Jonathan O’Connell wrote an article in the Washington Post over the weekend asking the above question. He compared suburban developments, including the Village at Leesburg and Reston Town Center, to some of the more vibrant parts of Washington, DC. O’Connell is a very good writer, in that his article could be read to support either side of the argument. For me, it comes down to semantics: what do you mean by “city life,” and what do you mean by “suburbs”? I feel that, based on your definition of these, you very well can “export” city life to the suburbs; I’m just not sure the examples O’Connell cited have actually done so. Let’s take a look.
In his article, O’Connell cites two neighborhoods in the District as examples of “city life;” those are Georgetown, and U Street.
These streets are classical examples of city life. They are built on gridded street systems, and although some streets are definitely wider than others, none are overwhelmingly wide (for instance, Wisconsin Avenue, the widest street in Georgetown, is only 80 feet from building front to building front). They are decidedly mixed use, with shops, offices and housing all bunched together. I think it’s important to point out that, although shopping and vibrancy are concentrated on a few streets, the majority of these neighborhoods is still housing, i.e. people actually live here rather than just coming here to shop. There is a fine grain of buildings, most of which have a fairly small footprint, but there are a lot of them, and it has the population density necessary to make it vibrant. While cars are certainly present, these areas are very pedestrian friendly and transit accessible.
You can find all these qualities in Alexandria, Virginia, as well. Alexandria is an old city which, as DC has grown, has sort of been sucked into its sphere of influence, and could be called a suburb. It has multiple stops on the DC Metro, is very pedestrian friendly, has a fine grain, mixed uses, high density, and the streets aren’t too wide. If Alexandria counts as a suburb, then you could say that city life was “exported” there; however, with Alexandria being as old as it is, it’s almost more appropriate to say that it co-evolved rather than that it was brought over from Washington. Other cities that came into their own later in history fit easier into the suburban definition, and will be covered in the next section.
Modern Suburbs/Emerging Cities
When I say Modern, I mean that they hit their growth spurt during the Modernist period in the mid-20th century. They sport the trappings of Modernism, including lots of towers and some roads that are wider than they should be. However, many of them are working to address the less desirable aspects of their modern development and are evolving into true cities as they mature. In Washington, cities that match this description include Arlington, Virginia; Bethesda, Maryland; and Silver Spring, Maryland.
These cities, as opposed to the ones in the first section, often have wider roads at their centers; however, they have taken efforts recently to make them more pedestrian friendly by including planted medians, bulb-outs, and other elements to shorten pedestrian crossing time. These large roads are also framed by large towers, so they have a nice height to width ratio. The towers help create density, although a lot of these cities have a fairly sharp drop off from towers to single-family homes. They are increasingly mixed-use, with the ground floor of these towers being shops and more of the towers becoming residential in addition to office space. Although the building grain isn’t as fine, shops still have fairly narrow frontages that change frequently and from the ground it feels similar in grain to the above examples. Each of these examples has a Metro stop and is otherwise well served by transit. These places also show how the element of time is important to creating city life; while these places may have been mostly office centers at their inception, as the cities have grown, they have become more mixed-use, more fine-grained, and more pedestrian-friendly. They also are more affordable than the District and have better schools, and if DC can’t fix that, these cities will continue to house the families that want city life, but can’t get everything they need in Washington.
These are the areas that O’Connell seemed to focus on in his article. These areas are relatively new, and although they are more urban than the single-family and strip mall suburbs around them, they still lack city life. However, these places are in a better state to develop it as time goes on than their traditional suburban neighbors. O’Connell discusses the Village at Leesburg and Reston Town Center, and I would like to add Kentlands to the mix.
Like most suburbs, in these places, the car is still king. The roads in the Village and at Reston, despite nods to pedestrians on their “main streets,” are overwhelmingly wide; even the village’s main street is 110 feet wide, and the roads ringing Reston are over 160 feet from building front to building front in some areas. Kentlands is better with the exception of Kentlands Boulevard, but it too falls prey to the other major demand of the car; parking. Kentlands has large surface parking lots all around its shopping and office areas. Reston and the Village feature much more structured parking, which takes up huge percentages of their development. Reston has three blocks devoted exclusively to parking, and three more where towers are built on parking podiums. At the Village, I would guess from aerials that nearly half of their buildings are parking garages, including one that is 1,000 feet long, and even the median of their main street is devoted to parking. Much of this parking isn’t lined by other uses, creating a poor streetscape.
This amount of parking makes sense, oddly enough, because they aren’t dense enough or have enough mixed uses. There is essentially one apartment complex at the Village, and it’s in the middle of nowhere surrounded by highways, so driving is about the only option for most of its users. Reston is in a better case, mostly because it is older and is surrounded by residential development, but its ring of massive roads discourages walking and I would bet that even people who live close by would rather drive. And while Kentlands almost has enough residential to support its large commercial area, they are in no way mixed. There is pretty much a line where, on one side, it is residential, and on the other it is commercial, so anyone more than a quarter mile or so form that line will probably drive. These places don’t have corner stores or diners mixed in, they have designated living and shopping areas, and for the most part, the best way to get between them is by car. With the possible exception of Reston, they don’t have city-like densities, and none of them are served by rail transit, with limited bus connections, if at all. The buildings and the blocks are large (with the exception of Kentlands), which discourages walking. They are also relatively new, and haven’t had a chance to really go through a change of generation and tastes, and I think it would be interesting to watch these areas and see where they are at in 20 or 50 years.
Can you export city life to the suburbs? Yes, but you can’t go halfway, you need to use all the elements that make city life worth living. Alexandra has all of those, the modern suburbs/emerging cities have most and are developing the rest, and the better suburbs have a few. We’ll have to check back on all of them in a generation or two and see if it has actually come to pass.