A Tale of Two Exurbs
Leesburg, Virginia, is the archetypal American exurb. Named after an ancestor of Robert E. Lee, it is the seat of Loudoun County, 35 miles northwest of Washington, D.C. -- the farthest true suburb west of Washington. To its west are small towns and a few remaining farms; to its east are highways lined with chain hotels, mega-malls, and the office towers of the defense contractors powering the recent growth in Northern Virginia's economy and population. In 2004, Loudoun was the nation's fastest-growing county, and median home prices were rising by about one-fifth every year. In 1990, Leesburg had only 16,000 people. Now it has 38,000.
Ask denizens of Leesburg what they love most about the town and they are almost certain to mention the downtown -- a quaint outpost of the antebellum South, with the requisite ancient diner known for its peanut soup. Downtown Leesburg is a small warren of narrow streets laid out at right angles with brick buildings housing shops on the ground floor and offices above. It evokes such devotion because it offers something in very short supply in Northern Virginia and completely absent from the rest of Leesburg: walkability, a mix of uses and, therefore, character.
The downtown is surrounded on all sides by an incoherent network of strip malls and subdivisions connected by mostly unwalkable roads. This is not an accident, and it is not just the invisible hand of the market at work. It reflects political decisions to zone residential and commercial space separately, to require that every new house have a parking space but not necessarily a sidewalk, and to build at low densities. In fact, without rezoning, it would be illegal to build the beloved downtown in Leesburg today.
"Americans have no choice [but to drive]," says Christopher Leinberger, a developer who wrote The Option of Urbanism: Investing in a New American Dream. "They are captive." Americans use cars for almost 90 percent of their trips -- with some unfortunate results. The decline of walking as part of Americans' daily routine has contributed to the obesity epidemic. The high cost of buying, maintaining, insuring, and gassing up a car for everyone over the age of 16 is a burden on American households. Our oil consumption amounts to an enormous foreign-aid package for Vladimir Putin, Hugo Chavez, and the Saudi royal family. Plus, it's bad for the environment. Transportation accounts for 32 percent of total carbon-dioxide emissions in the U.S.
There is a large unmet demand for walkable urban living. While less than 10 percent of the housing stock is walkable -- meaning that you can safely walk to shopping and mass transit -- in most metropolitan areas, academic research has found that roughly one in three Americans would prefer to live in a walkable urban environment. That is why housing in places such as San Francisco, New York, and Leesburg's neighbor, Washington, D.C., is so expensive and has been relatively insulated from the dramatic recent drop in home values. By contrast, the automobile-dependent Washington exurbs and even inner-ring suburbs have seen dramatic drops in housing prices. Between September 2007 and September 2008, the median home price plummeted by 44.7 percent in one exurban zip code in Woodbridge, Virginia, compared to a drop of only 3.9 percent in D.C.'s Adams Morgan neighborhood, which had a similar median home price to Woodbridge before the economic downturn. This is a trend repeated throughout the country. "The indications seem to be that the bulk of this housing crisis is on the fringe," Leinberger says. "The rule of thumb is that if the average of housing in an area has dropped X, then the walkable urban places closer in have been flat over the last year or two, and the fringe has gone down 2X."
But America is still overwhelmingly a nation of drivers. Most communities are simply not designed to allow, much less encourage, any other means of getting around, and mass transit alone will not solve the problem. The way streets and neighborhoods are designed can make walking even short distances impossible. To free Americans from their cars, governments will have to implement a different set of rules on land use, parking, zoning, and other sexy topics -- and not just in the bastions of bike paths where progressive leaders tend to congregate. As Joel Kotkin notes in Next American City, "Since 1950, more than 90 percent of all the growth in U.S. metropolitan areas has been in the suburbs." If the next few decades look anything like recent ones, the suburbs are where most of the new construction will be built.
The Washington, D.C., region demonstrates how suburban development can be managed -- or mismanaged. Many of the inner-ring 'burbs, such as Arlington, Virginia, and Silver Spring, Maryland, have areas with mixed uses and ample mass-transit links. While their residents generally own cars, many commute to work and even go shopping without them. Farther out, into newer suburbs, transportation without a car becomes increasingly impossible, as giant parking lots and wide roads that lack sidewalks predominate. Regional, state, and even federal transportation policy has created towns like Leesburg throughout the country -- towns that are simply unwalkable. I know because I tried.
