Stories from the NFCCA Newsletter, the “Northwood News”

Northwood News ♦ December 2012

High on Density, Low on Smarts

By Carole A. Barth

Many of us in Montgomery County feel like our communities are under attack from the County’s push to massively increase densities while failing to maintain basic infrastructure and services for existing developed areas.  In turn, planners and public officials criticize citizens for being resistant to change.  We are admonished to give up our outmoded ideas of neighborhood and embrace the current one-size-fits-all “vision” of the future.

“Densify or Die” seems to be the message.  Dump your kids, car, dogs, and other impedimenta so you can move into that loft or micro-efficiency in the town center.  Quit the career you spent a decade training for, the business you’ve been building, or the public service you devoted your adult life to so you can get a job in the commercial space attached to your new building.  (Can you say tall, venti, grande?)

“What’s that I hear you say?  What about your spouse’s career teaching disadvantaged kids in a blighted neighborhood in a neighboring jurisdiction?  Sorry, our vision does not encompass complexities such as families with commutes in different directions or even single people whose jobs and homes are not located along a simple straight line down a single transportation corridor.”

My point is not that the fashion for high-density mixed use is necessarily bad; my point is that too often our approach to this model of development is shallow, simplistic, and ultimately impractical.  I’m reminded of classic science fiction illustrations where everybody in the city of the future sports the same haircut and identical lycra bodysuits.  Real people and communities, however, tend to be much messier and more complex.

Nobody expected the sci-fi visionaries of the 1950s to actually create faster-than-light propulsion or reliable personal jet packs.  Montgomery County residents, however, do have the right to expect our planners and officials to throughly consider the impacts of their decisions.  They should also be able to answer our questions without resorting to magical thinking (e.g., if we approve all this mega development, a reliable electric grid with sufficient capacity to support it all will magically appear).

A great place to start would be to have a growth management policy that actually manages growth.  But as Jim Humphrey pointed out in his excellent 23 August 2012 Montgomery County Civic Federation column, Lost:  One Growth Policy, “The county process for deciding the appropriate amount of growth is nonexistent. It’s a little like throwing darts at a blank wall and telling everyone you’re hitting the target.  We don’t have a clue what goal we are aiming at, or whether the amount of growth that’s planned is sustainable.”

In his 1 November 2012 column, Time for Growth to Pay for Itself, Humphrey also notes, “Another problem is that the Council did away with development moratoriums in 2003.  Until then, if the infrastructure in any given area of the county — especially the schools, roads, and transit capacity — could not accommodate additional growth, then a moratorium was placed on new development approvals until the county could fund the needed additional infrastructure.”

It’s hard to see how we can ever come close to the shiny future depicted by the advocates of high-density mixed-use development without considering these fundamental questions.   ■

   © 2012 NFCCA  [Source:]