In an effort to break up my sedentary workday with a little exercise, I’ve taken to spending 20 of my 30 minute lunch break walking around the Idlewild subdivision, near my office. Idlewild is what developers these days call a “traditional neighborhood plan,” designed to mimic the kind of neighborhoods you’d find in a place like downtown Fredericksburg—compact homes tightly clustered with tiny yards, a community park with a playground and a tennis court or two, stores and services right in the “town center,” and sidewalks so you can walk wherever you need to go. Proponents of this type of neighborhood planning claim that these communities promote walking, discourage sprawl, keep jobs close to home, encourage the use of communal green space, and generally foster a close-knit feeling among neighbors. Before WWII and the popularization of the automobile brought about the advent of suburban sprawl, these types of compact, mixed-use neighborhoods were the norm in America.
Idlewild has all of these elements. The architecture of the homes is evocative of historic towns, there’s a pool and a playground and tennis courts, and there are townhouses mixed in with single family homes to promote a diverse mix of residents (young singles, families, retirees, more affluent people, and, well...maybe just slightly less affluent people, because even the townhomes start at $312,000, not exactly what most people would call “affordable housing”). There’s a small area of shops where the shopkeepers can live above their stores (photo above), just like small town, prewar America, with a spacious, nicely landscaped plaza (photo below), complete with benches and a fountain at the center, just perfect for Idlewilders to congregate on a summer day.
So what’s missing? Why is it that I run into so few people on my daily walks? No moms out strolling toddlers, no kids on bikes, no one on the playground or the tennis courts. On the hottest day of summer, maybe 2 or 3 kids in the pool. No one is in the plaza, no one is going in or out of the few shops, there are no neighbors chatting in the yard. The place looks like a ghost town, or a movie set (think Pleasantville or the Truman Show). It’s like Sim City without any Sims. It seems, well...spiritless. Maybe it’s attracted mainly commuters, who aren’t home during the day. But I think that the problem is that Idlewild is just a replica of a real neighborhood. Towns evolve around locations where people need to be, and no one needs to be at Idlewild, except maybe the commuters who like living next to the interstate. Idlewild is like all the traditional neighborhood developments I’ve seen—nice subdivisions with lots of amenities, but nothing close to the feel of a real small town.A lifelike simulation of a small town:
Just for comparison, the real deal: