Smart Growth

A Tale of Two Cities in Maryland and Virginia

The Washington, D.C. region, already under tremendous pressure in terms of housing and traffic congestion, is expected to swell by another two million people within 25 years. The city now has the third worst traffic in the country. The traditional response—building new roads and new housing further outward—produces sprawl, longer commutes and environmental damage. But more sustainable development is happening in two of D.C.’s established suburbs: Arlington, Virginia and Silver Spring, Maryland. Here, Smart Growth policies are recreating an older sense of neighborhood as an antidote to sprawl.

Arlington, Virginia is a model of Smart Growth, with rail-based development and a walkable downtown dotted with pocket parks.© Ethan Goffman

Smart Growth principles advocate developing jobs, housing and shopping within close proximity of one another. The principles focus on renovating cities and inner suburbs, encouraging residents to walk or take public transportation, enhancing mass transit options and avoiding further environmental fragmentation.

Arlington’s Clarendon Corridor is a model for Smart Growth. In the two-mile strip there are four Metro stops, major commuting roads have been diverted around the city center, and development is a mix of business and residential. Nearby Silver Spring, long stagnant, has finally entered renaissance following Smart Growth policies, but must overcome mass transit and traffic issues for fully-integrated solutions.

Arlington’s planning board has long supported development around Metro stations. In 1984, the revised master plan incorporated high-rise buildings interspersed with green pocket parks, endowing Arlington’s urban village with a taste of nature.

Robert Brosnan, director of the Arlington County Planning Department, points to the Clarendon Corridor’s "concentration of mixed business and residential use with heavy emphasis on walkability." Plans mandate a variety of housing types, including low-income housing, high-rise condos, garden-style apartments and single-family homes. Zoning ensures that the tallest buildings are clustered around Metro stations, while low-density residential neighborhoods further out are maintained.

Daniel Arthur Klein, a middle-aged professional who has lived in Arlington on-and-off since 1985, says he doesn’t need a driver’s license. He takes the Metro to work and his children walk to school. He describes the area as a "nice blend of urban, suburban and small town convenience."

Klein is not a statistical anomaly. As of 2005, half the residents in the Clarendon Corridor walk or take mass transit to work. Corridor residents own 1.13 vehicles per household versus 1.53 in the rest of the county. At the Ballston Metro stop, 65 percent of riders walk to the station. The number of supermarkets in the Corridor has blossomed from one to four, along with a boom in restaurants and multi-screen cinemas. And a development that under a sprawl scenario would have covered 14 square miles was restricted to just two square miles.

Silver Spring"s malls and wide highways have made it very car-centric, but that is slowly changing.© Ethan Goffman

Unlike Arlington, Silver Spring in the late 20th century suffered the fate of most American inner suburbs, becoming a drive-through town on the way to somewhere else rather than a destination. "In the late 1980s and early "90s, Silver Spring was still dead" explains Gary Stith, director of the Silver Spring Regional Center. The turnaround came with aggressive Smart Growth policies following a 1998 Maryland statewide initiative.

The heart of the revitalization is the new downtown that combines revitalized architecture with new buildings, fountains, restaurants and upscale shops. On weekends, people pour in from nearby Prince George’s County, and the town center pulses with shoppers and live music.

Residential complexes are sprouting too. After a long period of limbo, Stith explains, 880 new units, mostly condos, have been sold in the last few years, with 840 more under construction. Many of these are conversions of older buildings that had fallen into disrepair. "Silver Spring has done a good job of retaining its architecture," explains Brosnan. "There are still some cool, old buildings."

Yet Silver Spring’s transportation geography continues to haunt it, explains Klein. The downtown is a bubble surrounded by pedestrian-hostile zones. Some large intersections, like the one at New Hampshire and Colesville Avenues, are difficult to cross on foot. "The biggest problem in downtown Silver Spring is the wide streets," says John Wetmore, producer of Perils for Pedestrians, a public access television show. "Most deaths occur on roads six lanes or wider."

The Silver Spring Regional Authority has been upgrading dangerous intersections, placing new crossings at strategic points, widening sidewalks and adding traffic signals. Within downtown, Smart Growth principles create a calm environment for walkers and shoppers.

A couple of blocks away, however, the Metro Center lies cut off like a fortress by a moat of busy streets. The buses snaking round in a convoluted pattern frequently stall rush-hour traffic. The Silver Spring Regional Authority has designed a multilevel transit center that will smoothly ferry buses in and out. It is scheduled to open in 2009.

Downtown transit plans have also been hampered by a bitter decades-long fight over an East-West light rail line that would connect various spokes of the D.C. Metro system. Intended to run over an old freight rail bed, the line has been blocked by Bethesda activist groups and by a country club that would be disrupted. Completion of a trail for walking and biking to downtown Silver Spring has also been delayed.

Still, the situation is likely to change for the better in the coming years. "There is a need for growth of political will to sustain changes brought about by Smart Growth," says Brosnan. Increased gas prices are motivating inner suburb revitalization. "Transportation has always been a critical factor," explains Stith. "With rising gas and congestion, it’s even more critical."

Demographic trends indicate the need for Smart Growth principles. "More people are turning 65 than ever before, and the numbers will double in four or five years," explains Chris Nelson, director of urban affairs planning at Virginia Tech.

Empty nesters are already beginning to move into smaller units in manageable urban neighborhoods with amenities and public transportation, he explains. Currently, adds Nelson, "zoning patterns in the suburbs allow for only large lots and single family housing. About 2015 the market will probably change to small lots and attached units."

Growing urban populations, increased environmental impact and changing population demographics will force American communities to respond and evolve accordingly. Arlington and Silver Spring are prime examples of what could become the new standard for Smart Growth, sustainable neighborhoods and quality lifestyle.