In October, I did the unthinkable and went to stay in Leesburg, where my grandmother lives, without a car. After taking the commuter bus to Leesburg from Washington, D.C., I arrived in a massive gravel parking lot. Everyone jumped into a car and drove home, except for one or two bicyclists and a few people waiting to be picked up. For the car-less, these commuter buses are the only way into or out of Leesburg, save for one "reverse commuter" bus that goes to the nearest Metro station, roughly 40 minutes away. No trains stop here, no Greyhound station is in sight, and no buses come on the weekends. A cab to the Metro costs at least $60. Walking? Forget about it. The sidewalks are narrow and poorly lit, and cars whiz by without a buffer lane of parked cars to slow them down. It's enough to make pedestrians feel downright unsafe.
Even as Leesburg notionally committed to a more responsible land-use pattern in its 2005 town plan, it continues to zone undeveloped land at low densities. The standard in Leesburg is four units to the acre, although it is sometimes lower -- in contrast with a typical city block, which would have approximately 25 buildings per acre and possibly far more units if they were subdivided into apartments. Yet Leesburg actively discourages developers from building more sensibly. That is because the Town Council fears that dense plans will bring costly infrastructure needs, such as sewers, and that great suburban boogeyman, traffic. In 2007, one developer bought the right to build a mix of town homes and detached houses on an undeveloped property by paying to expand the arterial road that will serve it from two lanes to four. So to build denser in Leesburg, you need to give the town exactly more of what it does not need: wider roads.
The roads are already so wide that crossing any one of them is a life-threatening act -- a game of waiting for the right moment to run out into the road when no cars are coming, then stopping midstream and dashing back as gigantic pick-up trucks and sport-utility vehicles emerge from around the bend at alarming rates. It's like playing Frogger with your body. The problem of pedestrians attempting to cross these roads in Leesburg is so severe that the town government has taken up the issue. The main strip-mall shopping area -- home to a Wal-Mart and outlet stores -- sits on a six-lane highway bypass with vast distances between pedestrian crossings. People who live directly across the road have been known to run across the street rather than hike to the nearest crosswalk. The town decided to curb this threat to public safety not by making it safer to cross but by putting up a roadside fence. So now people jump over the fence to get to the Wal-Mart across the street.
This non-solution is what people want, at least according to Leesburg's mayor, Kristen C. Umstattd, a red-haired, bespectacled attorney who has been on the Town Council since 1992. "Making Leesburg denser, while it is something that is promoted by a lot of urban planners, is something that citizens of Leesburg have been very much opposed to," she says. "What people like about Leesburg is a small-town feel. They come here because they don't want to live in a highly dense urban area." It is an article of faith among right-wing ideologues that the growth of the exurbs proves that Americans are a lawn-loving people. As David Brooks writes in his 2002 Weekly Standard essay, "Patio Man and the Sprawl People," people move to cities like Leesburg "for the same reasons people came to America or headed out West. They want to leave behind the dirt and toxins of their former existence. … They want to move to some place that seems fresh and new and filled with possibility."
But there is little empirical data to back that up. Demographers and economists will tell you that main drivers of exurban growth are market pressures, such as the high price of living in denser, closer-in suburbs and cities and the increasing presence of jobs in far-flung office parks -- not an aesthetic preference for "fresh" places like modern-day Leesburg. Never mind that the exurb's highways and parking lots look and feel nothing like a bucolic small town.
It is understandable how Leesburg officials concluded that what people want is an automobile-dependent environment. Suburbanites are steeped in driving culture and often don't understand that piecemeal solutions, such as adding more parking or widening roads, only compound their dependence on cars. "One of the complaints we get is that people move in, they have a two-car garage, that counts for two parking spaces and a short driveway that could maybe fit two more, so they could maybe get four spaces, but what happens is the garage gets filled with the lawnmower and stuff and so they park in the driveway," says Terry Laycock, an administrator in the Loudoun County Office of Transportation Services. "So when they have visitors they park in the street, and somebody is complaining because they say, 'That's my parking space in front of my house.'" But in a town where people could walk a mile, instead of driving it, you would avoid the whole problem in the first place. When members of Leesburg's Town Council pushed to eliminate drive-through banks to improve the pedestrian experience, Umstattd says, "we had a fairly outraged citizenry, especially the moms in minivans with small children who wanted to keep everyone in the van and go through the drive-through." Leesburg residents may say that what they want is to keep the drive-throughs and not have to worry about their small children wandering out into a parking lot when they park to go into a store, but if they lived in a walkable community, where the bank was not in a giant, unsafe parking lot, the question would be moot.
