Walking in Tysons Corner, Virginia after business hours can feel like the opening scene of the zombie thriller film 28 Days Later… Structures everywhere indicate human settlement, but the eerie quiet and absence of pedestrians suggest otherwise.
Construction of four Metro stations is intended to redirect the trend, but as they sit unused during final testing phases, their promise of pedestrian utopia is hard to visualize. They are giant monolithic structures tucked in the middle of massive motorways. When the ribbon is cut, locals will discover if they will operate as viable walker-friendly transit options.
Tysons Corner, Virginia
I’ve been fascinated by cities since I was a kid, when books by the children’s author Ed Emberley gave me lessons on how to ‘make a world.’ He illustrated step-by-step instructions for drawing people, buildings, cars, ski slopes, helicopters, police stations, and anything else one could find in a city. I filled my after-school time making imaginary worlds on paper, with my own twin towers, video rental stores, and ice skating rinks.
From there I graduated to endless hours of SimCity 2000, the computer simulation game that enables the player to become the mayor of their own urban wonderland. I can still vividly remember the streetscapes I programmed, just like I remember the maps of real places I have lived… the diagonal highway linking the medium-density residential over there, the square grid of streets along the coastline down here, the pollution-heavy factories off to the side.
My urban interests were refreshed when I began traveling as an adult. Visiting cities like Paris, Sydney, Shanghai and New York established reality-based examples for the rich metropolitan lifestyle I had previously only imagined. I checked my travel experiences against the city I had the most experience with, Washington D.C., and came to understand my hometown metro area was not the paradigm metropolis I had always believed.
The liveliness and spontaneity of cities capture my interest and keep me buzzing. I experience each new place I visit with an energized desire to get lost, wander around, and anonymously observe the rituals of civic life. Invisible Cities, the masterpiece novel by Italo Calvino, induced in me even more regard for the ‘incalculable’ character of urban spaces. I studied the street photography of Cartier-Bresson, Kertesz, and Brassai, and I read Jane Jacobs to further whet my appetite.
But, despite all my preoccupation, I’ve never been able to permanently settle in in a city, instead hoping that where I’m living will transform itself, rather than force me to relocate.
Tysons Corner is as close as I’ve come to living in a city, and although there are as many square feet of office buildings here as there are in downtown Atlanta, this small corner of the D.C. suburbs still remains…. suburban.
Which brings me to the following video:
The TED Talks video series has earned a lot of criticism lately for being too fluffy, high-minded, and out of touch. Despite the valid points the detractors make, I often find speakers that capture my feelings on a subject, most recently James Kunstler’s tirade on suburbia. In a combination of eloquence and abrasiveness (abraseloquently?) he targets many of the features that make living in an ‘Auto Slum’ frustrating, although he seems much angrier than I would ever care to be in front of an audience.
I can relate to several of his ideas: Public spaces should be worth looking at. People should want to be in them. You should be able to identify your neighbors by more than the type of vehicle they’re driving. Isolated living can be both physically and socially unhealthy.
The planners of Tysons Corner are making an effort to urbanize, and I support it. Much of the suburban landscape around Washington D.C. started to form in the 1940’s and 50’s, now making it home to a third or fourth generation of families (if they stuck around.) It’s fair to assume that by the fourth iteration of something, without an original idea, formulas grow stale – Jaws 4, the fourth season of LOST, the fourth album by countless pop and rock musicians.
I’m excited about the future of Tysons, and any other suburb retrofitting itself, but I hope the realization of plans don’t take so many years that I will be gone before I can enjoy it.