How Much Of a Cluster Is It?

Exploring conflicted thoughts on rural-exurban density

I wrote recently here about metro areas as places, and how it doesn’t make sense for dense, “urban” housing to get built in rural-exurban locales. The sensible pattern is an urban core, a band of mid-density urban neighborhoods, and then a drop-off in density until you reach the actual countryside (interspersed with the legacy small towns). The lack of regional, metro-area-level planning, and the insufficient densification of the urban core and inner suburbs, forces “urban” density outward, and so—I often argue, as I did here, for example—dense exurban developments are essentially misplaced “urban” housing that had nowhere else to go.

I had a series of exchanges on Twitter recently that had me somewhat rethinking this point, and I want to drill down on it here. First, a couple of illustrations. Here is the tweet that started the social media conversation, and an example of this development pattern from my own region of Northern Virginia.

What I learned from the comments was that there are more than just the two typical reactions to these kinds of images, those being “Some people like it, leave them alone” or “This is what happens when you have a housing crisis.” Several people identified this pattern as “cluster zoning” or “conservation subdivisions.” Fairfax County, Virginia has “Cluster Development Standards.” Here’s a little more about it and a short list of other localities that have it. Here’s a short page on it from Anne Arundel County, Maryland. Cluster zoning is associated with the smart growth approach to development, and it’s as much an environmentalist idea as an urbanist one. And it seems to divide urbanists in general and housing advocates in particular.

I had heard of cluster zoning before, though I don’t know much about its details or exact implementation, and I don’t care for these jargony terms. But the basic idea is to cluster homes in low-density surroundings closely together, so as to leave more of the surrounding green space unspoiled. In theory, the intact countryside makes up for the loss of private green space in the form of a large lawn. (And, as some people pointed out, not everyone wants to maintain a lawn anyway, so detached houses with tiny lawns is actually a market segment.)

What’s interesting is that while I’ve always agreed with that idea—build densely so you develop less land—it just looks…odd in its execution. And a lot of people feel that way. The first and most natural thought upon seeing tightly packed houses way out at the exurban edge is that this is the worst of both worlds. No proximity and no privacy.

What’s going on here? What’s the right way to look at this pattern? One of my colleagues here on our last editorial call had an interesting comment. “Isn’t that kind of just a village, like in England? A little tiny area of density and some local businesses but kind of in the middle of nowhere?”

That made me realize that while I had a negative reaction to these developments, as do a lot of housing advocates, isn’t it…what we want? Why does it feel different from a small town, which is precisely an area of high density surrounded by sparsely populated land? Obviously, some housing advocates feel we shouldn’t be building anything out here—not more single-family, not more multifamily, not “new towns,” not more infrastructure. Ideally, sufficient homebuilding in already developed places would absorb this demand. But the negative reaction to those images isn’t foremost about policy, it’s more visceral.

I think the problem is that these cluster developments are not villages. Their wonkiness and almost uncanny-valley character isn’t so much in their density, but in their single-use nature. While they might be marketed or described sometimes as “villages,” they rarely end up as anything more than a tightly packed housing subdivision of basically identical buildings. The key to a village (or a classic American small town) is that it’s a tiny but real economy as well as a residential community.

I don’t think mixing in small, local businesses would merely be an enhancement; I think it would change the whole nature of the thing. As a classic New Urbanist analogy goes, it’s the difference between throwing shredded mozzarella next to raw dough, and baking a pizza.

Let me show you another image, from the same general area as the one in my tweet above.

Yes, you have density. You also have a Home Depot and a Walmart Supercenter (so a supermarket and discount department store) within a few minutes’ drive. But there’s basically no retail, restaurants, or services you can get to without a car. There are absolutely no corner groceries, bakeries, hole-in-the-wall restaurants or delis, or other businesses. That’s why these aren’t villages. It’s hard to know how many such businesses you could attract if zoning permitted it. But we don’t know, because we haven’t tried.

If we could build “true” villages out in the exurbs, which would reduce driving and enhance the quality of life in these places, would it be a good thing? Or would exurban cluster neighborhoods still, at best, be an escape hatch from the urban housing crisis?

I’d like to see our existing small towns grow in a manner that densifies their developed land, or connects horizontal growth to the existing grid. But for so many reasons, this doesn’t usually happen. And we aren’t going to stop exurban development either. The easiest way to get some kind of compromise would be to get these cluster developments to be truly mixed-use. That would require not only zoning reforms, but probably changes to the strict codes on home-based businesses. (Virginia’s application to license a home-based commercial kitchen demands a “List of all ingredients used in your business, with the source of each”—which is not something I think a chef in a restaurant is held to. (“Wow, this fresh fish would make an amazing special tonight!” “Yes chef, but we didn’t tell the state that we’d be using walleye in our kitchen.”)

I doubt that you could actually get “village”-style small local businesses without making it a lot easier to simply operate out of your home, but that is its own entire area of policy and controversy. In the absence of such small-scale commerce, you’re simply not going to get enough “regular” stores to serve every discrete housing development. Which puts you right back to strip plazas that serve a large surrounding trade area by car, or theoretically mixed-use developments which struggle to fill their retail spaces. In other words, mixed-use isn’t about buildings, it’s about people and commerce. And it’s about appropriate scale.

So, cluster zoning, yes or no? I think it’s difficult as an urbanist to say that I’d prefer exurban development to pave over more land and fragment the countryside even more. So yeah, I’ll take the cluster over its spread-out exurban opposite. But I also think it’s very likely the need for this pattern, and the demand it obviously attracts—these houses do sell, after all—is downstream of our underbuilt and under-urbanized cities, rather than an expression of an affirmative preference.

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