Cherry blossoms in a Gaithersburg parking lot. Image by the author.

Communities hoping to recreate the charm of a walkable main street often sidetrack themselves by focusing too much on things that don't make much difference, like insisting on brick sidewalks or lush landscaping. Those extras can be nice, but they're far less important than getting right the fundamentals of walkable urbanism.

Gaithersburg, for example, prides itself on its small town charm. Planners there work hard to make the community as attractive as possible. But Gaithersburg's bones are mostly suburban-style, and as long as you're dealing with strip malls and parking lots, there's only so much you can do.

Sure, the bricks and the cherry blossoms look better than bare asphalt and concrete. But they can never make giant parking lots pleasant places to spend time. They're no substitute for urban design that focuses on people.

To do that, communities must put the buildings close enough together for walking between them to be more convenient than driving. They must allow dense concentrations of residential buildings, work buildings, and shops in close proximity to one another. And they must adopt zoning laws that make walkability the highest priority, rather than parking lot requirements.

A street that does all those things but has concrete sidewalks and boring flowerless trees will be more attractive than a parking lot with brick and cherry blossoms.

Take this street, for example. It's also in Gaithersburg, just a couple of blocks away from the brick sidewalk photo above. It's a nice street on its own terms, so it doesn't need gimmicks. 

Kentlands Main Street. Image by the author.

But creating legitimately nice urban streets requires most communities, especially suburban ones, to completely upend their zoning. That's so politically and technically hard that few can do it.

It's vastly easier to keep the same zoning laws, but require developers to include some pretty accouterments. As a result, America has a growing oversupply of beautifully landscaped but completely unsatisfying places.

To be fair, Gaithersburg actually does a lot right 

Gaithersburg may be as guilty as any community of thinking wishfully about how much difference brick sidewalks can make. But I shouldn't pick on Gaithersburg; unlike many towns, Gaithersburg is successfully doing the bigger picture things too.

Gaithersburg was one of the first US communities to embrace New Urbanism, and since then they've gone all-in on the idea, arguably more than any other town in the country. Their zoning is urban-oriented enough that most new development is as walkable as possible given the far-out suburban location. Leaders are pushing for better transit and bikesharing, and a grassroots YIMBY movement keeps the smart growth pressure on. 

They're trying, and it's working.

And although New Urbanism pales in comparison to bona fide urban neighborhoods, suburbs hoping to become more have to start somewhere. Gaithersburg, for one, is making an honest effort.

Ellington Boulevard, in one of Gaithersburg's many New Urban town centers. Image by Google.

But many communities don't. And many, including Gaithersburg, trip up along the way with distractions that are easy-to-implement but ultimately futile. 

Or does this parking lot in Virginia fool you into thinking you're in Colonial Williamsburg?

Brick parking spaces in Fairfax. Image by the author.

Dan Malouff is a transportation planner for Arlington and professor of geography at George Washington University, but blogs to express personal views. He has a degree in urban planning from the University of Colorado, and lives in NE DC. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post .