Walkable Suburbanism

Last weekend I traveled south to Virginia Beach for a quick weekend vacation. I'd never been to the area, and aside from the oceanfront, I was curious to see what the city itself had to offer. The Hampton Roads metro area is surprisingly big. It's the 36th largest in the U.S. and roughly the size of the Austin, TX and Indianapolis, IN metro areas.

The beach itself was about exactly what I expected - miles of sand and boardwalk with more than enough hotels and tourist attractions dotted along the way.

(from Michael Buck on Flickr)

The boardwalk and parallel bike path made the area quite pleasant. For the most part, I've found that tourist destinations are walkable and pedestrian-friendly. The oceanfront would be a completely different place if the boardwalk were instead an 8-lane highway. Fortunately enough, it isn't.

Virginia Beach's "downtown" is another story. Technically in the central business district, the Virginia Beach Town Center feels nothing like the downtown of any other city I've been to. It actually feels a lot more like the suburban "lifestyle centers" that I've critiqued in the past. Now, is the area walkable? Yes, absolutely - after you've driven there and parked. Even though I was staying in a hotel about a half-mile away, there was no other realistic way of getting to the area except by private vehicle.

(from ohdearbarb on Flickr)

In urbanist circles, there's a lot of chatter about walkable urbanism; but what exactly does that mean? A place can be walkable, but that doesn't mean it's urban.

One of the reasons I've had such mixed feelings about Arlington, VA is that it's walkable, but it isn't urban. In theory, Clarendon and Dupont Circle are very similar neighborhoods. They have a lot of the same stores and restaurants and they're both walkable and transit accessible; they just feel like totally different places.

I think there's a distinction to be drawn between walkable urbanism and walkable suburbansim. Walkability is a small piece of a much bigger pie. We can build walkable places virtually anywhere we want. Building a city, and making it actually look and feel urban... that's a much bigger challenge.