Smart growth incorporates lessons from planning mistakes

(Roger K. Lewis)
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By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, April 24, 2010

Suppose you are a homeowner living in a subdivision in suburban Maryland or Virginia. Along an arterial road not far from you are acres of favorably located but underdeveloped or unwisely developed land with potentially high real estate value. Aging, low-rise commercial structures with little architectural coherence or aesthetic quality are scattered throughout the area, along with extensive surface parking. Landscaping is minimal or neglected. Haphazardly deployed signage, lighting and utility structures add visual clutter.

Plans are afoot to radically transform this area, the premise being that it is a prime candidate for a makeover to accommodate future growth. But plans envision the redevelopment area becoming urban rather than suburban. Comfortable with the status quo, you fear that nearby urbanization will threaten your quality of life, spoil the character of your community, depress your property's values and make traffic congestion unbearable.

Relax. Your fears are unfounded. Welcome to the era of smart growth.

In fact, as new long-range plans are implemented in the coming decades, your property's value will probably go up, your way of life and neighborhood character will be enhanced, and traffic congestion will not worsen. Indeed, it may ease. Also remember that such plans primarily serve future generations.

Optimism is justified. Stable, low-density residential neighborhoods and subdivisions will remain untouched. Transportation network plans do not depend on routing future traffic through subdivisions and local residential streets, many of which are loops and cul-de-sacs. And redeveloped areas actually will provide new, desirable conveniences for residents able to walk or bike to buy a quart of milk or sip coffee in a cafe.

This is one of the payoffs of smart-growth planning being adopted by local governments in the Washington area. Today's smart-growth principles differ greatly from those that originally shaped area subdivisions and communities.

Many years ago, plans and regulations created single-use, strictly separated zones. They kept densities low and non-urban and laid out public road networks made up only of arterials and feeders serving large swaths of undesigned landscape. Developers were left to configure and build street networks within exclusively residential zones.

This is why so many suburban American subdivisions are bedroom enclaves not directly connected with adjacent bedroom enclaves. Efficiently moving and parking automobiles was the overriding consideration. And earlier plans and zoning ordinances were mapped out before we fully understood environmental science and its ramifications.

Fortunately, obsolete principles and plans are giving way to smart-growth principles and plans that are based on reality, not theory. They respond to substantial changes in demographic and economic conditions, infrastructure needs and costs, modern technology affecting how we live and work, energy and ecological constraints, and consumer preferences.

Smart growth envisions the creation of compact, walkable communities in suitably located areas with existing infrastructure, ideally near transit. Plans incorporate city-style street and block patterns linked to surrounding road networks and serving pedestrians and bicyclists as well as cars. Sufficiently high density enables surface parking to be replaced by garages under buildings or in parking structures wrapped by street-fronting architecture and concealed within the centers of blocks.

Mixed uses encompass market-rate and workforce housing, shopping, office space, entertainment and recreation, institutional facilities, parks and plazas, and sites for schools, libraries and community centers. Single-family detached homes rarely appear in these plans. Yet, a key aspiration is to better balance the number of jobs and dwellings, which reduces automobile commuting while augmenting pedestrian activity.

The efficacy and feasibility of smart-growth plans depend on future roadway improvements and traffic-management strategies such as synchronized signals, lane-direction shifts, carpool incentives and phased work schedules, coupled with public transit in the form of circulator shuttles, regional bus service, and light or heavy rail. They also depend on staged development.

For example, Montgomery County's pending master plan for Gaithersburg West calls for mixed uses and greatly increased density, but it also mandates that such growth be synchronized with infrastructure development. The plan cannot be fully implemented until the Corridor Cities Transitway, threading through Gaithersburg West and connecting to the Shady Grove Red Line Metro station, is financed and built.

In Montgomery County and elsewhere, planners are advocating transit-oriented, urban-style infill, but they are also taking pains to ensure that established residential neighborhoods are preserved and protected.

Set aside your anxiety about how new master plans will affect you, your home and your suburban community. Effects will be positive. Moreover, given the number of decades needed to implement long-range plans, only your children and grandchildren will be affected. You and I probably won't be around to worry about it.

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

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