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Sunbelt cities, urbanizing suburbs can learn from each other

Urbanizing suburbs often suffer from an identity crisis, looking to the big city next door and wondering how to recreate the same vitality and sense of place. But they might find a better comparison with more distant Sunbelt cities, which like many suburbs are only now coming into their own.

Aerial of downtown Raleigh. Photo by FiddleFlix on Flickr.

Take Raleigh, where I spent 5 days last month with my boyfriend and his friend's family, who moved there from Bethesda last year. While it's best known as North Carolina's state capital, we found a lot of fun things to do there. We saw a drag show at a downtown bar. We ate at crunchy, farm-to-table restaurants and Vietnamese holes-in-the-wall.

We also spent a lot of time in our friend's car. She and her newly-retired parents live in a new townhouse development off a strip lined with shopping centers, megachurches and similar-looking townhouse developments. My boyfriend said it reminded him of Fairfax or Montgomery counties, except it's all within Raleigh city limits. And our friend's parents don't hesitate to say they live in a city, either.

Is there really much of a difference between a "city" like Raleigh and a "suburb" like Montgomery? Both grew up mostly after World War II. In 1940, the city had just 46,000 residents, but today, it has 423,000 people, while surrounding Wake County has nearly 1 million residents. During the same period, Montgomery County grew from from 83,000 to over 1 million.

Downtown Bethesda. Raleigh's built form isn't that different from many of our area's suburban downtowns. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

As a result, both places have a distinctly suburban, auto-oriented character, save for a few urban centers. Look at an aerial photo of downtown Raleigh and it could pass for Bethesda or Silver Spring: a clump of tall buildings, surrounded by miles of single-family homes. New town centers are sprouting along the Beltline, Raleigh's answer to the Beltway, while new planned communities sprawl beyond it.

But the difference is that Raleigh embraces its status as a city, while Montgomery County is more hesitant.

Downtown Raleigh bursts with new music venues and restaurants. Planning director Mitchell Silver talks about pushing transit and making Raleigh "one of the world's attractive cities." A student at NC State made signs encouraging people to walk more and posted them around the city, while a group of designers and artists started a T-shirt line inspired by the city's history and culture.

Raleigh doesn't resemble older, traditional cities like New York or Chicago, and despite its aspirations to become a more urban place, it will never become a New York or Chicago. But it attracts ambition and creativity and civic pride like a big city, even if many of its residents live a very suburban lifestyle.

That's the lesson for places like Montgomery County. Like Raleigh, people here live in and seek out different kinds of communities, ranging from urban to suburban to rural. While some folks continue to insist that it's an exclusively suburban, homogeneous place, we can easily hold our own against places that happen to call themselves cities.

Montgomery County already has better transit than Raleigh and a biotechnology hub that some compare to the Research Triangle. There are as many or more people working in downtown Bethesda and downtown Silver Spring than in downtown Raleigh. and after 5pm, Bethesda is a much livelier place. And judging from the bland banh mi I had at that Vietnamese place, Wheaton has vastly better ethnic food.

But Montgomery County and Raleigh also face many of the same challenges. We both seek to welcome new immigrants and serve growing low-income populations. We both want to encourage investment in older, close-in neighborhoods and make it easier to get around without a car. And both places are known for pushing school equity, even if it's thwarted by de facto segregation or a Tea Party school board.

As both places grow and evolve, they have as much if not more to learn from each other than from historically urban places.

Montgomery County isn't a collection of small towns or bedroom suburbs anymore. It's functionally a city of 1 million people that grew from an older, more traditional city. And if we're going to continue to grow and prosper, a little city swagger wouldn't hurt.

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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Reminds me of when Fairfax county mulled officially changing themselves to a city for financial reasons and there was a whole lot of hand wringing by various outlets about what it would mean. As if all of a sudden giant swathes of suburban culs-de-sac would be bulldozed to make way for 5 story walk-ups.

