Mayberry Wasn't a Subdivision
In between the big city and the sprawling suburb, there's the ubiquitous and neglected small town. Conservatives should champion it.
A point I often make is that alongside cities and sprawling suburbs, America is replete with another built form: small towns. Despite getting short shrift in a lot of urbanist conversation, small towns are “urban” too, at least much more so than conventional suburbs. As one Twitter interlocutor put it, urbanism is a matter of design more than of population.
Despite the fact that thousands of small towns dot virtually every region of America, it doesn’t seem to occur to a lot of defenders of the suburban status-quo that the basic form of these classic towns could be replicated or expanded, such that more people could enjoy the benefits of an essentially urban form without the intensity of a big city. We could either build new developments in a more classic, town-like form—like the New Urbanist projects of Seaside in Florida and Kentlands in Maryland’s D.C. suburbs—or we could reform the land use regime and financial incentives to expand existing towns rather than build car-oriented sprawl along their edges, or simply further and further out into the countryside. (To do the latter, it would also be necessary to convince small-town NIMBYs that new growth is okay, especially if it follows the existing built form of the place.)
Staunton, Virginia, population 24,000 (OK, more of a small city or large town!)
It’s always striking to me when I’m out on the road far from the D.C. area, usually in central or southwestern Virginia, and I drive through a little rural town with beautiful public and civic infrastructure, and, more to the point here, classically urban buildings which the vast majority of suburban zoning codes now prohibit. For some examples, check out a photo essay I did last November, driving four hours south on the Virginia stretch of U.S. Route 11.
This should be food for thought for those who see Manhattan or Levittown as the only archetypes for America’s built places, and especially for those who see any alternative to the suburban status quo as some kind of newfangled social engineering scheme. There are, in reality, few things more “American” than small towns.
Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania, population 4,000.
There’s a lot here—a Twitter thread I started on this subject got a lot of attention, as this general observation always seems to—but the purpose of this post is simply to point out the fact that there are thousands of places across America which nonetheless take a classic urban form and yet are not major cities. It should also be noted that long before zoning, many towns featured predominantly single-family house neighborhoods along with connected houses, neighborhoods with mixed housing options, and mixed-use commercial/residential downtowns. This suggests that the upzoning of single-family zones would leave many of them coherent and intact. It doesn’t make sense to put up apartment towers next to houses at random; in cases where this kind of thing does happen, it tends to result from odd incentives, not the mere fact that larger projects can be built by right. Strong Towns does a lot of good work on the wonky finances of large-project development.
Woodstock, Virginia, population 5,000. There’s a very strong possibility this building could not be built today per your community’s zoning code.
Expect more thinking through on all of this, as well as discussion in the comments. But I’ll leave you with this basic point: We can still build places like those in these photos, if we want to. And why, exactly, wouldn’t we want to?