Christopher Leinberger, a professor at the George Washington University School of Business. Using the Washington, D.C., area as a model, Leinberger finds tremendous pent-up demand for more housing in denser, mixed-use, Walkable Urban Places — or WalkUPs, as he dubs them.
So far, that’s nothing that the average home hunter couldn’t have figured out by noting that a Dupont Circle two-bedroom costs more than whole house in Woodbridge, Va., right? Except here’s the rub: These WalkUPs don’t have to be urban at all. They can be waaay out in cul-de-sac country — and most of them are. “Only 42 percent of the WalkUPs are in the District of Columbia,” finds Leinberger. “A surprising 58 percent are in the suburbs.”
But 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.
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.
Does density and walkability alone make something urban? Though these outer-ring WalkUPs display many of the technical metrics of a city, most have an unmistakable suburban flavor. “When you go to Tysons Corner and you don’t mistake it for a real downtown, there are two reasons,” says Nathan Norris, director of implementation for the planning firm Placemakers. “One is the nature of the blocks — they’re what we call super-suburban blocks,” meaning they’re many times larger than your average city block, which has a perimeter of around 1,800 feet. Why does that matter? “Because humans, we bore easily,” says Norris. “If I have to walk too far without seeing something different, I’m going to be bored. A bit part of urbanity is not boring the humans.”
Which leads to the second problem: transparency. Many city codes dictate that as much as 75 percent of buildings’ ground floors must be non-tinted, non-mirrored windows. Parts of these suburban WalkUPs have that — especially the mall-like sections — but many do not, leaving long stretches of shrubbery-adorned blank walls facing the sidewalks (and the parking lots). “No windows has the effect of killing street life,” says Norris. Creating an urban place is about more than simply adding mixed-use density and places to stroll.
They’re also often exceedingly tidy, sometimes because they’re controlled by a single developer who manages a private maintenance crew and sets rules about behavior. And WalkUPs that are built from scratch usually have few mom-and-pop stores, thanks to high rents and contracts offered to tenants promising no competition.
For all of these reasons, many of these far-flung suburban WalkUPs resemble a suburban version of a city. You can see the identity crisis at work: The WalkUP in Reston “is ringed by parking garages,” says Malouff. “There are buses that go there, but they’re not used very widely. People drive to get there.”