Forgive me if, after living in a small town for seven years, I have forgotten exactly what “walkable urbanism” means.
I walk every day on the sidewalks in my town of 1,500 people. Sometimes I’m just walking for recreation, and other times I want to get to the convenience store, post office, or one of several restaurants. It’s more of a bicycle trip to reach the grocery or drug store one mile away, but these destinations are also walkable.
But being a 40-minutes drive from the nearest city and an hour from the state capital, my small town surely doesn’t qualify as “urban.” Not by the definition used in the recent Urban Land Institute report, Housing in the Evolving American Suburb, which assumes walkable urbanism takes place mainly in or near the downtown of a major city.
The report further asserts that the dream of walkable urbanism can only be achieved by living in a tiny house or an apartment, given the high price of land and housing in these areas. If a young person or couple wants an affordable single-family home with a yard, they will have to settle for living in a fringe suburban setting, removed from commercial and civic amenities, and even access to sidewalks.
“… 'Walkable urbanism' has become somewhat of a luxury good that many households will not be able to afford … for many households the opportunity to walk to stores and restaurants will probably lose out to even higher priorities,” the report states.
I have observed walkable urbanism created out of nothing recently in some semi-rural areas here in Virginia such as Old Trail, a development west of Charlottesville, a metro of about 150,000 people; or in Spotsylvania Courthouse, 12 miles from the city of Fredericksburg. But these new neighborhoods are not really affordable to average working people. I suppose their developers are able to include walkability and a mix of commercial uses because there is significant demand in those locations from middle-class buyers.
But if true affordability can’t be achieved in these from-scratch places, why not build more around towns like mine? Many people who live in my town commute to Charlottesville or Richmond for work and specialty shopping, but their basic needs can still be fulfilled within a very short drive, or even by foot or pedal.
Well, there are at least two big problems with my proposal.
First, we don’t have much infrastructure. An ambulance can barely get through town now on the one through road. We couldn’t handle a significant increase in traffic. Second, people who live here enjoy the tranquil, small-town feel, and why ruin it by attracting urban and suburban refugees? (Pardon the politically charged term, but that’s what is being created with the country's affordability crisis.)
Some might also object to encouraging growth in rural small towns that are remote from metro areas due to the financial and environmental cost of transportation. Certainly the potential for longer commutes and greater gas usage is something to take seriously.
And as bad infrastructure goes, it should be said that many new exurban, single-family developments run into the same problem of undersized roads and poor access, a problem that only gets remedied after the traffic approaches a standstill.
Unfortunately for my idyllic vision, few people are moving to our town anyway. The town’s flaw (or advantage, depending on one’s point of view) is that it is 8 miles off the Interstate. Most growth is occurring around one of our four Interstate exits, where a town didn’t exist before. But in that location, there is no older, affordable housing stock for young families alongside the new, gleaming apartments and mansion homes. And walkability is minimal.
I guess, given the obvious drawbacks, my little pocket of walkable urbanism will remain isolated, a beacon of hope only to me. But if anyone else wants to try this version of the charmed life, there may be many small towns within reach of urban areas around the country that would be good places to settle.
(Image: Village of Beulah, courtesy of the Michigan Municipal League, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)