Urbanism Doesn't Have to Mean Downtown Living


Arian Horbovetz (Twitter: @Arianhorbovetz) is a Strong Towns member who blogs at The Urban Phoenix. This post is republished from his blog with permission.


I have a single-parent co-worker who has no ambitions of living in the city.  She and her teenage daughter currently live in Greater Rochester’s suburb of Webster, New York.  Recently, she and her daughter showed interest in moving to a different apartment, so naturally, she asked me if I knew of any good towns or places in the area.

My co-worker currently drives 36 miles round trip (about 45 minutes total) to and from our workplace each day. Having only lived in Rochester for a few years, she, like many people, was not entirely familiar with the fact that she could find a reasonably priced apartment closer to work, the city, and other amenities without sacrificing a quality education for her daughter, personal safety and a sense of calm. Knowing that these were things she understandably valued, I suggested that she look at apartments in the first-ring suburb of Brighton, New York. Just minutes from her job, downtown, and major retail centers, as well as a fantastic school district, I felt that Brighton was the perfect location for her to check out.

So why would an urbanist suggest suburban living to a friend? Because urbanism isn’t about living in downtown towers. It’s not about forcing everyone into a lifestyle that may not be at all suitable for them.  It’s not a cookie-cutter existence or mindset. It’s simply about making better choices. Some of the key priorities of urbanism, such as central living, walkability, access to public transit, etc., can be blended with the desires associated with small town life.

My preference, for example, would be to live downtown. While my wife enjoys city life, she grew up in the country and appreciates being a little farther removed from the elements of downtown living. It’s simply not who she is. So we live in a quiet apartment complex on the border of the city and Brighton.  I can bike to the city or to my job, take transit, and everything we could possibly want is only a few miles away. She has peace of mind, easy parking, and a safe environment. We both win.

Back to my co-worker. She recently found a lovely apartment in Brighton per my suggestion. Quiet, suburban-style living in a safe neighborhood with some of the state’s best public schools for her daughter. That being said, her commute will go from 18 miles to… ready for this? 1.9 miles. That alone will save her 6.4 days each year that she would otherwise spend in the car. She will save over $1000 or more each year on fuel and wear and tear on her vehicle. If she wants to go downtown, it’s less than a 10 minute drive, and a major retail center is just 5 minutes away.  She’ll be on a bus line, and can take public transit if she needs to, which was not an option previously.  Furthermore, if she ever needs something, she will now have two co-workers/friends just minutes away!

Does she live in a vibrant urban environment?  Did she go “car-free?”  Does she live in a mixed-use apartment complex with a hipster coffee shop on the bottom floor and a cocktail bar next door? No. These are not things she and her daughter want or need.

But her move is the perfect example of living a certain lifestyle and still making better choices for the environment (less driving means less pollution), for her wallet (less driving means less fuel) and her health and happiness (longer commute times are associated with major mental and physical health risks).

If everyone lived in cities, the earth would be a cleaner place and we would all be healthier, more productive people. The advantages, quite honestly, would be incredible. But realistically, here in the United States, that will never happen. That doesn’t mean we can’t still be mindful of key urbanistic ambitions.  Instead of living 30 minutes from the city, your job or the supermarket, perhaps you choose a home that’s 15 minutes away from your job and closer to other resources. Instead of living in a place where you have to drive anytime you need something, choose a place where you can often or occasionally walk, bike, or take public transit. This can also be helpful in those times when your car is in the shop.

Living centrally doesn’t necessarily mean living in “the center.”  It means making more sustainable choices for the greater good of the community and your own personal health. Urbanism isn’t about fitting everyone into a downtown residential skyscraper, it’s about helping all of us understand the incredible benefits of living closer to our jobs, our resources, and even each other.