Urban Manifesto

I’m continually amazed with Man’s desire to have his cake and eat it, too.

I hate urban sprawl – absolutely. I hate seeing perfectly good land get swallowed up by shopping malls, townhouse developments, car dealerships, and tepidly unoriginal chain restaurants. It saddens me to see Midlothian and Richmond’s West End turn into miniature versions of Northern Virginia, locked in horrible traffic and a suburban staleness which characterizes such rapid commercial development.

Recent figures put Virginia’s population growth rate around 5.4% – that’s about 380,000 people a year! Even if we cut that in half we’re talking about a huge net increase in population in my home state. Where do most of these new people go? Urban centers like the DC metropolitan area, the 757 area code, and of course, Richmond, VA.

Unfortunately, this burgeoning collection of new residents doesn’t want to live in the urban centers where they seek jobs. The native Virginians don’t want to either. “Too much crime!” they cry. “Too much noise! Too filthy! To expensive!”

So those who can afford it move outside of the city. This actually hurts in two ways. First (and so huge a topic on it’s own that I’ll not address it here in depth), the city itself starts to decay. Land values drop because more people sell than buy. The two-fold decrease in property taxes (fewer residents and lower values collected) causes city budget issues which harm city schools and infrastructure. Thankfully, my fair city of Richmond is in a state of gradual renewal with increasing numbers of young people preferring the character of the city to the vanilla suburbs.

Of course, the more sinister effect of this urban exodus is the so-called urban sprawl. These city workers who want nice yards and picket fences now have to drive a further distance to their place of employ. That’s more pollution, folks, especially since the “rugged individualism” fostered so strongly by our culture keeps us from being comfortable in a good-old-fashioned car pool. And don’t forget that these suburbanites don’t want to drive more than five minutes to do their shopping! So smart retail executives build shops of all sorts in the suburbs. Pretty soon the service industry moves out to the suburbs as well, and you know what? Business in general starts to add to the sprawl. What was once a nice green space is now a densely-populated traffic hell with more petty crime and even a few run-down strip malls closer to the city where the growth started. Suddenly, people in these “suburbs” start looking for more open space and move further out…

And so on.

New construction and development in the city is an easy prospect in my mind (though not necessarily cheap). People expect commercial development, and when you’re in the city, you don’t typically worry about bulldozing farmland to make way for an apartment building or a sky scraper. I don’t mind this sort of development so long as you’re not pushing people out (which is yet another topic). In fact, I love seeing dilapidated structures and districts replaced with vibrant new areas to explore.

But then we have the suburbs. Even in such a crowded, bland, sub-divided wasteland as Western Henrico County, people would sooner build characterless town house developments a little further out instead of building a single condo or apartment building that’s over four stories tall in an existing developed area. A lot of the people who decry the building of tall structures in these “suburban” areas mischaracterize the concept of urban sprawl when they try to keep the city from coming to them.

Well I say stop building further from the city. I say shut up about tall buildings and denser building plans in these areas. I say build up, not out.

A good example of what I’m talking about is the forthcoming West Broad Village development in Short Pump. Sure this is an upscale, exclusive, corporately planned (by the warm and friendly sounding Unicorp, no less) venture, but they get lots of things right about this such as mixed use space, more densely contained living arrangements (more like the Fan than Brandermill), and a design based on a walkable community. They also plan to have a few towers over 10 stories to house a hotel and office space. Yes, the old farm land that use to sit between West Broad Street and Three Chopt Road is now a collection of berms and dirt, but a series of taller office and apartment buildings clustered in the middle of an already heavily developed section of town will help stem the tide of further suburban spread – not add to it. Imagine how much smaller Innsbrook would be if the buildings were all 10 stories or more!

But no. The citizens of Henrico County don’t want tall buildings in their collective back yard. So what if the immediately surrounding area consists of office buildings, car dealerships, highway ramps, and retail space as far as the eye can see. It’s too “urban.” Well thankfully, plans are moving forward anyway.

Will developments like this solve the problem of urban sprawl? Of course not. But it’s my hope that people will stop crying for the loss of their view or the loss of a few acres of grass in the middle of suburbia, and start building up. Otherwise, we’ll be weeping for the loss of a few million acres as the population continues its spread out into the surround farmland of the Old Dominion state.

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