Last week Salon ran an article describing almost exactly the kind of development popping up in Utah right now. Written by Will Doig, “Invasion of the faux cities” points out that people increasingly want to live in walkable urban areas but for a variety of reasons don’t actually want to live in existing urban areas. The result, Doig points out, is that “urban-lifestyle villages” are being built in suburbs.
They function as destinations, used by people who live in the surrounding sprawl, and contain a mix of apartment-style homes, offices and retail. They have restaurants and cafes, maybe a movie theater or bowling alley, and even lampposts and benches designed to mimic those in a historic metropolitan core.
That could very well have been a description of the south Salt Lake County suburb Daybreak or, presumably, the new suburb planned for Vineyard. These places are only marginally walkable, have little or no internal public transit, and generally have “an unmistakable suburban flavor.” And as Doig points out, these places are also often far too tidy and devoid of street life to pass as anything really urban.
The article further notes that “urban” isn’t a veneer that developers can just apply at will:
Creating an urban place is about more than simply adding mixed-use density and places to stroll.
Doig uses the D.C. metro area as his example, but in Utah these sorts of developments seem particularly perplexing because there’s no need for them to exist; with such low densities in most Wasatch Front cities, it would be far better to build within existing cities than to erect brightly colored but typically problematic new suburbs. In other words, existing cities already struggle enough with suburban problems and creating more suburbs exacerbates the situation.
In any case, Doig argues that these new types of developments blur traditional conceptions of cities and suburbs. But it’s also worth remembering that — contrary to what I often hear — putting a couple of restaurants and mixed use buildings in the middle of a suburb isn’t much of an improvement if the underlying issues remain. And in Utah, that’s exactly what seems to be happening.