Sunday, December 30, 2012

Why tensions are at a fever pitch over proposals targeting open spaces (e.g. parks) within Baltimore County for development and what YOU can do about it.

A park targeted for a new fire house. Another park targeted for a new school.  If public reaction to these recent headlines and their related stories about the possible development of existing park land is, in any way, a barometer of tension over the use of scarce open space within Baltimore County’s growth line (aka, “the URDL”),  then “Houston” we do, indeed, have “a problem” – tensions are running at a fever pitch.  

The “problem” has its origins in the large-scale urban decentralization of housing and jobs that followed on the heels of World War II.  Across the U.S. and in Baltimore, economic prosperity, and the desire of suburban counties to enhance their tax bases, resulted in population flight from cities to new homes and communities being built in suburban areas that we now call “inner suburbs,” like those shown in the map above.  These communities, which were connected to the city by major radial roadways but relatively disconnected from one another, were then joined by the development of beltways, which also served to provide a freeway bypass of the city and to hasten our car dependency. The Baltimore Beltway was the first such highway completed as part of the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways between 1956 and 1977.

Conventional zoning applied to these new communities segregates land uses, such that there are separate areas for homes, businesses, and schools.  More often than not, the distance between these uses means that communities are unwalkable and car-dependent, an issue we have highlighted in earlier posts.  In addition, there were no rules until recently requiring developers to set aside land for public open space, leaving many of the communities within the County’s inner suburbs with no parks within a five- to ten-minute walk from home. 

As land for development became increasingly scarce within the inner suburbs, attention turned to the farmland that lay beyond them. In many areas across the country, counties were slow to act on sprawling development, with the result that large numbers of farms and natural areas were lost forever. To a large extent, Baltimore County avoided this result by creating the Urban Rural Demarcation Line (URDL), shown in the map, above, in 1967.  Beyond this growth line, no public water or sewer infrastructure can be provided, with the result that large-scale developments cannot be constructed there. Roughly one quarter of this land has been placed in conservation easements (with aid from other land trusts and often with aid of public funding) over time, protecting it from development forever.

The existence of the URDL clearly halted the spread of population beyond its boundaries, as 90 percent of the County’s 807,000 residents now live within it.  As noted above, however, the communities within the URDL boundary can hardly be called idyllic, void as they are of open space, poorly planned, and largely unwalkable. Should there be any surprise, then, that residents of these communities bristle when park land is threatened by development?

The answer, and a widely accepted one, is “No.” There is widespread agreement among experts familiar with these issues that quality public open space, among many other things, is central to the livability of inner suburbs.  In his recent book entitled, Transforming Race & Class in Suburbia, Thomas J. Vicino characterizes the County’s inner suburbs as being “at a crossroads” in terms of needed investments, like parks, that will make them more attractive places to live and work.  Architect Ellen Dunham-Jones, in her recent book, Retrofitting Suburbia, argues for transformative change to the suburban built environment, especially projects that “introduce compelling public space.”

To its credit, the County has taken a large step in the direction urged by Vicino and Dunham-Jones by targeting over 50 “Community Enhancement Areas” for redevelopment in the latest Master Plan approved by the County Council in 2010.  Shown in the map below, most of these areas are along commercial corridors and many are characterized by failing or defunct uses and acres of underperforming impervious surface. The idea is to retrofit some of this land for public parks and squares and to redevelop the 

balance into well planned, mixed-use communities, something we’ve dubbed “retrofitting subURDLia.” In this way, projected growth in the County is accommodated, some of the planning blunders of the last century are ameliorated, and, hopefully, existing open spaces (e.g. parks) are held harmless from development.

In the two years that this plan has been on the books, how many of these projects have been launched?  The answer is “not many” and the reasons are prolific.  But our case is not one of first impression.  Other jurisdictions within Maryland and outside of it are successfully redeveloping their inner suburbs and we can learn from them.  To that end, NeighborSpace is sponsoring “Retrofitting SubURDLia,” a benefit breakfast, on Thursday, January 10, 2013 form 7:30 to 9:30 AM at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Timonium, where State Planning Secretary, Rich Hall, and ULI Fellow, Ed McMahon, will offer perspectives on how we can channel development to our CEAs and improve the livability of the communities within the URDL that so many of us call home.  More information about the event and reservations can be found on our home page at Questions may be directed to Barbara Hopkins, Executive Director, at 443-610-8601 or at

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