Raleigh is nice though I like Durham a little better. They also don't have nearly the traffic problems we have which makes the prospect of adding more people in specific areas a little more palpable.

by drumz on Aug 19, 2013 12:19 pm • linkreport

Raleigh also has two beltwayslines (partially tolled), no metro, no streetcars. On the other had, it has great BBQ.

by Jasper on Aug 19, 2013 12:48 pm • linkreport

Very interesting post. I think the comparison of Raleigh and Montgomery County is a very good one. If you remove Montgomery's agricultural reserve from consideration, than the two have very similar population densities.

There is far too much angst among those fighting the urbanization of (parts of) Montgomery county. Even if urban redevelopment similar to the Silver Spring and Bethesda continue unabated in places like White Flint, Wheaton, Rockville and every other similar location in Montgomery (something I support), the vast majority of the counties land would remain suburban. I see Montgomery becoming not a city but the new paradigm for a suburb, where the traditional suburban residential areas remain mostly the same but where the old strip malls and office parks are replaced with more urban-like mixed use centers.

by Dave S on Aug 19, 2013 1:04 pm • linkreport

It took a very long time for Raleigh voters to wise up to the fact that it's a city, not a large and sprawling boomburb. Although it's always been a relatively progressive place by N.C. standards, its mayors until 1999 were pretty much either growth-machiners or suburban conservatives: Brier Creek and Wakefield were both annexed in during the late 1990s, IIRC. It also wasn't until the late 1990s that anyone in Raleigh could even conceive of anything so urban as a restaurant row, or a tavern that wasn't next to campus.

It's kind of strange to think of it this way (since the Triangle as a whole is so polycentric), but Raleigh has the benefit of being relatively monocentric, having relatively forward-thinking local leaders who paid attention to city matters, and always having plentiful surplus growth to go around. It has great bones from an 18th-c. street grid, and an obvious W/NW axis toward N.C. State University and RTP. Suburban jurisdictions will always have the more difficult task of structuring growth into a framework that's largely defined by someone else, while having leaders' attention diverted to the regional stage.

Irregardless,* Raleigh accounts for less than half of the population of Wake County, and maybe 20% of the Triangle's population, in a state where counties have relatively little land use authority. State government amenities aside, Durham has a better claim on being "the downtown" of the Triangle, since it was the only city of appreciable size in the area until the 1960s.

* spell check did not flag this?!

by Payton on Aug 19, 2013 1:13 pm • linkreport

Hopefully the relatively new and expanding LYNX light rail in Charlotte (and in other young cities around the country)will be taken as example for how cities can move forward to build successful urban cores.

by Alan B. on Aug 19, 2013 1:18 pm • linkreport

I agree with @Dave S on this one, I don't think it makes sence to see Montgomery Co as one city, it's too big and varied to do that. There are distinct smaller cities forming within one larger urban area - which really is what Raleigh is, one fairly small center urban area, which based on pictures is actually smaller than Bethesda, surrounded by suburbs and new mixed use suburban centers.

I wonder if it would benefit Silver Spring, Bethesda and White Flint to incorporate, so that they can take on the full mindset of a city, and let the suburban places remain relatively unchanged? Of course there is no guarantee it would change much, Rockville still tries to pretend it's a small town when it would benefit the County and region if it would embrace redevelopment and density.

by Gull on Aug 19, 2013 1:18 pm • linkreport

Exhibit A of relatively progressive pro-growth leadership: the York family. Their direct involvement in local politics turned out to be mostly good, and as the owners of Cameron Village they've understood placemaking for generations. Maybe the Rouse family played a similar role for Baltimore. However, it's hard to see how a similar story could have happened amid D.C.-area factionalism, especially a generation ago when regional divisions were even sharper.

by Payton on Aug 19, 2013 1:21 pm • linkreport

You should have rolled on over to Durham and its downtown to see what a small southern city really looks like. I second the comment above that Durham is the 'downtown' of the triangle and would push it further to say that it is the only real 'city' in the Triangle.

