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Smart Growth in Montgomery: Fitting More Groceries in the Same Bag

(By Roger K. Lewis)

So the commission proposes "a new planning paradigm."

Its provisions include:

Instead of large-area master planning, small-area, neighborhood-based, fine-grain planning would "direct growth inward and upward." There's no choice: Future growth must entail redevelopment of existing properties, and at higher densities. Commercial centers and surface parking lots, covering thousands of county acres, would be especially targeted for revitalization.

Infill development and redevelopment not only must yield higher densities, but also must include residential, commercial and non-commercial uses to ensure round-the-clock activity. Equally critical is designing animated public spaces, whether plazas or streets. Given pedestrian-oriented activities and ease of pedestrian movement, many people would choose to live near where they work and shop. And if each resident and worker reduced daily automobile trips by only two a day, the aggregate drop in traffic would make a significant dent in highway congestion.

Transit-oriented development, at Metro stations or along light-rail or bus lines, likewise demands dense, diverse land use. Yet transit still complements an interconnected road network. Because people will continue owning and driving cars, building ample, transit-related parking structures is essential.

Segments of the county's automobile-dominated arterials should be transformed into tree-lined "boulevards," shared public spaces that are attractive, that accommodate both cars and buses, and that are safe and inviting for bicyclists and pedestrians. Imagine Rockville Pike as a boulevard with tree-shaded sidewalks abutting buildings and storefronts instead of parking lots.

With its ordinances on adequate public facilities and moderately priced housingand with its Agricultural Reserve, Montgomery County has long been viewed by other jurisdictions, regionally and nationally, as a model of enlightened, progressive planning. And pursuing the new "planning paradigm" clearly shows that it intends to maintain its reputation.

Yet little will change unless the county's political leaders, property owners, businesses and voters buy into the new paradigm. This is not an easy sell. Rewriting development rules to radically reshape familiar physical environments requires new thinking and new attitudes, achievable only through sustained public education. Because many jurisdictions face the same dilemma confronting Montgomery County, and because -- despite recent public criticisms of the planning system's management -- it is the model, let's hope the county is successful in helping its residents pack those future groceries into an attractive grocery bag.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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