A couple of weeks ago, Jamelle over at The United States of Jamerica offered an insightful commentary about the effects of baby boomer suburbanization. As most of us know, suburbanization was not a privilege enjoyed equally by all races. The growth of the ‘burbs throughout the latter half of the 20th Century was predicated on racial exclusion; federal subsidies and local level political mobilization ensured white racial homogeneity in rapidly expanding suburban enclaves. As these boomers grow older, it’s becoming increasingly clear that suburban development has its shortcomings. Jamelle astutely notes, “[T]he downside of designing neighborhoods in an exclusionary fashion is that it makes them virtually unlivable for someone who doesn’t own a vehicle or who because of age or infirmary, can’t operate one.”
This was exactly the topic of Ben Adler’s piece “A Tale of Two Exurbs” published last month at The American Prospect. Adler details life in two Washington, DC “exurbs”—suburbs so far from central cities that they are more like suburbs of suburbs—pointing out the pitfalls of suburban sprawl. In Leesburg, VA, the “archetypical American exurb,” transportation is deplorable. Roads are congested, walkability is absent, and the community is without "character." In short, Leesburg is where sprawl went wrong.
Oh, but this is not intrinsic to exurban living, Adler thankfully proclaims. Indeed, Gaithersburg, MD offers a fascinating counter-example. Gaithersburg has a quaint “downtown,” very few cars, lots of walking, and…wait for it…a wonderful sense of community. Adler explains the “community:”
“There are not only families with children living in detached homes, there are single people in their 20s living above stores and elderly people living in the taller apartment buildings. This kind of mixed-age development will be in especially high demand as demographic trends, such as the empty-nests of aging baby boomers lead to an increase in childless households.”
Look, I’m all for sustainable, walkable neighborhoods that are elderly-friendly. Cool. No complaints here. But is that the best suburban diversity we can hope for? A discussion of racial or class diversity is conspicuously missing from Adler’s piece—and there’s a reason for this.
Gaithersburg was designed by Duany Plater-Zyrbek, the nation’s leading firm in New Urbanist urban design. New Urbanism is kind of like a good, liberal-minded person’s vision of an urban utopia: mixed-use land zoning, local neighborhood stores and shops, extreme walkability, eco-friendly, and on and on. In short, New Urbanism is the urban planning/urban design alternative to suburban sprawl. A pretty good alternative, at least in theory. The head of Duany Plater-Zyrbek, Andres Duany, co-authored a book detailing New Urbanism’s manifesto. But, if you’re not the academic reading type, you can also check out Paramount Pictures’ 1996 science fiction comedy-drama The Truman Show. Truman’s fictional hometown in the movie is in fact a real town: Seaside, Florida, a master-planned community built by Duany and his colleagues that follows the principles of New Urbanist design.
The dirty little secret about Duany and New Urbanism is the design’s susceptibility to gentrification. A quaint little town with a thriving local economy is undoubtedly a hot commodity among young, affluent white folks. An influx in affluent folks typically precipitates raises in rents and property values, often resulting in lower-class displacement. Such is the potential effect of New Urbanism. It’s actually a little more than mere susceptibility to gentrification—Duany has been quoted in interviews pondering “What’s so bad with gentrification?” He even argued that the arrival of higher-income residents is “exactly” what some urban communities need.
There are plenty of problems associated with gentrification, some mentioned previously on this site. And I’m sure gentrification also has some positive effects on communities. But there’s something peculiar—or, suspicious—about a discussion of New Urbanism (an urban design susceptible to gentrification) that fails to mention racial or class diversity (a major casualty of gentrification). In our quest for walkable, eco-friendly built environments, are we willing to concede racial diversity? Is The Truman Show really our best crack at urban utopia?
The hyper-segregation of metropolitan America requires innovative urban planning, design that will induce—not deter—integrated neighborhoods. Adler’s discussion of exurban DC illustrates one version of an urban utopia. Too bad it’s a segregated one.