Urbanizing suburbs often suffer from an identity crisis, looking to the big city next door and wondering how to recreate the same vitality and sense of place. But they might find a better comparison with more distant Sunbelt cities, which like many suburbs are only now coming into their own.
Take Raleigh, where I spent 5 days last month with my boyfriend and his friend’s family, who moved there from Bethesda last year. While it’s best known as North Carolina’s state capital, we found a lot of fun things to do there. We saw a drag show at a downtown bar. We ate at crunchy, farm-to-table restaurants and Vietnamese holes-in-the-wall.
We also spent a lot of time in our friend’s car. She and her newly-retired parents live in a new townhouse development off a strip lined with shopping centers, megachurches and similar-looking townhouse developments. My boyfriend said it reminded him of Fairfax or Montgomery counties, except it’s all within Raleigh city limits. And our friend’s parents don’t hesitate to say they live in a city, either.
Is there really much of a difference between a “city” like Raleigh and a “suburb” like Montgomery? Both grew up mostly after World War II. In 1940, the city had just 46,000 residents, but today, it has 423,000 people, while surrounding Wake County has nearly 1 million residents. During the same period, Montgomery County grew from from 83,000 to over 1 million.
Downtown Bethesda. Raleigh’s built form isn’t that different from many of our area’s suburban downtowns. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.
As a result, both places have a distinctly suburban, auto-oriented character, save for a few urban centers. Look at an aerial photo of downtown Raleigh and it could pass for Bethesda or Silver Spring: a clump of tall buildings, surrounded by miles of single-family homes. New town centers are sprouting along the Beltline, Raleigh’s answer to the Beltway, while new planned communities sprawl beyond it.
But the difference is that Raleigh embraces its status as a city, while Montgomery County is more hesitant.
Downtown Raleigh bursts with new music venues and restaurants. Planning director Mitchell Silver talks about pushing transit and making Raleigh “one of the world’s attractive cities.” A student at NC State made signs encouraging people to walk more and posted them around the city, while a group of designers and artists started a T-shirt line inspired by the city’s history and culture.
Raleigh doesn’t resemble older, traditional cities like New York or Chicago, and despite its aspirations to become a more urban place, it will never become a New York or Chicago. But it attracts ambition and creativity and civic pride like a big city, even if many of its residents live a very suburban lifestyle.
That’s the lesson for places like Montgomery County. Like Raleigh, people here live in and seek out different kinds of communities, ranging from urban to suburban to rural. While some folks continue to insist that it’s an exclusively suburban, homogeneous place, we can easily hold our own against places that happen to call themselves cities.
Montgomery County already has better transit than Raleigh and a biotechnology hub that some compare to the Research Triangle. There are as many or more people working in downtown Bethesda and downtown Silver Spring than in downtown Raleigh. and after 5pm, Bethesda is a much livelier place. And judging from the bland banh mi I had at that Vietnamese place, Wheaton has vastly better ethnic food.
But Montgomery County and Raleigh also face many of the same challenges. We both seek to welcome new immigrants and serve growing low-income populations. We both want to encourage investment in older, close-in neighborhoods and make it easier to get around without a car. And both places are known for pushing school equity, even if it’s thwarted by de facto segregation or a Tea Party school board.
As both places grow and evolve, they have as much if not more to learn from each other than from historically urban places.
Montgomery County isn’t a collection of small towns or bedroom suburbs anymore. It’s functionally a city of 1 million people that grew from an older, more traditional city. And if we’re going to continue to grow and prosper, a little city swagger wouldn’t hurt.