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First Impressions, Raleigh/Durham
"It feels crowded for no reason"
I don’t like the Raleigh/Durham suburbs in North Carolina.
That was my conclusion back in 2019, when my wife and I visited a friend who was living there at the time. We were getting ready for a fishing trip down in Wilmington, and it felt like we were going back and forth for miles. I got the feeling that it was a kind of centerless, spread-out place, with constant low-level traffic and wide, dangerous roads. I thought maybe I was being unfair, though, and in any case my friend was doing most of the driving.
We were back there again last week bringing my wife’s cousin from China to UNC Chapel Hill, and I was curious how the area would feel to me this time—doing all the driving myself, and a lot of it. We were there for a week, and we spent a fair amount of time off campus, at stores and restaurants and what-not.
Well, I had the same exact impression as the first time, but even more so.
People say Northern Virginia doesn’t feel like a “real place”; the Raleigh/Durham suburbs make Northern Virginia feel like a tight-knit small town. As we drove from Walmart to Home Depot to a restaurant to campus to Walmart again and back to campus—moving into college is never a one-and-done deal—I got this uncanny, almost eerie feeling, the suburbanite’s equivalent of being a hamster in a wheel.
Everything is distant and separated. There’s a freestanding Walmart in the middle of a sleepy little rural area; 5-over-1 apartments right up against four- or six-lane stroads; massively overbuilt crossings and intersections that take five or 10 minutes to traverse in a car; high-rise office buildings towering over nothing. A sense of emptiness, but also of claustrophobia. “It feels crowded for no reason,” my wife observed. 100 percent. Even things very close feel very far away.
Shina Shayesteh at Strong Towns captured this feeling memorably back at the beginning of this year:
American suburbs are full of ugly, empty, liminal spaces: spaces you are not meant to linger in or enjoy. They’re the creepy hallways of the built environment, and you can’t feel comfortable traversing them unless you’re zooming past them in a car. Why should we fill our cities and towns with places like this? Would you want to live in a house full of empty hallways? I wouldn’t.
This rings so true to me. It’s related, maybe, to the impression that places like this feel like movie sets. Everything is built all at once, it’s all shiny and new, and it’s all going to fall apart. Very little of it is built to last, to become a landmark or a first phase of building a place. We just keep eating up land at the edges, duplicating the same spread-out, low-rise stuff until it takes an hour to drive to anything that looks or feels different.
It’s difficult to put these feelings exactly into words. It’s true that Northern Virginia is pretty car-dependent, and has pretty bad traffic. Its land use is very typically suburban. Yet I don’t really get this feeling at all, nor, importantly, did I get it when I first explored and started living there. What’s so different about the Raleigh/Durham suburbs and Fairfax County?
Well, when I think of it, there is one area of Fairfax County I don’t care for; the south-central part, which looks like this.
The thing about this area, and about the Raleigh/Durham suburbs, is the traffic is elevated, despite the area looking sparsely developed. I’ve come to see that by spreading out residential and commercial development, we’re creating far more traffic than we need to. If every errand generates a 10-minute car trip, you’re going to have a traffic problem. The area isn’t overbuilt or overcrowded; it’s not crowded enough.
We’re missing something if we just imagine a binary of car dependent vs. walkable. You have to drive in most places in America. Most people aren’t going to walk to the grocery store. This is also a question of how much, how far, and how often you have to drive.
Here? Everywhere, all the time. The roads feel overbuilt relative to everything else, and even the Chapel Hill area around the UNC campus feels underbuilt. There are so many small one-story buildings, some even vacant and derelict. The whole region feels crowded but underbuilt.
There are decent bus routes in the Raleigh/Durham area, but no rail transit (but a failed light rail project). I appreciate how much the D.C. Metro, which extends pretty far out into Maryland and Virginia, imposes a certain order on the pattern of development. Here in the Raleigh/Durham area there isn’t—or at least there doesn’t appear to be—much rhyme or reason to where or how development has proceeded over the last couple of decades.
The feeling I just kept getting was one of artificial distance. Some people perceive that as open space, I think. They see that as worth it to have to drive everywhere. I see countryside that has been spoiled just a little bit; not enough to turn it into a real city or even a cohesive built environment, but just enough to ruin its original appearance and function. There are just these vast areas of sort-of-developed land.
Simply putting more housing units more or less randomly in the middle of this adds density, but it probably isn’t going to make it feel more like a place. The pattern is just not built for that. Maybe NIMBYs in places like this basically understand that.
I don’t really know how you fix this. Maybe most people here would take offense at the idea that it should be fixed. And I’m sure there are people who love this metro area, and I’m sure I’d get used to it if I lived there.
But frankly, I found it kind of lonely and depressing. It’s all grown so quickly, too; we passed a shuttered grocery/hardware combination store, just a few minutes away from our Sichuan hotpot restaurant. This is suburbia on a level I’m not used to—coming from central New Jersey and the D.C. suburbs. I’m kind of amazed by that.
Now I’m sure I’m simplifying things here, so I’m curious, if you live in or are familiar with this area, what you think about housing/transit/land use/urbanism here!
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