In recent years, the City Planning Department has embraced slightly more forward--looking mixed-use developments, which have all been passed by the Town Council (even though Umstattd has voted against every major rezoning in Leesburg). Slowly, suburban developers are beginning to catch up to the increasing demand for living in a place where you don't have to drive to the store to buy a gallon of milk. Leesburg has rezoned several commercial areas in recent years to allow developers to put in some housing. But Umstattd sees such zoning decisions as leading toward the blight of overcrowding. "Every time we approve a new residential unit, we're putting 10 additional vehicle trips per day on the roads," Umstattd says. "And roads are a big problem here." By "problem" she means that they are too heavily trafficked, not that they are inhospitable to pedestrians. Umstattd claims she would prefer to see the space set aside for offices to reduce the daily traffic in and out of Leesburg by allowing more residents to work in the town. But in fact, allowing mixed-use developments should mean slightly fewer average trips per person because those people can walk to shopping. Driving to work is not the only kind of driving people do. Many residents -- retirees, telecommuters, homemakers -- don't commute to work at all, but they do run errands.
Umstattd notes that the developments she voted against would not have successfully replicated downtown Leesburg, anyway. And she's right. The new developments set aside one area for residential use and another for commercial; they are not vertically integrated like a traditional downtown, with a store on the ground floor, an office on the second floor, and an apartment on the third. "I think the downtown is very charming, so if you were to have new development that is what I'd want to see," Umstattd says. But she, like every Leesburg and Loudoun County planning official that I interviewed, seems to be waiting for private developers to propose this type of development -- she doesn't believe the Town Council should make it mandatory.
Despite Umstattd's defeatist attitude, not every exurb is as sprawling and unwalkable as Leesburg. Loudoun County planners need only to look to another D.C. 'burb to see what's possible when development happens differently.
Developer Joe Alfandre built Kentlands, a landmark exurban development in Gaithersburg, Maryland, 20 miles north of D.C., because, he says simply, "I'm not enamored with subdividing strip suburban development." He hired Duany Plater-Zyberk, the nation's leading firm for "new urbanist" design, which prioritizes the sort of mixed-use, walkable-town development that persisted for centuries but was abandoned in the 1950s. Since opening 20 years ago, Kentlands has become the most desirable place to live in its town.
Unlike Leesburg, you can get to Gaithersburg on weekends without a car, so I went on a brisk but sunny Saturday in November. From the Gaithersburg Metro station, I switched to a bus -- it comes every half hour and costs under $2 -- and rode out to Kentlands. The bus has several stops around the development. Upon getting out at the first one, I immediately noticed a radical difference from anywhere I had been in Leesburg, save for its historic downtown. There were people! Not just people inside their cars or houses but outside jogging and walking their dogs on the sidewalks.
Much of Kentlands is taken up with large, expensive-looking, single-family homes. But they are close together, so that the town has sufficient density to support walking and transit use. The houses vary in architectural style, but they have one common quality: They are not hidden behind a giant garage. Many of the homes have ample parking, but it is set either behind the house in an alleyway or alongside the house down a narrow path. Likewise, every tree-lined block has a sidewalk on both sides. There are cars parked along the road, creating a buffer between people and the moving cars and helping to slow traffic. The neighborhood is filled with little pocket parks and playgrounds, and I met parents with young children playing in them. The town has a central square lined with elegant brick row homes around a green space with a public swimming pool. Noticeably absent are the gigantic parking lots that make walking an unlikely choice in most suburbs.
In addition to demonstrating the commercial viability of new urbanism, Kentlands is a case study in the symbiotic relationship between walkable street design and mass transit. The construction of a walkable community generated such demand for transit that one existing bus was quickly rerouted to serve Kentlands and another was created in 1997. "Kentlands wasn't built around transit, but once it was built, it was so dense that it has easily adapted to that," Alfandre says.
