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Suburbs at the Crossroads: How Can They Grow Up, Instead of Just Grow?

Mary Newsom / Dec 06 2012

For Release Thursday, December 6, 2012

Mary NewsomIt’s a common story around the Sun Belt: Rural hamlet near larger town blinks and finds it’s now a booming suburb in the orbit of a much larger, sprawling city. Years of attracting people looking for a small town and a private getaway have built a fabric of large lawns and scattered houses, and more lawns and more houses. Where does it go from here?

When I moved to Charlotte more than 30 years ago, Matthews was the suburb. It lay directly in the path of the major growth trajectory – southeast. The drive to central Charlotte was a reasonable 25-30 minutes. The cute, but miniature, downtown Matthews and a few surrounding blocks of turn-of-the-century houses gave a historic feel and sense of small-town identity to a place that, in fact, was accumulating mostly standard subdivisions and strip shopping centers.

Today, if you drive into the center of Matthews you come to the town’s historic main intersection. Look to the left up Trade Street and you’ll see a two-block long, walkable old downtown of small-scale storefront buildings and just beyond it, shops built along a new street leading to a new Town Hall, all built atop the carcass of a faded, 1978 strip center. A few blocks farther on, a mixed-use group of apartments and stores is going up atop a new street grid.

But look to the right, and you see two gas station-convenience stores.

There you have the dilemma of the American suburb of the late 20th century: Which future to choose? Should it look right, to its immediate past – to the car-oriented way of life that brought growth and prosperity, but also already-fading shopping centers and highways that sever the town as they funnel commuters to newer, even more prosperous suburbs in the neighboring county? That future hints at more shopping center carcasses and a steady lowering of property values as the housing stock ages and demographic and cultural trends propel more people toward center cities, with walkable neighborhoods and more urban – and urbane – experiences.

Should it look to its long-ago past, to the walkable but tiny downtown that grew from the railroad stop that birthed the town? That future seems to ignore the needs of the 27,000 who now call Matthews home.

Or should it try to find a new, third way, seeking the right blend of respecting the old but aiming for something more suitable for a suburb that’s all grown up?

I was asked recently to give a talk in Matthews, and as I researched its history and land use patterns, I realized one of its problems was that the town was not treating itself as a substantial place. Researching something else, I noticed something about the history of the mountain town of Asheville, N.C. Asheville built its now-beloved (and tourist-magnet) collection of 1920s Art Deco buildings in the 1920s, when the city’s population was – 28,000. In other words, it was essentially the same as Matthews is now, but it built a city.

Just an hour up I-85 from Charlotte, downtown Salisbury, N.C., (recently named by the American Planning Association as one of America’s 10 Great Neighborhoods) has a fine collection of multistory buildings dating to the early 20th century. Its population today: 33,000.

What might happen in Matthews if it tried to build an Asheville-style, or even a Salisbury-sized downtown?

Planning Director Kathi Ingrish told me the town treasured its historic buildings. “It has always wanted to retain its small-town ambience,” she said. But how realistic is that, not just for Matthews but for the hundreds of suburbs that might have begun life as hamlets but after 50 years of Sun Belt sprawl are now linked to much larger metro centers?

Ingrish said Matthews town council members had expressed admiration for Cary, N.C., a vast suburb outside Raleigh, N.C. Cary, now the state’s seventh largest municipality, has such a suburban flavor that the Raleigh newspaper recently ran an article about how some area residents can’t find, or don’t even know the existence of, its little downtown. Cary is also spending millions to try to make its downtown into a place people will want to visit.

Matthews elected officials have talked about wanting to “turn the Queen Mary.” After all, projections are for the whole county to grow by 380,000 people in the next 20 years – essentially adding the population of the city of St. Louis. Where will those newcomers live? Will they want to live in Matthews? Will the town want them? Can it accommodate them and absorb them? Where will they shop? Work? What will this small suburb look like and feel like, if it absorbs another 15,000 or so new residents?

So, like that crossroads in the middle of town, Matthews is at a metaphorical crossroads. So are many other such places in America, as they stare wonderingly at their future – which will be nothing like the past. The question is whether Matthews, or any suburb, can learn to behave like a substantial place. Can towns that grew up thinking small learn to act their size? If Asheville, population 28,000, could build an enduring treasure of a downtown in the early 20th century, why can’t a town of 27,000 aim to do the same in the early 21st?

Mary Newsom is associate director of urban and regional affairs at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute where she directs, a website of news and analysis about urban issues in the 14-county Charlotte region. Views expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute or the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to


  1. Posted December 6, 2012 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

    …and yet we share a region whether in North Carolina or Northern Colorado. The challenge of finding out what we truly desire to become and then finding the will and energy and resources to get there can sometimes be so exhausting. Seek the dream – find your vision!

  2. Posted December 7, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    Sixty miles from Seattle, Skagit County still is a rural county with a dozen small cities, towns and rural villages. WA State has had a Growth Management Act for over 20 years now and counties like Skagit have used these laws to shape their future. 59.9% of the county is untaxed, leaving limited resources for county government. While there has been some success in saving farm and forest resource lands, the urban cities, towns and villages face similar challenges to those in Newsom’s article. What appears to be missing is civic vision and leadership and expertise that looks at the whole picture and stops the incremental conversion of lands by individual projects. In places where visionary development takes place it always comes down to a group of people who understand that the status quo isn’t going to get you there and you have to do something else. Looking to other similar sized areas in the country and even internationally is important because despite what we think in “the West”, we don’t have to always invent the solution — we can borrow from others success. Including all citizens in solving the problem is the only way to build new urban developments that people accept and support. Doing the research to understand all costs and benefits is needed to make informed choices. Getting technical and economic assistance from unbiased experts or citizens who have lead such re-development has to be included. Public process and community planning is more important than ever and most places haven’t engaged in this since the 1970’s. We all have a lot of work to do in rural America.

  3. Posted December 7, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    I’m writing from Australia where we have similar scenarios playing out across many small cities. Personally, I’m very interested in the way bicycle trails are starting to connect outlying areas with village centres, and how these are increasing land values and development, sometimes in the most unlikely places. Can I plug my book Cycle Space? NAi010 Publishers, for the release in the US in the new year :)

  4. Mayraj Fahim
    Posted December 7, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

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