Thursday, April 14, 2016

What's a city and what's a suburb, and what's their future?

Large totems mark the "center" of the Ballantyne development in south Charlotte. Photo: Google Street View
I've long been interested in how people use the terms "suburban" and "urban," because their definitions seem to wobble all over the map. Thanks to the state's formerly easy annexation law, the city I live in, Charlotte, has large areas well inside city limits places that in another metro area would be separate municipalities or unincorporated sprawl. People here call them "suburbs," though by some definitions they'd be "city," not "suburb."

But the issue of suburban vs. urban living is just as lively here as anywhere. So I've been interested to read two recent articles that tackle that broad topic, though in different ways.

First, Josh Stephens' review in the California Planning and Development Report of the latest Joel Kotkin book, The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us, dissects, or at least tries to dissect, what Kotkin means by "the rest of us." Who is his "us"? And why does he assume that everyone who lives in a suburban-form landscape does so by choice, rather than because of housing affordability or job location or doubts about schools?  Hat tip to Planetizen for alerting me to this excellent piece, Fetishizing Families: Review of 'The Human City.'

Next is an analysis from Daniel Hertz in the sometimes wonderfully contrarian City Observatory, about DuPage County, Ill., just outside Chicago. In "A Mystery in the Suburbs," he looks at the county, where growth in recent decades has been of the ubiquitous automobile-centric, focused on highways pattern focusing on highways. Once robust, in recent years DuPage has seen some siphoning off of economic energy, as companies move back to downtown. 

This put me in mind of Ballantyne, a large suburban-style development at the far southern reaches of Charlotte city
limits built over in the past 20 years. There is, in fact, more mixing of uses in Ballantyne than in most 1980s or 1990s developments, but it's in the style of houses here, shopping center there, offices across the street. It's jammed with cars and not at all walkable unless you like to get mowed down on multilane freeway interchanges or giant thoroughfares. The developers have just announced a vast new development at the far western edge of the city.

Hertz writes:  ... The spread-out nature of development means that no one bus line can have easy access to many homes or businesses either—and even someone who steps out of a bus relatively close to their destination has to navigate roads and parking lots that aren’t designed for walking. Partly as a result, the buses simply don’t come that often: at best, every 15 minutes at rush hour, which may be on the edge of acceptability for show-up-and-go service in the afternoon or late in the evening, but is a burden for someone who really needs to be on time for a job. Other buses come much less frequently, even at rush hour."

Gee, does that sound like anywhere I know? Charlotte's development pattern has made bus service difficult with the never-adequate funding available.

Hertz goes on: "Someone who wanted to commute to their job in DuPage County by transit would discover 26 rail stations which are probably within walking distance of neither their home nor their job, and a network of buses that aren’t much better, most of which come too infrequently to be reliable for very time-sensitive trips like a commute, and which require getting to and from stops that are located on roads that are hostile or dangerous for walking.

"In other words, the decisions of planners and developers over the last several decades have created a land use pattern that essentially locks in transportation choices for all future residents, who are now stuck commuting in ways they say they’d rather not. And DuPage, like other car-dependent suburbs around the country, may be losing some of its economic base as a result."

Is that the future of Ballantyne, 30 years out? Will Charlotte, seeing massive population growth, continue to wave into being more large, suburban-style developments at the edge of the city where transit service is at best iffy, and whose future may be less than anyone would wish?

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