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February 24, 2012



I was initially drawn to this blog post because I am from Northern Virginia and am often annoyed by the myriad of shopping centers and town centers that exist around my neighborhood. I really detest that I have no choice but to drive my car around to get anywhere and that everything is a mass-produced chain with few, if any, locally owned establishments. Will’s first sentence prompting me to “think back to your hometown’s historic district,” led me to scoff under my breath because there isn't anything close to resembling a historic district in my hometown. The closest historic area is thirty minutes (twenty minutes without traffic, not that that ever happens) from my house in Old Town Fairfax. Even Old Town Fairfax is bordered by shopping centers and contains stores like Subway and Starbucks. Very authentic.
I could relate to Will’s claim that the recent recession is in part due to the construction of commercial developments to meet the ever rising demand for living in the suburbs. Driving and riding around Northern Virginia over the past years, I have witnessed the continued construction of housing developments around these shopping centers and along major roads and highways. I am amazed at the number of homes they can fit in such small areas in such little time. I am not surprised to read that these developments are actually poorly constructed and demand for them has decreased. What I didn’t agree about in Will’s post, is the claim that building taller is the solution.
He cites Tysons Corner as a successful example of this. I can say from personal experience and familiarity with the area that this is not the case. Despite having many tall buildings, Tysons Corner is one of the most crowded and congested areas in Northern Virginia. There is no shortage of people driving and because there is such a visible presence of the automobile, few people find it safe to walk. I do think that the construction taller buildings can be successful in some more urban communities, bit I cannot imagine this trend taking place in suburban areas.
As we create new developments and shopping centers, I agree that denser and taller infrastructures can be successfully utilized. It is possible that they can encourage less driving, a greater sense of community, and even healthier communities. However, as we heard in the mixed-use group’s presentation to our class, existing developments like these have not been around long enough to prove that any of these predictions would actually occur. Similarly, research that does exist is contradicting and inconclusive. I believe that more time and research needs to be given to existing dense and mixed-use developments before it is deemed to solution to shopping centers and sprawling communities that rely on them.

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The idea of suburban ‘placelessness’ and how suburban landscapes are set in opposition to urban environments really interests me. I am especially interested in the decline of first-tier suburbs, or inner-ring suburbs. These areas seem to be defined both using the timing of their development as well as their geographic location. These are the earlier suburbs, which are close in proximity to the downtown or central city, which developed before the extreme suburban expansion in the mid- to- late twentieth century. Current literature explains that these suburbs are beginning to show signs of problems similar to those in central cities. There is disinvestment in these areas, a population decline and old building stock.
Smart growth policies are starting to consider the role of these suburbs in determining new growth patterns. Growth boundaries are focusing new growth in these areas as a way of slowing and containing suburban sprawl. The infrastructure exists; they are usually not far from the city, they could provide transit opportunities. I know there are several nonprofit organizations that have been created to address issues in these inner-ring suburbs. The First Suburbs Consortium is a group for suburbs around Cleveland, Ohio that works to promote residential and economic vitality in these areas. Further research on the type of work these organizations do and how it influences growth patterns would be interesting. Is urbanizing the area, growing taller and denser, the primary focus? Or is economic and community development the priority? Will these once suburban areas become physically urbanized? If not, what public spaces can be created to promote the social vitality that is sought after?
This brings me to my second point. The emphasis in this post is on the built environment. I think it is important that we do not dismiss suburbs as nonplaces. What I mean by this is that there can be no formal understanding of a non-entity. And the sometimes bland suburban landscapes are easily dismissed as lacking a sense of community (in the traditional sense). I am reminded of Rehema’s post entitled “ Community Space, Community Activism: Lessons Learned from Sesame Street.” This post on Sesame Street highlights the value of having a physical space that provides the setting for frequent and informal interactions among residents. In the case of Sesame Street, it’s a mixed use city street. In the case of the Union Project Rehema describes it’s a church and its surroundings. My question is what about the places that aren’t in an urban setting? How have communities adapted to the physical environment that emphasizes the car instead of the pedestrian?
As we have learned in the final presentations for the class, generation Y and baby-boomers prefer urban environments. Generation Y seems to be on a path where settlement in a suburban neighborhoods will come later. But suburbs are still a significant part of the American landscape. How do we address the issue of community space and involvement in areas that aren’t and will not urbanize?

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