You Dropped This, King Farm
Can we still create beautiful places? Look in Rockville, Maryland
Sometimes people ask me what New Urbanism actually looks like, or what new construction I like. Or they ask me if density can be done well. Or other similar or related questions. They want concrete examples of the ideas I write about. I tell them: King Farm.
King Farm is a New Urbanist-style housing development with some walkable retail in a central spot, in Rockville, Maryland. It’s sort of a hybrid between urban and suburban; it’s far denser than a subdivision of detached single-family houses, but it doesn’t really feel like it.
The whole thing is absolutely lovely, and meticulously designed. It includes a broad mix of housing types, from detached single-family houses to townhomes to condominiums to apartments. The multifamily buildings come in all different shapes and sizes. Entrances face different directions; buildings form little courtyards. While the variety of types and sizes naturally opens up the community to a range of incomes, it’s not cheap; it’s one of those “desirable communities.”
There are very few new or recent developments that are this nice. So on the one hand, you can say, “Sure, if they were all like this…” But on the other hand, you can see that it is possible.
Another thing: per a 1990 Rockville law (and a county program on which it was modeled), between 12.5 and 15 percent of the units in developments over a certain size—in this case, 49—are required to be income-restricted. I believe Rockville still has this program, and Montgomery County definitely does. What this means is that King Farm, and generally any large development in these localities from the last couple of decades, includes residents of low or moderate incomes.
This idea is incredibly controversial in some quarters. It’s often characterized as an attempt to ruin the suburbs, the assumption being that poor people who end up in these nice communities will bring laziness and criminality with them. And that, consequently, nobody of means will want to live in these mixed-income developments.
This classist and often racially tinged idea ignores the fact that every community needs working-class people, who in turn have to live somewhere. It ignores the understanding that one of the problems with the massive public housing projects of the 20th century was that they effectively (in both senses) concentrated and warehoused poverty.
And, most of all, it ignores the fact that small percentages of affordable units manifestly do not “ruin” otherwise “nice” communities. I think the design matters too: to put it crudely, the design here bypasses the visual language that will tell some people, “Oh, poor people live here.”
You would never guess—if you think that poor people degrade a place—that King Farm has any at all. It proves not only that the philosophy of New Urbanism translates into everyday places, but that they can be for everyone, too.
At this point, I’ve seen a lot of new housing developments—mixed-use town centers, attempts at mixed-use town centers, lower-intensity New Urbanist-style developments, regular old subdivisions. King Farm is probably the one I still think about the most; the one that left an impression on me. The realization that this level of density can coexist with so much greenery and such a calm, peaceful atmosphere; that’s powerful.
It’s more than aesthetics, too. King Farm imitates the variety and scale of an old town—to some extent, that old commercial DNA. There’s visual variety here, which, more than variety, is something like texture. There’s a flatness and blankness to so much new stuff—buildings, devices, kitchens, home interiors—which translates into a kind of detached, bored, blankness in my brain. Something about the variety and texture of an old town, or a place like King Farm, engages me.
Strong Towns, which I reference a lot here, argues that this is something real. Think about how people tend to stick to edges. Think about how nervous a cat looks in an empty, bare room. I went to a talk by Charles Marohn in Greenbelt, Maryland, and he talked about “thigmotaxis”: the biological tendency towards wall-hugging. In a low, spooky voice, he added something like, “Even specimens in petri dishes stick to the edges.”
In other words, classical urbanism is something very deep: a physical expression of something built into us. Huh.
And looking at King Farm: huh, I think, again.
Thank you for reading! Please consider upgrading to a paid subscription to help support this newsletter. You’ll get a weekly subscribers-only post, plus full access to the archive: over 700 posts and growing. And you’ll help ensure more material like this!
Check out free and paid subscription options!