Reston Town Center, Reston, Va.
Reston Town Center, Reston, Va.

Readers of this blog will know that I’m an advocate for places where one can get about on foot, by bike, and on public transportation. I often lament our inability or disinterest in building new places that match the walkability of pre-WWII cities and towns. So when developers do make the effort to capture and replicate that old urban magic, I’m inclined to approve. The trouble is, I’ve yet to see a new “town center” development that really gets it right.

Fine as they may look on paper—with housing, shopping, transit, and schools in walkable proximity—town center developments share a certain commercialized, artificial quality. I find real downtowns energizing; town centers often leave me feeling numb and alienated, despite the real improvement they represent over the traditional suburban model. I want to root for them, but I find myself doing the opposite. Apparently, I’m not alone in this. Will Doig has written an incisive piece on why what he calls “faux cities” fall short of the mark—and why they are still a step in the right direction.

… as much as these urban simulacra might be an improvement over the sprawl they’re  jury-rigged into, you don’t have to be Jane Jacobs to see that many are not what we’ve always thought of us “urban.” If anything, they reflect suburban ideals contorted (sometimes painfully) into vaguely urbanish form, a Frankenstein of supermarkets, outdoor dining, parking lots and mock-cobblestone sidewalks.

Is there anything wrong with that? Not necessarily. The suburbs are changing — fewer than one-third of suburban homes now have children, and empty nesters are looking for more shared spaces. “Suburban life has always been oriented around school, but now you’ve got people who want more social connectivity in their lives and they’re finding that urban places give them that opportunity,” says Ellen Dunham-Jones, a professor of architecture and urban design at Georgia Tech … She also points out that some of these [walkable urban places] are replacing obsolete shopping malls, and that the outdoor-mall quality of them could itself be an adaptation to a societal change: the ubiquitousness of air-conditioning. “When malls first started, nothing was air-conditioned,” she says. “That’s part of why you went to them. Today it’s reversed. Most of us spend all our time in air-conditioning, and we want to spend our leisure time shopping or dining outdoors.”

Then again, malls didn’t purport to offer an urban experience — they didn’t have condos or office space, and only later did they add amenities like bowling alleys and movie theaters. That’s why Daniel Malouff, editor of the blog BeyondDC, sees these WalkUPs as more like “starter cities” for suburbanites. “A place like Reston can introduce people who have grown up with suburbia to the idea of urbanism,” he says.

Whatever my tastes say, the market value of walkable places points to an increase in town center development. The form itself will inevitably evolve with time, and town center developments themselves will change with age and use. That leads me, in moments of weakness, to entertain a kind of Velveteen Rabbit dream for such places: Given enough love, “faux cities” will, like the little stuffed rabbit, become real. It’s a longshot, I know, but one can always hope. –B.D.S.