Woodglen Cycle Track in White Flint, MD. Photo courtesy of Dan Reed, via Flickr.
Home to more than one million residents and a thriving high-tech economy, Montgomery County, MD is far from a typical American suburb.
Located adjacent to Washington, DC, the county boasts strong research and biotechnology sectors, backed by one of the region’s mostly highly-educated populations: over half of residents above the age of 25 hold a college degree or higher. Now, thanks to the work of pioneering officials like Councilmember Roger Berliner, a member of the Maryland Chapter of Smart Growth America’s Local Leaders Council, Montgomery County has another badge of honor: it’s an emerging smart growth hot-spot.
“We have wonderful schools, wonderful green space, and one third of the county is set aside as an agricultural reserve. We are the economic engine of the state of Maryland,” says Councilmember Berliner. “We have historically been a suburban community and are now experiencing the growth of urban nodes and the benefits of those nodes in areas like Bethesda, Silver Spring, and Germantown.”
For Berliner, smart growth is the key to the county’s future. “I would like to reduce our carbon footprint, reduce people commuting through our community, increase opportunities for mass transit, and create vibrant, walkable, and bikeable communities,” he says. “At the same time, I would like to maintain the integrity and splendor of our wonderful residential neighborhoods. It is not a conflict to preserve neighborhoods and also create urban nodes—they don’t conflict with one another, they help one another.”
One of the key efforts towards achieving this vision is the White Flint Sector Plan, which was adopted by the County Council in 2010. The plan aimed to transform Rockville Pike, a large highway with suburban strip malls adjacent to a metro station, into a grand boulevard with transit options, green space, and mixed uses. The plan is well under construction, with many developers responding to the market demand for walkable, transit-accessible communities. Over the next 20 years, the plan is expected to generate $7 billion in revenue.
“What made the White Flint process work was the extent of the community engagement,” says Berliner. “Initially the surrounding communities were very reluctant—because those roads are some of the most congested in the county. It took years of work with the community, with the development community, with planners all working together to come to a common understanding of what the opportunity was and how we would address it.”
The key to bringing them all together? “Presenting them with a vision that they could get excited about,” he says. “We are trying to transform a barren, dangerous, car-centric corridor into something that supports life in its fullest. People were able to get their arms around that.”
Recently, the Sector Plan was threatened when the Montgomery County DOT released new road designs that widened the road with additional lanes and ignored the design laid out in the Sector Plan. Councilmember Berliner has been fighting to protect the community’s vision by working with the County Council, the Secretary of Transportation, writing an op-ed, and leading a walking tour. “This has been a debate that has been going on beneath the surface and has now come to the surface. It is a function of the culture of those who deal with roads that they give primacy to cars.”
“I feel that it is important to wage this fight now and make it as public as we need it to be,” Berliner says. “I think that at the end of the day, we will prevail.”