I do agree with the article that those areas will never be a city with a built environment like NYC, Chicago, or similar. They will always, to some extent, be car-centric locales, but that does not detract from the major shifts that are occurring in those same areas (and the push for major transit infrastructure, just look at Charlotte).

by Thad on Aug 19, 2013 1:41 pm • linkreport

I'm not sure I see what MoCo is supposed to be learning from Raleigh. The city council took down those signs with walking directions. Like most Southern cities, transit is bus-only and has been cut to the bone, and there's little political will to change that in Raleigh. As you point out, most of the growth is concentrated in auto-centered development around the Beltline. There's no functional regional body to make even minimal efforts at coordinating growth in the Triangle, even as connected as those cities are. A poorly planned idea for a Triangle-wide EMU-based rail system bombed. The legislature will ensure that no transit projects will be funded by the state for years to come.

They poured tons of tax revenue into building a new convention center right next to the old one, and then tearing down the old one. They built the hockey/NCSU basketball/events arena miles away from downtown in a location accessible only by car, making sure it wouldn't spark any nearby growth.

As someone who lived in Raleigh for years, I know that 98% of it is a sprawling mess with little character. Sure, there are pockets of interesting stuff, but those are only now striving to be more like what Charlotte already has--which isn't really that impressive either.

So what should we learn from that?

by Gray on Aug 19, 2013 1:47 pm • linkreport

I'm not sure I would qualify Moco as a "city" simply becasue of it's numbers and occasional grid. In my mind it's an extension of DC with an arbitrary political boundary separating the two. If there was any way to incorporate the whole region into one jurisdiction, I would support it full bore, if only to reflect how people actually behave in this region, but it will never happen.

As for Raleigh, it is a suburban hot mess, but does actually have the bones to be a great pedestrian city and several historic neighborhoods to boot. It just needs strong political leadership to make it a greater place.
Good luck!

by Thayer-D on Aug 19, 2013 2:10 pm • linkreport

Sure, there are pockets of interesting stuff, but those are only now striving to be more like what Charlotte already has--which isn't really that impressive either.

So what should we learn from that?

What's impressive about Raleigh is not what it's become. Rather how much it's managed to change in spite of being in a conservative state and its history of complete auto-orientation. So, maybe SS/Bethesda/Arlington has less to learn from Raleigh and Tysons/DTR Corridor is the one to whom the lessons apply.

by Falls Church on Aug 19, 2013 2:45 pm • linkreport

@Falls Church: I'm not seeing how anyone thinks it's changed that much. Sure, parts of Raleigh are much better than ten years ago. But the vast majority of Raleigh's growth over that period has been focused in the sprawling areas outside the Beltline, particularly along the sprawl corridor of US 1 and on 540. Before, there was actual green space going north on 1. Now, it's just constant sprawl all the way to Wake Forest.

There are a couple of historic, walkable neighborhoods, but almost everyone drives to these areas--like the Fayetteville Street Mall (freshly converted back from a pedestrian mall), or Cameron Village (which is just a strip mall, though kind of embedded in an actual neighborhood), or all of the restaurants on Glenwood or around Moore Square.

Crabtree Valley Mall resembles Tysons Center pre-metro, but so do any number of other malls throughout the country--and the difference is that there are no major office complexes anywhere near Crabtree. Reston Town Center would be a huge step up from Brier Creek, one of the major recent shopping and housing developments.

So yeah, I don't really see any lessons for Tysons/DTR either. Other than the lesson that you definitely should not build an outer Beltline/way--but I don't think that's the lesson we were supposed to take from Raleigh.

by Gray on Aug 19, 2013 3:08 pm • linkreport

One of the differences between say Bethesda and Downtown Raleigh is its bones. Like DC, the city was an 18th century planned capital, which means it has a fairly tight street grid of about 400 foot blocks, so it's probably more walkable in that way.

@Payton: Irregardless is how the name is spelled. It was the 1st vegetarian place in Raleigh, back in the 70s I think. Counties do have land use authority in NC: planning and zoning outside the cities ETJ, though very different than VA with its independent cities. Cities have had wide annexation authority for decades fueling their suburban growth, though this has shifted with recent legal challenges.

