Luckily for Will of the League of Ordinary Gentlemen, I have kept my beeper. He tipped his bowler our way today on a topic that is dear to our hearts—soulless built environments—with a link to an article by Ben Adler in the American Prospect titled “A Tale of Two Exurbs.” It follows the travails of Leesburg, Virginia and Gaithersburg, Maryland. The subject is even more dear to me since I have adopted the Washington D.C. metro area as my home-away-from-South Carolina.
Virginia has been beset by problems in the face of suburban growth, more so than Maryland. I would attribute this to the fact that Virginia is much more Southern in character than Maryland, ever since Abraham Lincoln occupied the Free State. Up until recently Virginia was known for being dominated by rural conservatives who bucked any regulation whatsoever. (Firearms laws in the two states are illustrative.) The development there over the last two decades is unprecedented. Whereas my fiancée’s hometown was once considered the boonies in the 1980s, it’s just a hop, hop, skip, and a jump away from D.C. when compared to Leesburg, a town once not even in the orbit of our nation’s capital.
Northern Virginia has some of the worst traffic in the nation: a 2-hour commute is not unheard of. The sprawl has gotten so bad now the Commonwealth has outlawed the construction of any new cul-de-sacs. Yet to this day NoVA residents continue to stonewall the creation of metro lines that could reach into Tysons Corner with its hideous sprawl, and to pastoral Leesburg. Maryland is the opposite. Metro lines reach easily into the Old Line State, and the MARC train runs all the way from Baltimore to D.C. for less than $10 on weekdays. Amtrak after the District is spotty at best. The Virginia suburbs of Alexandria and Falls Church that have chosen to integrate the Metro into their designs are much denser and more expensive. The closer (though Metro-less) suburbs of Great Falls and McLean are some of the wealthiest communities in America with average yearly incomes of $150,000, five-times higher than the average American household. So most are not only priced out, but locked in to cars.
Adler’s article explores the impact that sparse, single zoning polices have on exurbs. They isolate people further, making them more dependent on the automobile and less sociable with their communities. The Maryland community about which Adler writes is home to all age groups and is more sociable as people take advantage of parks and its walkability. In a way the Kentland suburb reminds me of Charleston, South Carolina, or Savannah, Georgia. Both are places full of single-family homes with small yards to give families a private area, but both also are quite walkable. Any traffic is slowed the streets are lined with parked cars. They do not, however, suffer from the same stifling atmosphere of New York City that many small-towners feel in Gotham.
I abhor newly-developed town homes in Northern Virgina that are mostly sold to single young professionals because they pack people like sardines into a small area without public transport. This only serves to increase traffic density. I believe new suburbs should be designed around free-standing single-family homes with close, mixed zoning. But this does not rule out the construction of apartment buildings in the neighborhood. That way residents could transition from multi-unit housing to a home when the time is right. Parks and transport must be integrated into their design. As Adler shows, there is a desire for this in America, it is just not available at low cost. It is possible for private developers to provide it, too. First people must come to grips with the unpleasantness of their 3-hour commutes and the addiction we have to cars as a way of life. Conservatives would do well to embrace this sort of community building. It helps quality of life and families, simplifies it, and allows for more involvement locally. I think David makes the case for transport better than I, though.
-Michael E. van Landingham