Editor's Note: Small cities as antidote to suburban sprawl

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11.29.11 When I was a kid growing up in D.C. in the mid-80s, there were bumper stickers around that read, “Don’t Fairfax Loudoun.” If you’ve spent any time in Northern Virginia over the past two decades, you’ll understand the futility of the position. Loudoun got Fairfaxed in the mid-90s. So did Prince William. Fauquier is the frontier now, if there’s such a thing as a frontier anymore. Working farms hardly exist where they once dominated the landscape. The choice is suburban development or high rent trust land.

Over the holiday, my wife and I drove to the horse country northwest of Baltimore to visit my mother and stepfather. He grew up on a farm right in Towson, even had German POWs helping in the family creamery during the war. He used to take the train to visit friends in the city over the weekends. Now that old farm is a state park with a community garden, and it sits in the midst of a host of subdivisions as part of the suburban ring.

You probably see where I’m going. During my lifetime the I-95 corridor, north and south, has saturated to the point that the roads can’t hold the commuter traffic while the Baltimore/D.C. megalopolis has fused in the middle. Over that same period, commuter populations have moved west, pushing the envelopes of development north towards Pennsylvania and south towards… towards us!

Forgive me for stating the obvious and/or for joining the local conversation late. Driving south on U.S. 15 and U.S. 29 from Leesburg is a harsh awakening. Mounds of cleared red dirt line both sides of the highway, even as the mountains come into sharper relief. By the time you get to Hollymead, you’re inured to the site of choked brown streams and ruined fields. There are always more condos, more giant houses on small lots, more big box stores.

As we weigh the costs and benefits of continued development, consider what it means that the small city may be the antidote to suburban sprawl. We can solve poverty without displacing it, have a lively conversation about issues without getting violent, and maintain a sense of community that other places lost a long time ago.—Giles Morris

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