Friday, November 30, 2012

Lost in Cary, an American suburb

I was amused recently by an article about the state's über-suburb, Cary “Lost in Cary? Officials hope to show the way.”  It seems people get lost there a lot.

If you’re not familiar with Cary, it’s a municipality just west of Raleigh. With 135,000 people, it’s now the state’s seventh largest municipality, bigger than the historic port city of Wilmington and furniture-famous High Point. But because Cary has grown so dramatically during the past few decades America's age of suburban-style growth it doesn’t really have what most of us would think of as a downtown.

Bing Maps view of Cary Town Hall in “downtown” Cary
 “We used to hear a lot of people say that they didn’t know Cary had a downtown, they didn’t know where it was, particularly from people who said they didn’t live in Cary,” the News & Observer article quotes Cary  Planning Manager Philip Smith as saying.

The article also says the town has set aside tens of millions of dollars to make its downtown a destination again, not just to west Cary but to the entire region. “The plan is to seed the old town heart with arts and cultural venues, a new reason to make a half-hour trip across Cary,” the article says.

It’s a dilemma for more places than just Cary. Cornelius and Huntersville, two robust Charlotte suburbs in northern Mecklenburg County that began their lives as hamlets along a railroad line and sprouted vast subdivisions and strip shopping centers, have each been trying to build something like a downtown for a couple of decades now.  The Charlotte suburb of Harrisburg, perched just over the Cabarrus County line from UNC Charlotte, took a stab at building a downtown-type center, too. Heres what the website I run,, reported earlier this year about Harrisburg's town center: “Harrisburg N.C.: In search of a town center.”

Can Cary figure out how to make different parts of the town look different enough so that people don’t get lost? Should it? I have my own ideas (you’ll not be surprised to learn!) but I wonder what others think. I should also note here that Cary has had a reputation among many of North Carolina’s planners as a well-planned municipality.

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