As Northern Virginia's local governments keep approving new subdivisions to provide housing for a growing population, development is scattered across the landscape, gobbling up open space and forcing more people into their cars. Roads are jammed, and air quality is getting worse.
What to do?
The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, the regional planning agency with representatives from the District and the area's suburban jurisdictions, is weighing in on the search for solutions with an Internet-based campaign advocating "smart growth." The term refers to the movement of planners, some developers and some local officials to focus development into dense, citylike settlements with offices, homes and stores within walking distance.
The tradeoff for more density in one area is open space elsewhere. By their compactness, such developments, ideally near Metro stations, reduce driving and encourage people to live, work and shop in one place.
Of course local governments, not regional agencies, make land-use decisions. And many of them are approving smart-growth development, like the new "downtown" in Arlington County's Clarendon section. Now COG is trying to put its imprint on local land-use policy with its new educational Web site, which features an 11-minute video advocating smart-growth principles (www.mwcog.org/planning/planning/smartgrowth).
"Governments have a great deal of understanding of what's going on in their jurisdictions," said Joyce Woodson, an Alexandria City Council member who is featured in the video, "Smart Growth Begins at the Local Level."
"But not always does their electorate get it," said Woodson (D), chairman of a COG land-use committee that developed the program. "The citizens don't always understand some of the terminology. . . . Very often, though, residents are complaining that they've got to get in the car to get a half-gallon of milk."
The goal of the video and the Web site that goes with it is to educate residents who take an interest in development that is proposed around them. The reasoning is that the residents have a stake in what happens and, in an ideal world, developers and local officials would take their views into account before a project is approved.
The video opens with a statement that growth is inevitable as the region adds 55,000 residents every year. But the challenges become immediate: "Traffic congestion has become a daily hassle for thousands of commuters," the narrator says. The effects of so many cars on the environment are laid out starkly, with a chart of ever-increasing "code red" days when ozone pollution reached high levels.
Judith F. Davis, the mayor of Greenbelt, assures viewers that "smart growth does not mean no growth." Several area residents appear in the video to talk about "community building" -- that it's possible to be part of the land-use process. At the end, D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) laments the pattern of planning over the decades that has separated homes from offices and stores. "You want people to be able to walk to the shopping center," he tells the camera.
COG has copied the video and other information on smart growth onto a CD-ROM that it is distributing to local planning commissions and dozens of civic associations. Frequently asked questions are answered, such as, "Does smart growth mean that I can't drive my car?" and "Doesn't smart growth limit my choice in where to live?" ("No" is the answer to the first question. "Choices are expanded" is the answer to the second. So-called smart-growth developments include a mix of single and multi-family homes to accommodate people of varied means.)
The COG effort has brought mixed reviews as a call for action, if only because smart growth in principle often has turned out to be more complex in reality.
"Much of the [debate over growth] keeps focusing on the problems, not the solutions," said Stewart Schwartz, director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a group of more than 40 area organizations working to fight sprawl and promote livable communities with good transportation. "There are great examples of smart growth in this region, and there's still a great deal of suburban sprawl."
Adrienne Whyte, a land-use activist from Falls Church who is active in McLean civic affairs, is more skeptical. "You can't argue with the principles of smart growth," she said. "But most citizen activist groups already know about it and find it shameful the way it's used."
For example, several dense developments approved near Metro stations in Fairfax County have not resulted in enough preservation of open space elsewhere to compensate, she said. Or dense projects break ground that are not within walking distance of public transit.
And in Vienna, opposition is mounting to a proposed development of eight high-rise towers, 2,350 units total, next to the Vienna Metro station. In theory, the project is smart growth. But neighbors are fighting it vigorously, opposing the number of units and the proposed use of public parkland for a storm water management pond. The Fairfax Planning Commission is scheduled to vote this month on whether to support the Vienna project.