Editor’s Note: The hopscotch patterns of development

July 20, 2014

I’m not sure what to make of these new patterns of development.

Whatever you think about suburban sprawl, there was a certain logic to it. Dense at the core, spreading out in rings of gradually less intense development. Eventually, you come to rural America.

Now, the pattern seems more hopscotch.

Little instant towns pop up, complete with the requisite Panera Bread, Starbucks, Crossfit gym and hip grocery.

Sometimes you’ll find these fresh places in the middle of a city, sometimes in the suburb. Or sometimes just out in the middle of nowhere.

I found them everywhere in the past two weeks, whether I was making my way down to Hilton Head, S.C., or driving through the Midwest up to northern Wisconsin.

The best ones include a touch or two of homegrown authenticity. Or at least produce a passable imitation. Outside downtown Lexington, Ky., we stopped at a joint called City Barbeque where the pulled pork lived up to the place’s promise of slow-cooked “true ’que” all while managing the speedy throughput of a modern fast-casual.

Wherever these new towns turn up, people seem to like them. The parking lots are busy; people are out and about.

The bustle helps reinforce the attractiveness of the places, and it helps that they are new. Americans like new.

One thing missing from many of these so-called live-work-play communities is a true employment center. They are mostly bedroom communities, serving some distant factory or office cluster.

My in-laws live in an older place, a town in Tennessee very much like these new pop-up places. There’s a Main Street and a town square, a covered bridge and a historic monument or two. A mix of housing types surround the local commerce; you can even live above some of the storefronts.

But their quaint downtown has seen better days, bypassed long ago by the bigger road that runs by the local Wal-Mart. That road now is a strip of fast-food stores, gas stations and tire shops like so many others.

Their downtown is old, and Americans like new.

Dan Beyers is the founding editor of Capital Business, The Washington Post’s go-to source for news about the region’s business community.
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