Density Without Mixed-use
July 14, 2014 Leave a comment
Washington, DC is a world-class city. Beyond the monumental core, there are walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods of brightly colored rowhouses and tree-lined streets. Transit is extensive and generally reliable, and, barring further interference from the city council, is expanding in service. Although there are some things, such as the largely blanket height limit, that can get some planner’s goats, it is mostly an urbanist’s dream.
And because it’s so nice (and also because the height limit effectively limits housing supply), even those making above average incomes have trouble finding affordable housing here. With the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment downtown at over $2,000, many people are forced out onto the urban fringe. And that’s why I don’t live in Washington DC.
Arlington, Virginia, to be specific. And while it has taken some adjusting after living in Center City, Philadelphia, there has been one major difference that I’ve noticed between here and anywhere else I’ve lived:
Traditional cities are great places to walk. You have a lot of services, and a lot of residences close by to be served by them. It’s usually a bit frustrating driving, but you have so many other transportation options that it’s not really a loss.
The types of suburbs that I’ve grown up in have either been around slow-growth cities, such as Pittsburgh, or cities that never really had a tradition of density or regionalism anyway, like Provo, Utah. These suburbs have low housing densities, consisting almost entirely of single-family homes. Work is found in industrial or office parks, and shopping happens at strip malls. With all the uses separated, driving between them is pretty much the only reasonable way to get around. But since everything is at a much lower density, the traffic is only particularly bad on the main arterials.
What’s new to me about Washington suburbs (and particularly the inner ring) is that the demand for housing is high enough to necessitate high-density housing, but it was built in the era of single-use zoning, so the work and recreation are all far away. Like in the low-density suburbs, driving is usually the only option for getting around, but because of the higher density and the greater number of people, a huge amount of land becomes devoted to vehicle infrastructure. Even where it is possible to walk, the huge parking lots and wide roads make it undesirable.
Although I personally consider these environments largely unappealing, I think the fact that they already have the density to support mixed uses does make many of them decent candidates for suburban retrofitting, something I hope to examine more in later posts.
And it’s not like all of the DC region’s modern developments are devoid of urbanism. I’ll refer you to my friend Dan Reed, Silver Spring super booster, to learn about the ongoing urbanism there. Although Vishaan Chakrabarti calls it out for its traffic congestion in his book A Country of Cities (which, as John Norquist has argued, isn’t necessarily bad; places with a lot of traffic have traffic because people want to be there), Bethesda has a decent walkable core and strong mass transit connections to the rest of the region. And although the transition from single-family homes to high density urbanism is stark, and it has been described by some as “city-lite” (or worse, DC without all the poor minorities), the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor in Arlington is dense, mixed-use, and transit accessible.
And further afield, there are some areas that had the right idea but are a little lighter on execution. Reston, although suffering from a similar zoning-induced stark transition to that of Arlington, could be thought of as a “transit-ready” community with the upcoming opening of Metro’s Silver Line (although the station is a bit of a hike from Reston Town Center). And the New Urbanist darling of Kentlands, out on the edge of the region in Gaithersburg, is a pleasant, walkable community, even if transit options are limited and all of the commercial activity is just on one side of it.
The Washington, DC region, as evidenced by its high housing prices, is under-developed and, even where it is already dense, it is under-urbanized. But there are opportunities and, in some very small and limited ways, even the political will to fix things, hopefully for the better. I look forward to investigating urbanism in my new home and sharing it here, with you.