts, such as Arlington and lower Montgomery County. I see no shame in living in Silver Spring to take advantage of MoCo schools.

2. Of course, the more middle-class people with children who stay in DC, the better DC schools will become. Granted nobody wants to sacrifice their children's education to be the pioneer, but there you are. By moving to DC, you're helping the situation.

by BeyondDC on Mar 3, 2009 10:03 am • linkreport

Great post that really hit home for me. Until I was 11, I lived in a typical suburban sprawl suburb of Syracuse, NY. It was a great place for a little kid -- there were a lot of other kids my age to play with and a great forest right next door to play in. However, you needed a car to get to anything other than a neighbor's house. Even biking to school was an iffy proposition. When I was 11, my father got transferred to Paris and I lived there until I came back to the US for college. Needless to say, I loved Paris and in hindsight we moved there at the perfect time -- right as I reached an age where I needed access to more than a few friends and a forest. At age 12, I suddenly had a ton of freedom -- my world was wherever public transportation and my feet could take me, which was pretty much anywhere in Paris and most of its suburbs. I went everywhere without my parents -- school, soccer and cross country practice (and games), the doctor, the orthodontist, the movies, museums, out with friends, etc. Whenever, I visited my old friends back in Syracuse, I felt badly for them -- they were adolescents, nearly adults, but were forced to live an extended childhood, trapped in a suburb and completely and utterly dependent on their parents to get anywhere and everywhere for anything and everything. Even after they turned 16, they were still dependent on borrowing the car to get anywhere they wanted or needed to go. (Plus, like many kids that age, they started drinking. What a great combination!) Once kids reach 12, they need more than grass to play on. They need to start doing things independently of their parents and they need places to socialize and they need to gain experience interacting with adults independently. Automobile dependent suburbs do not provide those opportunities in the way that walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods do. I was extremely lucky.

by rg on Mar 3, 2009 10:44 am • linkreport

I'd like to make another plug for an affordable private school in DC: Sacred Heart academy in Mt. Pleasant $4,700/yr for the 1st student, less for each additional. Even devout atheist parents are happy with this school. There are others in the diocese. This is the one I know.

by Bianchi on Mar 3, 2009 11:10 am • linkreport

Also, public charter schools offer some hope for families that don't want to leave. Unfortunately, the number of seats in these schools and in affordable private schools are limited.

Additionally the walkable communities with good schools (e.g. Silver Spring, Arlington) are still pricey compared to many exurban communities. As more people value these places for their walkable amenities, they will become even more expensive.

by Captiol Dome on Mar 3, 2009 11:19 am • linkreport

Well, Capitol Dome, it would appear that we need more walkable urban places. The Brookland small sector plan is a good place to start, isn't it?

The reason why walkable places are so much more expensive is because there are so few of them compared to the demand for them. The only solution is to build more real estate products in a walkable urban arrangement.

But that might require someone to lose a parking space so it can't be done...

by Cavan on Mar 3, 2009 11:22 am • linkreport

> it would appear that we need more walkable urban places

Agreed.

Also, it is worth pointing out that many studies have indicated that the supposed affordability of the outer suburbs is a myth. Housing is cheaper, but you spend so much more on transportation and transportation-related costs that it makes up the difference. Certainly if you factor in the cost of time lost in traffic, the so-called affordability of the outer suburbs isn't as attractive.

by BeyondDC on Mar 3, 2009 11:27 am • linkreport

Cap Dome, I think you just described one of the visions set out by GGW: a world where "walkable" is the norm (so even the less expensive communities are walkable)

by Bianchi on Mar 3, 2009 11:30 am • linkreport

I think we could also make big steps toward walkability by loosening zoning codes and reconsidering the suburbs' strict use-separation codes. Even small neighborhoods could sustain small stores within their communities, but our currently regulatory regime won't permit it.

As for housing prices, though it is true that exurban affordability is usually a myth, loan officers at banks (around here, at least) don't consider that when determining the amount for which a buyer qualifies.

by Captiol Dome on Mar 3, 2009 11:38 am • linkreport

Cap Dome, yes the zoning needs reformed. One improvement could be to get rid of the acreage minimums for schools. This common zoning prcatice prevents communities from building schools withing residential areas, where kids can walk or bike, and requires newly built schools to be on outskirts where more land is available making them car dependent. It's not just newly built schools for increased population. It affects replacement of old schools too. There's so much "low-hanging fruit", like zoning to allow neighborhood stores and schools, that can have a positive impact on the quality of life for kids.

by Bianchi on Mar 3, 2009 11:52 am • linkreport

There are obviously both benefits and drawbacks of suburbia, and both should be evaluated on their merits in any given case.

It might be noted that suburbia and walkability are not mutually exclusive if you have the proper public transit options in place.

by anonymous on Mar 5, 2009 2:35 pm • linkreport

In all of my writing, and most writing on this blog, "suburbia" = car-dependent.

Therefore, according to that definition, Wheaton, Bethesda, and Clarendon are not suburbia. They are not car-dependent and are walkable urban with human-scale street grids and a mixture of uses.

If you want to use the pre-war definition of "suburban," I suppose they aren't mutually exclusive. If you look it from an infrastructure and land-use perspective, car-dependent suburbia and walkabilty are mutually exclusive.

by Cavan on Mar 5, 2009 2:54 pm • linkreport

Something I've been thinking about a lot lately is the hidden externalities of exurban living. Netflix has made movie rental much easier, but exurbs don't generally have good libraries, and if they do, neither children nor adults can reach them easily - its just not convenient, especially since small-town libraries have correspondingly small hours and small collections. As a result, I've found that since I moved to the county, I both buy more books and read fewer of them: its actually more economical for me to order used books from Amazon than to drive to the library, but I have lost all the spontaneity of going to a bookstore or library. I suspect the same thing happens with a number of other cultural commodities, as well.

by Franny Ritchie on Mar 5, 2009 3:31 pm • linkreport

I grew up in Reston, VA in the 1970s. I walked or rode my bike EVERYWHERE. Most people I know who are even close to my age had nowhere near the freedom I had. Kids now have virtually none, because they must be driven to all activities. Wasn't the car supposed to give us freedom? Funny how building our world around cars turned out. It makes me so sad.

by Evan on Mar 5, 2009 6:32 pm • linkreport

Well said, Evan. Kind of makes you wonder who is serving who. Who made who? Also who holds all the cards when one builds everything to serve an inanimate machine. It's like something out of a dystopian novel.

by Cavan on Mar 5, 2009 11:24 pm • linkreport

I grew up in suburbia. I'm now 23 and reflecting on the fact that my family was glued to the TV while I was "socializing" on the computer. This is a horrible was of living! Now I choose to be car-free and TV-free. These virtual public spaces seem to offer some great knowledge though. ;)

by Ann on Mar 5, 2009 11:54 pm • linkreport

Would these walkable neighborhoods keep the children's motor bikes and motorcycles out in favor of walking and bicycles?

by Mom on Mar 10, 2009 11:49 am • linkreport

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