Wednesday, June 17, 2009

strengthening community through smart choices about growth (guest blog)

Rockville Pike Looking South From Twinbrook Pky
Rockville Pike as it currently is north of White Flint.

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.


Casey A said...

i think you are exactly right to focus on what is happening at white flint -- the plan to remake rockville pike and related land use decisions will determine whether we can break out of the stale politics of slow growth vs. end gridlock and get on with the work of making sure that the built environment supports healthy communities (healthy in every sense -- economically, socially, and environmentally).

the white flint plan asks residents and businesses in the rockville pike corridor to embrace a very different idea of what makes an appealing place to live and work than the premises that guided development policy in previous decades. i hope they will embrace these new ideas, the old ones have reached a dead end as a means of improving the quality of life in our communities.

Unknown said...

This article captures the spirit of the new White Flint very well. It has taken almost 3 years, but the sector plan incorporates mechanisms to create a great sense of community and a more holistic built environment that will work from a sustainable and economic stand point As a board member of Friends of White Flint (FOWF), I encourage all of you to reach out to the organization and learn as much as you can about the future of White Flint. FOWF is an organization made up of 1/3 residents, 1/3 business owners, and 1/3 property owners and we are heavily engaged in the planning process. You can find more information at

freestategal said...

This guest blog seems to indicate that surrounding neighborhoods 'buy in' to the extreme density, intersection failures, private roads, privately-owned and 'programmed' parks that are being proposed for the White Flint Sector. This is in no way the case. The Planning Dept and Planning Board are proposing an additional 20,000 new jobs and approx. 12,000 new residential units in this area, and NO new transportation to support the 'density' This is what we would call 'vertical sprawl' It is in no way 'smart growth.' Smart growth indicates sustainability and a planned approach to increases in public transit to support additional population. Attention would also be paid to sustainability and reduction of the carbon footprint. This is not happening here. A closer look also shows that the planners have put the Rockville Pike 'redo' on the back burner so residents will get a phenomenal increase in traffic with NO changes to the Rockville Pike. Traffic studies done by the Planning Dept. itself show the intersections failing. I would also challenge the suggestion that this high-density development is going to create a 'healthy community,' especially environmentally. The developers are not replacing 'parking lots' with 'green space' they are replacing parking lots with high-rise buildings to house tens of thousands of new residents and supposedly new employees. Please do your homework before you buy in to this 'plan.' In fact, the surrounding neighborhoods have joined the White Flint Community Coalition to urge the County Government to develop a realistic, green plan that addresses these issues.

ken said...

The guest blogger is on the money with everything they state and it can be backed up with more books and articles than I can list and a good clearing house for the topic of smart growth and sustainability can be found at Go to their bookstore and search the topic.

A few key points need to be kept in mind when we talk about the future of White Flint and the future of Montgomery County. First, change and progress can and almost always does have some short term level of discomfort. I repeat, short term. Every bit of infrastructure; roads, subway tunnels, rail, water and sewer pipes, electric and communication cables inconvenience someone at sometime during their installation. Frequently is lots of people who for months or years have issues with these projects but to say that we shouldn't install those things as populations expand is putting your head in the sand.

Second, as someone who has been very involved for the three years we have worked on this sector plan I have to admit that I have never experienced the development community working with each other, at this level, despite their competitive natures. It would be fair to say that they realize the impacts of what they do individually as well as collectively, and this is the first time I've seen them come together to work on the impacts as a team to the benefit of the entire plan and how it will effect the community.

Third, what we experience today with traffic and congestion, air and water quality issues, pedestrian safety, global warming, carbon footprints, etc. is exactly what we planned for 5, 10, 20 even 30 years ago. The car was made king and we, the pedestrian, were and still are slaves to the car. What is being proposed for White Flint is to have the pedestrian king and make the car serve the pedestrian in a way that is different than we do today. As difficult as it is to accept, this change is necessary and coming.

Finally, one person comments that there is "NO new transportation to support the 'density." This is so incorrect as to be funny. A proposed local circulatory bus that we don't have today, bus rapid transit on Rockville Pike, a proposed second metro entrance at White Flint a few hundred yards north of the current entrance, and a new MARC station on Nicholson Court are some of the major transportation features included in the plan. And I need to mention a very robust biking and hiking network for the sector.

So if we continue to think, plan and act as we have in the past we will have more of the same, which in my mind is intolerable. Do you think more of the same is better? I hope not because the people of Montgomery County deserve better.