February 2nd, 2013
Yurts, modular trailer homes, and my legacy house.
Yurts, modular trailer homes, and my legacy house.
We’ve been talking about moving to a new city. To be honest, it’s something we’ve been talking about for years. Since we haven’t left Richmond yet, it’s doubtful that we’ll ever leave. I’m worried that we will talk about it forever, too scared of change to actually do it. In the meanwhile, we will suffer from feeling like we’re living in limbo, never becoming comfortable enough to settle down here because of the tiny chance that we might pack up and leave.
Anyway. Plano, Texas landed on our list of potential cities. Knowing nothing about it, I began my research by looking at it on a map.
The first thing I noticed was the uniformly spaced grid. Major roads are approximately one mile apart. This might not be surprising to anybody who lives west of the Appalachian mountains, especially if you’re familiar with square townships created as a result of the Land Ordinanace of 1785. But where I’m from, no suburbs are arranged on a grid. The streets are dynamic, or curvy. Much space is wasted.
Upon zooming in, I noticed something even more fascinating. At every major intersection, there is a shopping center. Hubs of commercial activity are never more than a mile away! Coming from a suburb where you can’t walk anywhere, the layout of Plano is very appealing.
Critics might accuse this type of suburban development as boring, but I think it’s perfect. It allows residents to have their own slice of land, but in a dense enough fashion to support walkability. And of course, the organized grid satisfies my appetite for order. There are one or two areas around here that resemble this style of development, but most of the suburbs surrounding Richmond are more capacious with unnecessarily large residential lots and buffers of undeveloped space between neighborhoods.
Has it become trendy to dislike suburbs?
There is a scene in the movie Juno that satirizes suburbs by showing images of McMansions in a series, presenting to the audience their conspicuous similarities. Several people in the audience snickered as they realized the joke, even as we sat in a big box theater in our own similarly amorphous suburb.
Suburbs are a relatively new approach to land use, only becoming a possibility after World War II with the availability of FHA loans and the growth of the Interstate Highway System. Many of the recorded problems with suburbs since their inception nearly sixty years ago are being resolved. Densely developed housing (including the increasing popularity of condominiums and townhomes) and a mix of housing types offered at a range of costs prevent segregated social classes. Job opportunities in suburban areas are increasing, alleviating traffic to and from the central city during rush hour and rather, dispersing it over a larger geographic area. Home owners are conscious of the design and character of their house and are demanding unique styles. Planners are triumphing in local governments, developing ordinances that will enforce smart growth. In general, people care about the future of their neighborhood.
I am optimistic about the future of the suburbs surrounding Richmond. For an area that is experiencing rapid population growth, policy-makers, planners, and developers are working together to accommodate the population smartly and plan for the future. Essentially, mini-cities are being created in the suburbs that incorporate both the advantages of cities and the charm of suburbs.
Significant efforts are being made to revive older sections of the suburbs that are closer to the city and have been abandoned as growth sprawled outward. An outdated shopping mall that has gained the reputation of being dangerous and dirty struggles to compete with the new large shopping malls built farther from the city. It will be replaced with 83 acres of mixed-use development and will include residential, retail, and office space, potentially reviving the surrounding neighborhoods, increasing property values, and restoring the area’s reputation.
A new town is being built at the edge of Richmond’s suburbs on an old train line. Based on New Urbanist principles, it will be built around a town center that will provide offices, schools, restaurants, and shops among and within walking distance of the residential neighborhoods, reducing or even eliminating the dependence on an automobile. Eventually, the old train line will be reinstated, providing rapid transportation to Main Street Station in downtown Richmond.
Another mixed-use development will include more square-feet of office space in the suburbs than claimed by the central business district in the city. This will alleviate rush hour traffic into the city every morning as jobs will be closer to homes.
It is the residential characteristic of suburbs – historically, bedroom communities that provide few employment opportunities and require residents to commute to cities to work – that create many of the problems associated with sprawl. Thoughtful approaches to planning and development can resolve problems such as income segregation, traffic congestion, long commutes, social inequalities, and inefficient land use.
I recently purchased strawberries at a national grocery store chain in Richmond, VA. They were grown in Irvine, CA – over 2,000 miles away.
I recognize arguments endorsing local produce such as reduction of oil consumption and support for small local farmers. However, I wonder if the subjective definition of “local” requires reconsideration. Advancements in technology including rapid and efficient transportation as well as knowledge of modern farming techniques allow farmers to produce crops in larger quantities and transport them to more distant areas than ever before. Rather than producing a variety of crops to sustain the local population, regions can now specialize in crops that thrive in specific climates while the entire world essentially becomes a market in which they can find their niche. I can buy strawberries from California, oranges from Florida, limes from Mexico, and apples from Virginia just like I can buy electronics from China, tea from India, and cars from Japan. With commerce and communication creating a global economy for many industries, why can’t the definition of “local” as it applies to produce farmers be expanded as well?
Exactly how many miles from my front door does my locality end and a neighboring locality begin?