The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. - Wm. Blake

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

A Revival of Small Town America?

This is a rewrite of a comment I left over at Yglesias's. It has to do with the implications of the coming flight from exurbs - people won't just return to cities and inner ring suburbs. They'll rediscover America's small towns - or at least they might.

Tthe thing about small towns - my model is the county seat - is that they're very flexible, because 19th century American town planning was simple and adaptable - the scale makes autos feasible, but in no way dictates driving for daily living.

I've pointed this out before - before WW2, most county seats in America were linked by trolley to the nearest big city. County seats are still at least minor employment centers thanks to courthouses. The dense CBDs are still there, but usually at least a quarter vacant.

The big question is what needs to be done to allow such places to take advantage of the nascent demand for walkable, transit-oriented communities. What makes college towns work is a one-two punch of a big local employer (a small college with grounds will have nearly as many total employees as students) and a captive population. But even with these factors in their favor, they often struggle to maintain vitality in the face of the commercial strip at the edge of town. Maybe $5 gas will reverse the still-recent trend of auto ubiquity on campus.

Probably the simplest solution for non-college towns is recruitment of the kinds of businesses that til now have located in suburban office parks - drop a couple of 500 employee offices in the mid-height tower across from the courthouse, and you've got a daytime population to foster retail vitality, plus a group of people who have a huge incentive to live in town, or at the near margins. The business benefits from offering such a lifestyle to their employees, and, thanks to the courthouse, the necessary amenities for business are existing. The key is to keep the businesses from building massive parking structures (or worse, lots) - they would undermine the density of the town, while encouraging workers to live distantly, emptying downtown at sundown.

Washington, PA is potentially a model of this. The developer responsible for the ├╝ber-office park Southpointe has shifted directions and built a handsome new office building in downtown Washington (they're also investing in downtown Pittsburgh, but that's much more comprehensive and mixed use). Washington is straight down I-79 from Pittsburgh, and a decent little town, but it's been hollowed out. Here is a chance for it to fill back in.

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