These days, it seems like everyone's talking about White Flint, the sprawl of office parks and strip malls that planners envision as a new downtown for MoCo. But while most discussion here and nationally centers around traffic, density and just how do you unmake fifty years of suburban development, no one's really mentioned the possibility of building a community. Friend of JUTP Hans Riemer talks about the White Flint sector plan, which the Planning Department is currently working on, and the people helping to make it a reality. Even if this doesn't affect the east side now, its success could affect how we build here in the future.
Urbanist thinker/planner Richard Layman proposes that, as advocates, we should focus on how transit-oriented development "helps us achieve community-strengthening objectives." Richard knows the state of play in development policy and politics, and I think he is on to something.
I agree that smart growth should be viewed as community-strengthening, rather than narrowly as a transportation or even an environmental issue. I was inspired to write something along these lines last weekend after spending my usual weekend share in downtown Silver Spring, at the Hand Made Mart. [Having an easier commute would always be nice, and a cleaner environment is the end goal, of course -but the biggest benefits of "smart growth," or whatever you'd like to call it, is seeing the creation of places where people like to gather and hang out. -ed.]
The "paseo" at North Bethesda Market, one of several new mixed-use developments being built in White Flint. Courtesy of Friends of White Flint.
Of course there are many different benefits to sustainable, smart growth: Having a commercial tax base means you can pay for your schools and public safety. Planning jobs, housing, shopping, and community facilities around transit, walking and biking helps prevent global warming, by reducing the miles that people must drive. More walking means better health, higher building standards can protect water quality, and so on.
But like Richard, I would like to see advocates of these smart choices put more emphasis on the community-building concepts. A good place to focus is White Flint, where the County's planners are now nearing conclusion of an amazing new plan to remake that community. The plans really show the way to a better future for Montgomery County. The White Flint proposal would remake an area around Rockville Pike, which today is dominated by auto-oriented malls and offices, into a walkable, urban area, served by transit, walking, biking and cars, all getting their proper place.
What is particularly interesting about White Flint is that community groups have been active participants in the redesign, along with business interests and land owners, and everyone seems to be on the same page about the possibilities - which they describe as "an innovative spectactular, inviting, green, transit-oriented urban destination."
North Bethesda Center is one of several new mixed-use developments being built in White Flint.
Friends of White Flint, a non-profit group that has come together to support the new vision, regularly blog about the process as it moves forward. I'd be interested to hear more about what Barnaby Zall and the group have to say about community building for today's, and tomorrow's, White Flint residents. Perhaps these arguments could help sell the vision to the public more effectively than our usual discussion of transportation alternatives.
One of the reasons that smart growth can be such a challenge is that these projects require current residents to make a short term sacrifice or investment to build a better future. That's always one of the most dicey propositions for a political system, and its why we have delayed national health reform, climate change protections, and so on.
You can see that tension playing out in the debate over White Flint and the County's new growth policy. Some activists and elected officials are criticizing the plans because "urban" areas would have to tolerate higher congestion. In fact, its probably impossible to create a successful urban and community destination without tolerating higher levels of congestion. We certainly have that in downtown Silver Spring, although I don't know how many people would rather go back to the way things were.
But concerns about traffic always dominate Montgomery County debates. And it leads me to wonder, can Montgomery County overcome the politics of "End Gridlock" and its polarized extremes, to find that sweet spot where we can make the right choices, even if they involve short term sacrifices, for our long term success? Is a focus on community-building through smart-growth the answer get getting past these polarized extremes? While Flint, and the new growth policy generally, will be a test.
For more information, check out the White Flint Partnership, Friends of White Flint, or the Planning Board's websites.