The most essential innovation of Kentlands is that it contains shopping integrated with housing. Tiffany Donovan, a mother walking her children home from the playground, tells me that she walks with her husband to a French restaurant "because who wants to drive home after a glass of wine?" Most parents also walk their children to the local elementary school (which is named, naturally, after environmentalist author Rachel Carson). "It's a great place to grow up," says Matt Ficke, a University of Maryland student who grew up in Kentlands. "Everyone walks everywhere. It's perfect for trick or treating because all the houses are close together."
There are not only families with children 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. "Seniors are giving up their car keys but not moving to retirement homes," says Parris Glendening, a former governor of Maryland who runs the Smart Growth Leadership Institute.
Meeting this challenge is much easier in Kentlands than in the outer reaches of Loudoun County. Indeed, the Leesburg area is struggling to provide transportation for its senior citizens. "Some of the people [in eastern Loudoun County] bought their houses back in the '70s," says Nancy Gourley, who runs commuter services for the county. "They are older now, and they don't drive as much, but they want to stay in their home. That is one of the first pieces we're looking at in the transit plan is trying to get more transit in those communities." County officials hold out hope for a planned extension of the Metro into Loudoun, and they frequently mention it when asked what they are doing to increase alternatives to driving. But the Metro will stop about eight miles short of the center of Leesburg and will not do much to free its residents from their cars. For somewhere to be livable without a car, the mass transit must link walkable areas. That is not true of the residential towns in Loudoun, nor is it true of some of the office-park clusters in Fairfax County where many of its denizens work. If suburban commuter trains and buses run through areas that are hostile to walking, they only remove one driving leg of a commute -- they don't eliminate the need for a car.
Ideally, trains should be built in advance of, not after, residential and commercial development. That is how the subways were built in New York City a century ago, where they extended to the then-rural far reaches of the outer boroughs while the commuter train went to small towns that are now big suburbs. This allowed dense development nodes to spring up around the train stations. As a result, New York has the best mass-transit use in the nation: 57 percent of New York City commuters use mass transit to get to work, whereas 85 percent of the nation's workers need a car to get to their job. New York is also proof that traffic is good: Many of those commuters would drive were it not for Manhattan's density and resulting traffic snarls during business hours.
One lesson from Northern Virginia is that trains should be built below ground and along commercial streets. In the inner-ring D.C. suburbs of Arlington County, where the Metro's orange line runs below ground, there are walkable mixed-use areas around the Metro stations. But the next county out, Fairfax County, decided to instead build its section of the orange line more cheaply and easily: along the highway. Instead of clusters of apartment buildings and office towers with stores on the ground floor, the Fairfax Metro stations are surrounded by massive parking lots. "If you look at an aerial of these two counties," Glendening says, "the development in Arlington took a dramatically different approach than it did in Fairfax. Arlington officials had courage and did the right thing."
Cities and counties on the urban periphery can choose to be like Kentlands rather than like Leesburg, but it requires proactive effort. They need to zone for and give developers incentives to build at higher density, not at four units per acre. They need to zone areas for a mix of uses, not separate residential and commercial activities. They need to mandate that any new road be built with a sidewalk on both sides and that it have street parking to slow traffic and create a buffer zone for pedestrians. They need to require that commercial buildings face the major streets and sit at the front of their property, with parking tucked away behind the building. Most important, they must impose maximum limits, rather than minimum requirements, on parking. They could also put Kentlands-type zoning restrictions in place on land that is not yet in any developer's sights. That way, when developers come, they will have a choice: build a walkable, eco-friendly environment, or build nothing. Will the moms in minivans still complain about having to get out of their car to go to an ATM? Sure. But they may appreciate that their children can walk to school safely.
In many ways it is already too late for Leesburg. Tearing down its existing developments would not be practical. "Back in the 1980s and '90s Leesburg was really on the edge of civilization. Those kinds of questions weren't being asked by council members," Umstattd says. "What the developers said they wanted, that's what councils gave them."
The edge of today's civilization could be tomorrow's exurb. Despite the current state of the economy, plenty more Leesburgs are likely to be in America's future. According to a study by the Brookings Institution, half of our built environment in 2030 will have been developed from 2000 onward. We know the next generation of exurbs is coming, and we'd better plan for it.
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