Raleigh v Durham: Raleigh is older, while Durham's late 19th century tobacco-fueled rise made it more economically important and vibrant than the capital city pre-WW2. Today, Durham has a better start-up & arts culture downtown, while Raleigh's core has a more robust economy and street life.

Like most Southern cities, transit is bus-only and has been cut to the bone, and there's little political will to change that in Raleigh.
There is strong interest in Raleigh to improve mass transit but not in the much more conservative county, which holds the keys in transit funding through a proposed sales tax.

They poured tons of tax revenue into building a new convention center right next to the old one, and then tearing down the old one.
That's b/c the old one was functionally obsolete as a place to hold major conferences and blocked the rather appealing and historically significant view from the capitol to the performing arts center. The new one fixes that and is now widely viewed as a smart move and good for the city and the region.

They built the hockey/NCSU basketball/events arena miles away from downtown in a location accessible only by car, making sure it wouldn't spark any nearby growth.
This was planned in the mid-90s, two mayoral regimes ago, and well before anyone wanted to go downtown. In the mid-90s the then-Bullets still played in Landover.

I think the point of the post is in line with Dan's prior one that the new suburban activity centers share a lot more in common with many urban centers. Raleigh happens to be one that in Dan's view is taking a more bold position in staking out in its more urban future than the urban centers in MoCo.

by Jonathan P on Aug 19, 2013 3:12 pm • linkreport

There is a regional effort by the MPOs to bring high quality transit to the area. Durham and Chapel Hill passed a transit tax to fund a 16 mile light rail connection. The MPOs in this region coordinate their long range planning efforts and have put in effort to incorporate an extension of rail through Durham to Raleigh. However, the Wake County Commissioners refuse to even put a transit tax to vote by its citizens, most likely because they are fearful that it will pass and high quality transit will become a reality.

by Adam on Aug 19, 2013 4:18 pm • linkreport

I found this post to be quite odd. You can compare Raleigh and Montgomery County's book-end close-in centers (call em a city, I dare ya!), if, and only if, you add a large city like DC about 8-10 miles from Raleigh. Otherwise, what are you comparing? Reminds when everyone used to compare NYC and Boston (well, in Boston anyway) back in the day. Why don't you just compare DC and Raleigh directly? Kind of like comparing NYC and's really not Apples to apples (Big or otherwise). For me, I always found Bethesda and Silver Spring to remind me of Quincy (to the south of Boston) and Malden (to the north), except, you know, managed by a county and somehow better developed (SS and Bthsda), but lacking a certain chaahm or caricktah. I guess my comment is as odd as the original post!

by PleasantPlainer on Aug 19, 2013 7:04 pm • linkreport

As someone who went to high school in Durham (Go Unicorns!), and college in Raleigh (Go Wolfpack!), I'm not sure I share your enthusiasm for the City of Oaks!

Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that half of it's population seems to hail from New York, the Triangle has been way too busy trying to become the San Jose of the East to become the New York City of the South. Silicon Valley hasn't been a particularly good role model: we copied everything from their sprawl-tastic freeways to their sprawl-tastic office parks; and, as Gray mentioned above, we tried to copy CalTrain with a DMU-based regional rail plan. I'm pretty hopeful about Durham and Orange Counties' new LRT plan, though--as well as their plan to pay for it-- partly because it avoids both Research Triangle Park (most of which is in Durham County) and Wake County.

I'm decently optimistic about Raleigh the city; I'm less optimistic about Raleigh the metonym: the NC General Assembly's last transportation bill (a motorcycle safety bill) restricted abortion! I can't wait to see what the GA will do to the state's nascent passenger rail program...they'll probably outlaw train travel and Sharia in one fell swoop.

