Debating the idea of a “perfect suburbia” in Montgomery County, Maryland

Amidst debates about sprawl and development in Montgomery County, Maryland, one commentator argues that whatever happens, it is impossible to return to a “perfect suburbia” that perhaps never really existed.

In the 1940’s, when much of Montgomery County was farmland, some people were probably upset to see their communities transition from rural to suburban. Others might have been excited at the prospect of new amenities, new neighbors, and the county’s emerging reputation as an affluent bedroom community. But no one really voted for that change to happen. It happened because of market demand for new housing, a lack of buildable land in Washington (and the declining status of the inner city), and a county government who, much like today, saw that people were coming and wanted to accommodate them appropriately.

Sixty years later, Montgomery County is a very different place. It’s a majority-minority county now. The Post did a story just yesterday about the gigantic Asian community in Montgomery County. Though many of those Asian immigrants have settled in so-called “suburban” places like Rockville or Germantown, studies show (PDF!) that they’re interested in a greater sense of community. For people who grew up in dense Asian cities, Montgomery County is the “perfect suburbia,” but not in the same way that Rose Crenca describes it…

Montgomery County became the “perfect suburbia” because people were invited in. We could turn people away who don’t look like us, who don’t think like us, who want to live in apartments, who make less money than us or get around on foot or by bus. But we wouldn’t suddenly go back to 1949 as a result. In fact, the county that would result would be far, far worse than what we have today.

Many people worry that plans to encourage urban development in Montgomery County is “imposing” a way of life on them. In fact, the opposite is true. Those, like Rose Crenca, who still cling to a “perfect suburbia” which may or may not have existed, are the ones telling other people how to live.

This is a common issue in debates about development: which vision of a suburbia will win out? There are lots of possible “winning” models: a place with lots of open space and plenty of restrictions on sprawl, places where redevelopment (and perhaps densification) is encouraged, places with a diverse population (Montgomery County is quite diverse compared to a lot of wealthy suburban counties), places that seem frozen in time. Of course, another way to look at this is who has the power to carry out their vision? Overall, this idea of an “ideal suburbia” is fascinating as people likely have some very different views.

Another aspect of suburban development debates is that it often pits “old-timers” against newcomers, people who have enjoyed the community for decades versus those who want to enjoy the community for decades. These groups might be very different demographically and therefore have very different visions of the world. For example, this blog post seems to pit a vision from an older resident who is partly worried about where older residents fit in the vision for Montgomery County. As land and home prices increase, older residents can be priced out of communities to which they have contributed. This is a particularly interesting issue in a lot of suburbs and is often behind what suburbs mean when they talk about affordable housing: how can we promote housing that allows our older residents to still live here? At the same time, communities don’t remain frozen in time and things change. Appealing counties such as Montgomery County are likely to draw a broad group of people looking for their own suburban ideal made up of quality (cheaper?) housing, good schools, and safety. This old-timer/newcomer split can last for quite a while until a community becomes characterized by a more transient population which is often tied to a spurt in growth.

The irony in all of this is that once you move into a community, it is likely to never be exactly the same again. New waves of growth tend to bring about different kinds of development and businesses. Places are not static; they tend to be dynamic as people and organizations move in and out. Managing this kind of growth can be done so it doesn’t turn into incomprehensible sprawl but change itself is inevitable.

I would also suggest that the people criticizing Rose Crenca for her views may just be promoting similar views in a decade or two after they have settled into Montgomery County and want to preserve the best of the county as they envision it. This is the essence of NIMBYism.

Improving suburban roads in Montgomery County

The suburbs are full of roads. But, as many have noted, these roads are primarily built for the fastest automobile speeds between Points A and B. Montgomery County, Maryland has put together a plan to improve their roadways:

As a result, Montgomery has actually been in the business of “retrofitting” or “repairing” the suburbs (very gradually, to be sure) since before planners began to call it that. Now, it has undertaken a pilot study on two stretches of roadway in the county to evaluate the use of green infrastructure – strategically placed vegetation and other methods that reduce polluted runoff by using or mimicking natural hydrology – along with measures to better accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists. One is an arterial road that goes through residential areas, the other a wide commercial street. Both showed there was much potential, and Montgomery is now planning to integrate more environmental features into its streets…

Note that the changes are not extensive, for the most part, but incremental: subtle narrowing of traffic lanes to slow auto speed; plantings in medians, along sidewalks and in parking lots to capture and filter rainwater; bike lanes and wider sidewalks to accommodate non-motorized users; striping to mark a people-first pedestrian lane where a sidewalk may not be feasible…

There’s a lot to like about Montgomery’s initiative, including that it brings together three relatively new and successful – but often independently successful – lines of sustainability thinking and planning: redesigning suburbs; green infrastructure; and “complete streets” that accommodate all types of users. It reminds us that the greatest potential for sustainable communities lies with the integration of ideas and purposes. I hope this kind of initiative continues to catch on.

This seems to include a number of techniques New Urbanists have talked about for years.

What I like best about this is that it is hard to argue against these changes. Generally, busy roads are either nondescript or unattractive so these changes help improve the aesthetics. Runoff is a common suburban problem and no one likes having to drive through big puddles. Carving out space for other users of the roads would appeal to a lot of people (as long as the bikers and drivers can get along – not a guarantee in some places). And this should be safer as we know that narrower roads tend to slow drivers down.

The only problem that I could envision: how much do these subtle but helpful changes cost? It might be a good amount of money upfront but then reduced costs (and perhaps even savings?) down the road (fewer accidents, fewer cars on the road so less road maintenance, etc.). Are taxpayers willing to pay to improve already pretty good roads (generally defined as very drivable and fast)?

It will be interesting to see how this plays out and how much they expand the program.