Gateway Urbanism

New Urbanist developments may seem like facsimiles of actual downtowns, reserved for folks who don’t know what true urban communities look like. But as many people’s first exposure to walkability, they often serve a gateway to better things. So if urban planning were punk rock, town centers would be Green Day.

So not punk rock, but they’ll learn. Dan Reed

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This piece originally appeared on Greater Greater Washington.

People sometimes complain that “New Urbanist” or “town center” develop­ments like Maryland’s Downtown Silver Spring are fake and sterile. But these projects are to urbanism as Green Day is to punk rock. They may not be “authentic,” but if done well, they can get people to seek out the “real stuff” later on.

That’s what happened to me. When I was 13, I became increasingly curious about the outside world but had no real means to explore it. Then two things happened that would change my life.

First, I got a copy of Green Day’s Inter­national Superhits! And second, my friend had a birthday party at the Washingtonian Center, a “lifestyle center” in Gaithersburg, Md.

Between my parents, who listened to adult contemporary, and my friends who were getting into musical theatre, I was anxious to hear music I could actually relate to. Green Day was pretty easy to find: On the radio, on television, and in the halls of Blake High School, on t-shirts and patches sewn to jean jackets.

Their songs were fast and catchy, though as a preacher’s kid, I was initially horrified by the foul language. But I’d spent plenty of mindlessly dull afternoons like the ones Billie Joe Armstrong described in “Longview,” and was relieved to know someone else felt the same way.

Meanwhile, I’d never been to Washingtonian Center before the evening of the party. Walking felt like a punishment, something I did on those “Longview“ afternoons when I didn’t have a ride to any place more interesting. On those days, I’d walk 45 minutes to the shopping center closest to my parents’ house, down streets with look-alike 1950’s ranch houses and all while not seeing another person. It was boring, but slightly better than being at home.

At the Washingtonian Center, walking suddenly became something fun. We could walk from the movies to an artificial lake, then look in store windows on our way to dinner. And we could do all of this while being around and looking at other people. Not only was it better than sitting at home alone, but it was more fun than going to the mall.

I didn’t question Washingtonian Center’s authenticity at first, perhaps because I couldn’t yet tell the difference between it and a traditional downtown. But I definitely wondered why Green Day called themselves a “punk band,” which didn’t seem to describe a group who played stadiums. Punks, I imagined, were more likely found in places like Phantasmagoria, the grungy and now-closed punk club in Wheaton.

Washingtonian Center Lake. Credit: Dan Reed

But both of these experiences served as a sort of gateway to more “legitimate” pursuits. It’s because of Green Day that I made friends with similar taste in music who would later introduce me to “actual” punk bands like Fugazi or invite me to see their band play shows in punk houses. (The webcomic Nothing Nice to Say jokes that Green Day fans get into real punk out of embarrassment for liking Green Day.)

And it’s because of Washingtonian Center that I began to explore downtown Silver Spring before it became a new “town center” in its own right, and taking Metro into the D.C. to wander around there. I’ve always been interested in architecture, but it’s trips to places like Washingtonian Center which got me excited in the spaces between the buildings, which is why I’m currently in school for urban planning.

Much as I wouldn’t have gotten into real punk if I hadn’t listened to Green Day, I wouldn’t be so excited about walking down real city streets had I not walked down a fake city street first. So for that reason, I’m not bothered when a new development is compared to a small town or an Italian piazza. Some of these places are like the Good Charlotte of urbanism, unable to be even a good fake downtown.

But like a good punk song that can teach you to see yourself and your world differently, I’m convinced that a walk down a good urban street can do the same, whether it’s in a city or a suburb, old or new.

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Tags: washington dcbuilt environment

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