What makes a suburb a suburb? It’s one of the major questions that is at the center of the battle for how governments or independent communities of people should regulate and create public space.
This issue has been on my mind quite a bit in the last few months. First, it was Emily Badger’s Pseudosuburbanism as a resident of Alexandria, VA. Then it was this article I shared on the social media pages about how diversity is changing the old rules of what constitutes suburbia. Ultimately, some of this debate is the old civic inferiority complex rearing up its head again.
Ultimately, I’ve found a few things make a town an actual town. They are as follows:
-You have an individual or several individuals who govern your affairs as elected officials. This government is recognized in the town charter.
-You have your own post office (However, this one is becoming less prevalent with many rural towns losing their post office)
-Your population is heterogeneous. Diversity is the rule, rather than the exception.
-Organic community creation (non-governmental entities such as fraternal organizations and neighborhood associations) includes and embraces the diversity of the community.
-Your school system services children from birth to the end of college. This is done through Head Start, a vibrant public K-12 system and a community college. Bonus points if your town is a college town.
-You have either a traditional or a created main street apparatus. This apparatus does not count if it’s really just the suburban mall that’s been grafted into the form. Old Town Alexandria is a good example of having national stores, but under multiple owners and with public streets, sidewalks and parks.
-Once again, there are multiple owners, renters and the like. The community wasn’t planned. If it was planned, it has long ceded into having multiple private owners of buildings and public control of infrastructure.
You may note that this list does not address form, outside of having a true main street. I am not excusing places that do not have a good urban or town form. Yet, this post is to highlight that not all main cities have a monopoly on good urban form. Unfortunately, in many cases in the U.S. today, you are either a town or a city.
If you don’t recognize that, it’s time to act like one.