Suburbs first developed as small clusters of families living outside urban borders in the early 19th century. As mass transit evolved from horse-drawn omnibuses to motor vehicles, suburban developments expanded in size and distance from urban cores, creating layers upon layers of housing and commercial districts. World War I speeded up urbanization as rural youth got their first taste of the wider world and industry replaced farming as the country’s primary source of income.
The biggest suburban boom occurred after World War II when technology transfer introduced plastics and other war materials into every aspect of the American economy. It was economic development on steroids, and housing was the biggest growth industry, fueled by easy credit and construction incentives by the Eisenhower administration.
Then in 1956 came the Interstate Highway Act, and commuting from home in the suburbs to jobs in the urban core became a de facto lifestyle for millions of Americans.
Chapel Hill and Carrboro escaped some of that early frenzied development activity, in large part, I believe, due to our distance from an interstate highway. But then came 1988 and I-40 opened, making daily commutes to RTP more tolerable.
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Prior to I-40, we had our middle-class suburbs, such as Ridgefield, North Forest Hills, Dogwood Acres, but they were all short commutes to the UNC campus, the primary employer in southern Orange County. Each suburb was built in the style of the boom years with large lots, deep setbacks and ranch-style designs.
With the introduction of the “focus areas” concept in Chapel Hill 2020, those older neighborhoods became the target for infill and other redevelopment plans by town staff and external consultants. When projects in these areas come before the Town Council, it’s not neighbors rising in protection of their neighborhoods against the financial interests of commercial developers; it’s neighbors pleading with their own local government to protect their community life.
Curiously, the concept of community evolved from 19th-century-model suburbs that were intentionally designed to create harmony and balance for residents through shared living amenities. For today’s outsiders, those suburbs are simply clusters of housing that stand in the way of denser development, but for the people who live in them, they are neighborhoods, groups of people with some degree of commitment to share aspects of their lives with their neighbors.
The technical decision to zone an area for redevelopment is an altogether different issue from nurturing a cohesive community. The charter of the Congress for New Urbanism states, “We are committed to reestablishing the relationship between the art of building and the making of community, through citizen-based participatory planning and design.” In other words, the Congress of New Urbanism recognizes that technical land-use planning has to be mediated through recognition of the everyday needs and fears of residents.
Blind adherence to technical theory by town staff and elected officials has created a serious rift in the larger community of Chapel Hill, evidence of which can be found in the Town Council’s email archives, on the public blogs, and in the opinion section of this newspaper. The tone of that rift is sounding more and more like Washington, D.C. – accusations hurled back and forth with no real attempt at understanding the other side’s perspective.
How ironic is it that suburbs evolved to create a sense of community but are now the source of such community discord?