A Metro Area is a Place

The Housing Crisis Ignores City Boundaries

Take a look at this tweet: Canadian urban planner Brent Toderian and American housing advocate M. Nolan Gray talking about Calgary, one of the only North American cities whose political boundaries encompass most of “the city” as it actually exists on the map:

It seems odd that this is rare, but it certainly is rare. New Jersey, where I’m from, is famous for its hundreds of localities with “home rule”—some just a few hundred people. In the D.C. area, where I live now, our overall metro area, or even just the city and its immediate suburbs, are made up of D.C. proper, the counties that border it directly and the counties that border those counties, and the independent localities within those counties.

In political terms, a metro area is an assemblage of localities, often competing with each other rather than cooperating—look at my region’s fractious public-transit funding situation, which consists of funding from D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. Look at the difficulty of getting transit projects that connect a number of different places (the whole point, after all)—in North Carolina’s Research Triangle area, there were viable plans for a light rail to stitch together the region in a way that is now lacking. That plan was killed after consuming years and tens of millions of taxpayer dollars by Duke University (not a locality but a very powerful political actor in the region) over concerns about the effects of trains and construction on their medical facilities. One would think the answer to such possible issues would be known and incorporated into best practices. Has a rail line never run close to a hospital anywhere before?

The point is, in political terms, a metro area is a whole bunch of localities, some of which may not even see themselves as belonging to the metro area. But in geographic and economic terms, a metro area is a place.

This is intuitive or even obvious to urbanists and housing advocates, who think about how job markets and housing are related, or about the interplay between restrictive zoning in settled communities and exurban sprawl. This is not, however, intuitive or obvious to a lot of what I call “regular” people. We all see red-hot housing markets and sprawl and long commutes or inconvenient and poorly funded public transit. Most of us never think very deeply about any of it, or how it goes together. It can be easy to see all of these inconveniences are arguments against building anything anywhere.

One big element of this disconnect is the suspicion that a lot of folks—maybe 45 minutes or an hour from the city—feel about development in general. For example, I was giving a talk in the D.C. suburb of Woodbridge, about half an hour south of D.C., and there was someone there who came all the way from Fredericksburg, another 40 minutes south. She asked me if I could explain why suddenly these massive 5-over-1 apartment buildings were sprouting up along little narrow country roads, outside the old and relatively small city itself. She sounded kind of like a NIMBY, but she wasn’t opposed to housing as much as simply baffled as to where this surge in demand in a little old city was coming from.

I was meeting recently with one of the economic development officials in Winchester, Virginia—an hour and a half from downtown D.C.—which is facing development pressure from Northern Virginia expats fleeing the region’s overheated housing market. He told me that despite prioritizing infrastructure improvements ahead of expected housing growth, and confining most new units to redevelopment of non-residential parcels, the arrival of any new buildings sparks dismay among some residents. “Don’t Loudoun-ize Winchester,” some of them say. (20 or 30 years ago, it was “Don’t Fairfax My Loudoun.” Etc, etc.)

I get this sentiment sometimes: why are they coming all the way out here? Why can’t they leave us alone? This leads some people, in my experience, to develop a suspicion of all development, and of housing advocacy in general. They see an unfamiliar, big, arguably out-of-scale building go up in a place that historically hasn’t had a lot of development pressure—and they rightly understand that it will probably increase traffic congestion and the sense of “crowdedness”—and they feel that the answer is to simply resist development.

We have to break both the process and the narrative here: that development and density are like miasmas which spread inexorably further and further out from urban cores, chasing down people who only want a little space and privacy and ease of getting around. The irony is that this happens precisely because the urban cores and inner suburbs in desirable metro areas almost always have extremely high housing prices, and build far less than they naturally would without restrictive zoning, minimum parking requirements, and other land-use regulations.

When the city isn’t allowed to fully urbanize, and when old suburbs a stone’s throw from the city are locked by zoning into their initial 20th century patterns, development has to radiate outwards. For every person who affirmatively chooses an exurban, there is a person priced out of a more urban lifestyle. Every unit of urban housing unbuilt is a unit of exurban housing going up in a place that arguably should remain quiet, quaint, and “left alone.”

In other words, properly urban cities work in tandem with true countrysides and small towns. The folks out at the exurban edges and in the old cities that are becoming engulfed by sprawl should be urban YIMBYs rather than across-the-board development skeptics.

Our local land use regime isn’t really set up for this. Often the hearings and public input sessions for various development proposals are specifically for residents of the community in which the development is proposed. This essentially builds a fragmented, hyper-local notion of how development works into the system itself. But nothing stops the occasional fellow from a place like Winchester or Fredericksburg from showing up, or simply submitting a comment, to the effect of, “I support this proposal in [X already built-up locality] because it makes a lot more sense there than in [Y rural or semi-rural locality.]”

Some would simply consider this standard-issue NIMBYism, but I’d argue the affirmative support of growth in the places where it makes sense is the opposite of NIMBYism—as long as we all acknowledge there are some places where it makes sense!

Those of us who love cities obviously want to see them thrive. But the more you want the city to leave you alone, the more you should advocate for its growth and its success.

Addison Del Mastro is a Partner Writer for the Resident Urbanist. He writes from Northern Virginia on urbanism, retail, cultural history, and other assorted issues, with a focus on the ideas and psychology behind urbanism. Of particular interest to him are small towns, the ongoing urbanization and "growing up" of the suburbs, and what urbanism looks like outside of the big city. He runs The Deleted Scenes. You can follow him on Twitter and Threads.


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