Real benefits of ‘fake’ town centers


A recent blog on the online magazine Salon slammed new suburban town centers as phony, pale imitations of real urban places. Town centers in the suburbs facilitate white flight and leech off the culture of authentic urban neighborhoods, according to the author, Will Doig.

The “faux urbanism” charge has been made since New Urbanism began three decades ago. The idea persists among some in the intellectual and media elite that mixed-use, compact developments in the suburbs represent a threat to cities.

Although many are beginning to accept walkable places as a natural part of the suburbs, misunderstanding and fear persists for three reasons:

1) Town centers built from scratch lack historic buildings and cultural institutions and may strike some as sterile and phony.

2) Compact, mixed-use suburbs are nevertheless perceived as having an unfair advantage. They offer what Doig calls a “simulacra” of urban life without the crime and messiness of cities. This is sanitized urbanism for wealthy whites, Doig implies.

3) Walkable places in the suburbs challenge many people’s perceptions. Because the suburbs were built as auto-dependent places, nobody ever calls strip malls and cul-de-sacs “inauthentic,” notes Scott Doyon of PlaceShakers. By the same token, those who try to plan and build more sustainably in the suburbs risk accusations of fakery.

Far from fearing new urban centers, city boosters should embrace and promote compact, walkable places in the suburbs because they ultimately benefit cities.

First, cities have nothing to fear from new walkable places. Cities’ cultural advantages far outweigh any edge that new urban places may enjoy in terms of safety or modern retail. Historic buildings, which cities have in spades, are treasures that cannot be recreated in the suburbs — at least not for the better part of a century.

Suburbs, nevertheless, desperately need walkable, mixed-use places to become more sustainable, diverse in housing choice, appealing, and economically competitive. Cities, for their part, need their suburbs to become more walkable because this enables mass transportation to function like it should, attracts educated workers, and helps the entire region become more appealing and competitive. That, in turn, improves the health of downtowns and in-town neighborhoods.

No longer city versus suburb

As researcher Christopher Leinberger argues, the new century no longer pits city versus suburb. Walkable versus drivable is the new paradigm. Let’s look at what has happened around DC in the last quarter century. The nation’s capital has led the US in development of New Urbanism — going from about five walkable urban centers to 43 in 25 years, an increase of 750 percent (see article in the October-November issue of Better Cities and Towns). Far from suffering from all this competition, the original five have flourished. Downtown DC, once perceived as dangerous, has skyrocketed in land values.

The more urban centers are built around DC, the more the market cries out for them. The more walkable DC gets, the better the region performs economically, environmentally — and probably — socially as well.

The suburbs, which are becoming more racially and culturally diverse all the time, could use many more walkable places — as many as can be built. If that happens, in-town neighborhoods will continue to thrive as the suburban mixed-use centers gain, over time, the culture and history that they now lack.