Anyway. Raleigh has had drag shows for decades (Legends has been around for a while), but the arrival of vegetarian restaraunts... now THAT was a culture shock!

by Steven Harrell on Aug 19, 2013 7:13 pm • linkreport

While I think the article brings up a number of valid points I disagree that there's a wealth of info that Montgomery County can learn from sprawling, transit-averse cities. Raleigh is definitely one of the nicer Sunbelt cities, but it shares many of the "bad" characteristics of the typical city in the region, such as the low pop density of less than 5,000/sqmi (which is true of every mid/large size city in the South north of Orlando/Tampa), as well as the many others mentioned in the article.

As for Montgomery County being a "city" I disagree about this as well. I don't consider Orange Co, CA (with a pop >3mil) to be a city, much less MoCo. Imo the only county that could realistically be considered a city is Arlington County, VA. In terms of physical size, population, politics, diversity, (relative) wealth, etc. is Westchester County, NY and most people wouldn't consider that to be a city either.

by King Terrapin on Aug 19, 2013 7:22 pm • linkreport

I think it's important to remember that sometimes urban areas aren't always in cities and vice versa. This is general point Dan usually makes especially when people are against a certain development because they always think of MoCo as "the suburbs"

by drumz on Aug 19, 2013 7:52 pm • linkreport

I think it's fair to say that MoCo has a distinct form: islands that have distinct characters in a suburban ocean. There are urban islands (Bethesda, Rockville, Silver Spring, Wheaton), there are agricultural islands (Ag Reserve), there are semantically-challenged islands (White Flint/North Bethesda), as well as various other specialty areas. I'm not persuaded that there's anything gained by calling it a 'city'.

by MattF on Aug 20, 2013 8:09 am • linkreport

Dan, I'm glad you enjoyed Raleigh and saw some lessons to apply. Leaving the RTP area for the nearby Piedmont Triad area nearly 5 years ago was probably one of the worse things I could do. I had a great 3.5 years on campus at NC State and then lived in the far outskirts(read new suburbia) of Durham and the RTP proper for about a year. At the time, the start-up energy and some of the arts energy was somewhat tampered. In the meantime a lot of my classmates and peers have fueled a lot of that new energy in the past five years, along with funding and long term building projects coming to fruition.

As far as our crazy legislature. I think that's a wake-up call. Even with all the restrictions being handed down, it assumes that the Assembly will look the same come 2014. With the spirit that we have going on right now, it won't and that will be good for transit, urbanism, and the continued growth of the start-up culture and the arts.

Raleigh has hope in the UDO that Mitch built and got approved (finally) this year. Durham and Chapel Hill have the light rail coming. Raleigh's also issued about 16,000 business licenses, many which are start-up companies and others franchises that are coming into the state for the first time.

Not a lot of urbanism commentary here, but from someone who is currently on the outside of both RTP and MoCo looking in and wishing they were a part of either area, I think both are in far better shape than many areas (save DC proper, Charlotte and of course NY, Philly and other areas with better housing and transit stock).

by Kristen Jeffers on Aug 20, 2013 10:08 am • linkreport

Dan, your comparison between Bethesda/Montgomery County and Raleigh has sparked a lively discussion.

I haven't spent much time in Montgomery County or many of the other outlying areas of the DMV Metro Area, but it is definitely on my list of things to do exactly for some of the reasons you laid out. The population and development timeline are worthy comparisons but because Montgomery County is a 'suburb', there are distincly different dynamics at play. Raleigh doesn't have DC as a neighbor and the amenities that go with it, including the Metro, National Monuments, and federal jobs. That being said, suburbs never have to make their own identity to attract growth.

Raleigh can look at Bethesda and MoCo to witness what a transit line and a stations can do to create walkable distritcs. Raleigh has the bones but arguably lacks the investment or the demand that it would take to create a Metro for the region. Light-rail is years away. What Raleigh and Durham have done is create their own identities, using their history, universities, parks and residents to do so. It seems that some of the previous commenters think that MoCo could more of those 'good bones'.

by CX on Aug 22, 2013 12:51 pm • linkreport

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