A century of car-friendly zoning has put many miles between our suburban homes and work, shopping, and fun. If this is the land use pattern we really want, then why are "in-town" houses so much more expensive that ones on the outskirts of our cities? Witness West Hartford, where the region's well-to-do live on 1/10 acre lots for the sake of living "a little off center."
Recently, columnists such as the New York Times' David Brooks and the Hartford Courant's Tom Condon have written on the trend of urbanization within suburbia. Instead of spreading out, development in suburbs is beginning to contract and cluster. Some towns are adding mixed-use developments to their existing downtowns, thereby increasing the vibrancy of their town centers. In other towns, former big box stores and shopping centers are being rebuilt to reflect New Urbanist planning principles. Even your local mega-mall is trying to keep up by adding outdoor shopping options (so-called lifestyle centers) to the traditional enclosed space.
The positive outcome of this trend is that it offers new opportunities for people to live near where they shop and work, reducing the need for auto travel in a state where transit options are limited.
But it is unclear if this pattern will yield truly urbane spaces. First, because these developments are popping up in expensive suburban towns rather than our struggling cities, the housing that comes with them reflects the market price. Thus, in West Hartford's Blue Back Square, one-bedroom "lofts" cost about $1,600 per month, putting them out of the price range of pretty much anyone without a trust fund. Blue Back's success has also raised rents for surrounding apartments and made proximity to the center a key selling point. Walkability has become a luxury good.
Second, the rents for the commercial spaces are too high for most small business owners to afford, so the tenants will typically include chain stores appealing to the affluent middle-aged female consumer (think J. Jill and Ann Taylor). Ironically, the businesses that you would expect to find in an urban setting, like coffee shops, record stores and thrift shops, are priced out to the strip malls that high end tenants have vacated for the lifestyle center.
We are constructing walkable "downtowns" in the suburbs while ignoring our existing urban infrastructure. These new spaces are a choreographed version of what we imagine downtown used to be, rather than the dynamic and diverse space that it actually was.