Friday, October 28, 2011

a new name isn't enough for east county science center

East County Science Center Open House
Admiring a map of the now-renamed White Oak Science Gateway.

Area residents and businesspeople wanted a new name for the East County Science Center, an area bounded by New Hampshire Avenue, Columbia Pike and Cherry Hill Road where county planners seek to draw research and development firms seeking to be near the new campus of the Food and Drug Administration.

The new moniker? Welcome to the White Oak Science Gateway.

The name first appeared a month ago, when members of an advisory committee for the plan raised concerns about how vague "East County Science Center" was. From the Gazette:
“What’s East County?” Stocks [Jere Stocks, president of Washington Adventist Hospital] said. “It could be anywhere. ... The name really didn’t fit. I think what we have now, it puts us on the map in terms of national perspective.”
I've long used "East County" to describe the communities I talk about on this blog, because they're all unincorporated (meaning they lack their own government or strict boundaries) and there often isn't a better term. Many people in this part of Montgomery County (we'll define it as "everything east of Rock Creek Park") say they live in Silver Spring, and I support that, though people who live closer to downtown Silver Spring have other ideas. Of course, this doesn't work if you live in Burtonsville or Olney or Takoma Park, which all are generally recognized as places in their own right, or in a place like White Oak, which has a much weaker identity.

If we want to draw companies from around the country and around the world to a science park which right now exists only on paper, it has to have a compelling name. Everyone recognizes Cambridge or Silicon Valley or the Research Triangle. "East County Science Center," as Jere Stocks points out, could be anywhere in the world.

This isn't the first time that MoCo's tried to rename a place. While working for Councilmember George Leventhal last year, I got to help think of a new name for the Gaithersburg West Master Plan, another area where planners want to create a home for research and development. The problem with the name "Gaithersburg West" was that the area it covered wasn't so much "west of Gaithersburg" as it was a bunch of unincorporated areas surrounding the City of Gaithersburg with no connection or relationship to each other.

My suggestion was to call it the Great Seneca Science Cluster, because Great Seneca Highway ran through at least some parts of the master plan area, and it was a name that ordinary people would recognize. It stuck, even though "Cluster" became "Corridor." The name isn't perfect, but it sounds like it could be a place, and if everything goes as planned the Great Seneca Science Corridor will actually be a place.

Harvard Square
Cambridge, Massachusetts: A great name for a place, but also a significant destination for scientists and researchers around the world.

Will the White Oak Science Gateway be so lucky? I worry. I wouldn't have picked the word "Gateway," personally, because it suggests something that you enter or pass through, not a place that you go to. More significant is the issue that Montgomery County will now have two science parks, each sort of in competition with each other. Consultants hired by the Planning Department to look at the White Oak Science Gateway's merits concluded that the plan will fail unless there's a substantial reason for companies to consider locating there instead of at Great Seneca or somewhere else entirely. 

Names have a powerful ability to give places character - or in the case of "East County," to take it away. But while it's important to ensure that Montgomery County's new development areas have compelling names, it's worthwhile to ensure that they also become places worth naming. Planners are holding an open house on the East County Science Center White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan tonight at

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