Sustainable Cities Collective has re-launched as Smart Cities Dive! Click here to learn more!

The New American City

Places like Silver Spring, MD confront us with unprecedented adjacencies and ground realities

With exploding global populations and awakening giants of the developing world, much of the talk around urbanization and new city form revolves around cities in Asia, Africa and Latin America. After all, these are places where cities are being built at lightning speed, often out of thin air. But here at home in the United States, a new type of city form is taking shape. Around many of our Gateway Cities like New York, Washington DC and San Francisco, are sprouting "New Cities", complete with their own infrastructure, neighborhoods, employment centers and cultural identity. I happen to live in one such place: Silver Spring, MD. Located at a 20 min train ride from the White House, it is home to the global headquarters of Discovery Channel and is a community under rapid transformation.

The timing of these "New Cities" is good, since in recent years there has been a resurgence of ideas of urban planning that promote mix of uses, walkability and transit oriented development. However, New Cities like Silver Spring confront us with many unprecedented realities that we must consider and analyze in depth before we rubber-stamp our current formulas for creating vibrant urban communities. These places are inherently different from Gateway Cities, Suburban Settlements or Rural Areas. They have a DNA of their own, which requires a more tailored response. Few distinguishing traits include:

1. Existing Settlement Patterns: Unlike our Gateway Cities, New Cities are not frontier settlements. There exist in most cases a low density pattern of development which is being intensified to create employment centers and attract new residents. This poses special challenges towards allocating density and intensive uses.

2. The Shifting Melting Pot: A more affordable cost of living coupled with jobs has attracted a great influx of immigrants into New Cities in the past decade. The ethnic and racial diversity which was the hallmark of pre WWII  Gateway Cities now resides in New Cities, making development interesting and challenging at the same time. What does a mixed use Main Street look like in a neighborhood with Latino, Haitian, Asian and African American and Caucasian populations?

3. Supercompressed Adjacencies (Think agricultural fields next to high rises next to train station next to regional parks next to employment centers next to national highways!)

4. Many New Cities come transit ready, be it metro, BRT or light rail systems.

5. New Cities already host an educated and engaged citizenry with a deep commitment and strong opinions about the future of their community.

While we may have improved the regulations for development in New Cities in the past decade, we still lack a fundamental understanding of the unique characteristics that make up these communities. Quite often, the desired outcome irreversibly erases the cultural identity and reduces the ecological wealth of these places to accommodate new development. The current system encourages growth based on the Gateway City model or discourages it altogether. It is time we look at New Cities like Silver Spring with a new lens. The United States has a rich history of urban planning adapting to meet the needs of the times. Why stagnate now? The New Cities carry incredible potential which we can unlock, only if we understand them better.