Architecture Lab

Can city life be exported to the suburbs?

With Town Center Projects, Can the Suburbs Challenge Cities Yet Again?
Can city life be exported to the suburbs?

photo by Jahi Chikwendiu / The Washington Post

…Instead of building more typical suburban developments, in the past two decades builders increasingly have been bringing city life to the suburbs and exurbs. Street grids are plotted around central plazas surrounded by condos, apartments and shopping. Public transportation is arranged, parking garages are hidden from view, and all the things that people love about D.C. and cities like it are layered on: public art, sidewalk performers, outdoor movies, street festivals, block parties and food carts.

The spread of “town center” projects, particularly in the Washington suburbs, is making it harder to distinguish what makes a city a city. The urban neighborhood has become an exportable commodity.

By the end of 2011, there were 398 such city replicas — town center or “lifestyle center” projects — in the United States, most of them built in suburbs, in exurbs or on farmland alongside a highway. Since the 1960s, developers had promoted suburban shopping centers as safe, clean escapes from crowded cities. But with urban living back in vogue since the late 1990s, developers are trying to create it outside city limits.

The titan of town center developments locally, and in many ways nationwide, is Reston Town Center, a walkable neighborhood that is one of the densest parts of Fairfax County and has become a smashing commercial success.

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