Last week, I was visiting family in the D.C. area, and I was reminded how much the population density has increased in the surrounding suburbs compared to when I was growing up. If nothing else, the traffic is becoming worse and worse (it’s even become more congested over the last few years–an advantage of returning home at intervals is that I can view this change as a discrete phenomenon rather than as a gradual increase).
A problem with suburbs is that, even if one wanted to add high-density, lower car-use housing, such as putting apartment buildings in places where residents can walk to basic amenities and restaurants, how does one go about doing this? (One thing that complicates this are housing and zoning regulations, but I’m assuming, for the sake of argument, that there is general consensus on the need to add such housing.) Consider ‘old’* McLean (VA):
Directly above and below the “Google A” are two shopping centers (you can use the cars to give you an idea of distance). In the upper one, there are a lot of stores, a supermarket, and restaurants–kinda like my urban hellhole. It would actually be a good place to live. In fact, the building bracketed by Lowell Ave. and Emerson Ave. is a high-end apartment building. But the lower center isn’t very frequently visited: there’s an auto parts store, a hardware store (which is essential–my urban hellhole has two within a ten minute walk), and a discount book store. Basically, the back half of that parking lot is wasted space.
If one wanted to turn that space into high-density, lower car-use housing, how does one do it? (It gets more complicated as Chain Bridge Road is a five-lane road, although speeds aren’t very high on this section due to a lot of traffic lights). Well, I present to you the Urban Sprawl Repair Kit. I like these ideas:
Because short of carpet bombing the suburbs (not desirable), we can’t start over. The name of the game is intelligent infill. To be clear, I’m not advocating that we turn suburbia into midtown Manhattan. But if suburban areas want to grow–and if they don’t, then they’re just shifting the problem outward–they need to figure out how to not only cram more people in, but do so in a way that minimizes car use.
*I was shocked to hear someone who moved to the area recently describe this as ‘old’ McLean. I remember when there were still farms and very few traffic lights–there was just McLean.