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The Case for a D.C.-Baltimore Mega-Region

The Case for a D.C.-Baltimore Mega-Region
Courtesy State of Maryland

Last Friday, Maryland released the latest draft of PlanMaryland, the state's ambitious effort "to encourage smart growth and to discourage sprawl." The new draft takes into account comments received since the previous version, which was released in April. It makes a compelling case for developing Maryland into higher density residential pockets strategically placed along established lines of road, transit, and water infrastructure. If it succeeds, Maryland circa 2035 will be dominated by a strong orange-red D.C.-Baltimore mega-region:

A little background. In the past few decades, land development in Maryland has grown at three times the rate of population. The state will add a million residents by 2035 — it's already the fifth highest-density state in the country — but, unless it invades Delaware, it can't add more land. Right now more than a quarter of all the state's land has been developed. A majority of that development has been dedicated to single-family homes of low (at least half an acre per housing unit) or very low density (5-20 acres per unit). At the current growth rate, Maryland will lose more than 400,000 acres of land to this type of development by 2035. "The tide of development keeps churning outward," says the new draft, "weakening communities at the core and natural resources at the edge."

The problem with this type of sprawl — well, one problem — is that it creates a wide and costly gap between where people live and where they work. Right now 77 percent of Marylanders commute to work alone. When increased population leads to increased congestion, by 2035, that figure will increase to 84 percent, and the average commute will be just under 40 minutes. This image shows just how far most Marylanders live from centers of employment:

To service this auto-centric growth, the state will need to build thousands of miles of new roads at a cost of billions of dollars. In addition to construction costs, building roads to serve sprawl carries a relative cost of rendering existing transit systems less effective. That's a particular burden for low-income residents who can't afford to locate close to main mass transit lines, since the cost of owning a car in Maryland is estimated by the plan at $8,500 a year.

The solution proposed by PlanMaryland is to increase housing density in areas that already have roads, water systems, and transit access — in other words, to build upon the built. That means expanding outward from the city by focusing funding on "priority" areas where the density is at least 3.5 housing units per acre. If that type of growth captures 80 percent of development in each Maryland county, and if low, non-priority areas are developed at no more than one unit per 20 acres, the state will save 300,000 acres of land by 2030.

It will also save lots of money: about $1.5 billion a year in spending on roads, schools, and other infrastructure, according to the plan. An analysis conducted last year [PDF] by the state planning department compares the cost of the current growth to the cost of smart growth by 2030 (PFA stands for "priority funding area"):


That's $4 billion in public savings for the suburbs and $7 billion for the exurbs in road costs alone. Households will benefit, too. The 2005 book Sprawl Costs estimates that residents of the Washington-Baltimore area will save about $6,000 if just a quarter of the region's expected low-density development becomes high-density by 2025. As businesses join homes in priority areas, communities will become more walkable, which in turn makes homes more valuable, according to the latest Christopher Leinberger wisdom.

So what's not to like? If you're a local authority, apparently a lot. PlanMaryland has already produced outrage among county commissioners, who fear it will strip them of their planning authority. It's hard to see how. For one thing, PlanMaryland requires no new laws; everything in the plan merely executes laws on the books more efficiently. And state planners won't act unilaterally; local governments will nominate zoning districts for priority status. Yet "don't tell us what to do" must be the most frequent complaint the state has heard from local leaders, because the latest draft of the plan addresses it directly:

We intend no inference that the plan is a message from the state that it “knows all” and needs to “correct” local governments. To the contrary, the document is actually a striking acknowledgment from government — from any level of government — that its various agencies have sometimes worked at cross purposes and haven’t been as effective as they could in trying to fulfill the shared goal of smarter growth. PlanMaryland, we believe, is what the public says it wants and deserves in government; that is, leadership willing to take a critical self-assessment and examine ways to work better, more effectively and more efficiently.

The public has 60 more days to comment on the current draft before state planners submit a final version to Governor Martin O'Malley, who strongly supports the plan's philosophy. Some locals are crying for more time — as much as a year, even. Considering that officials have already had four months to review the plan, making six months of review in all, such requests look a lot like a stall tactic. It took six months to walk the Oregon Trail; reviewing a key state plan of reasonable length should take considerably less time. (Plus, no typhoid.)

In many respects the fear displayed by local authorities reflects the strength of the plan. While livability critics often cry about public expenditures, PlanMaryland demonstrates a significant public savings. Without their go-to argument, opponents have no choice but to call the plan a corruption of their individuality. Well, the new draft addresses that too — 

We don’t believe that sound planning is anathema to individual property rights. Sprawl … isn’t the result of an individual action. It’s the collective result of numerous similar but distinctly separate actions. A plan that produces better alternatives will provide more choices and less impact.

— though Governor O'Malley recently addressed it with a bit more bite:

"This is not a wall that prohibits counties from making stupid land-use decisions. They’re still free to do that, but we’re not going to subsidize it any more."

All images courtesy State of Maryland

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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