Smart growth is not a rural or urban issue, it's a Maryland issue

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan used his annual address at the Maryland Association of Counties (MACo) conference in Ocean City to bring planning and growth back into the news cycle. As the director of the National Center for Smart Growth at the University of Maryland, I welcome the discussion.

At the MACo conference, the governor signed an executive order committing the Maryland Department of Planning, the Sustainable Growth Commission and the Smart Growth sub-cabinet to the reconstruction of the state development plan. He also announced the end of PlanMaryland, the plan developed by the O’Malley administration to encourage smart land use practices throughout the state. While some advocates worry that this is a dagger in the heart of smart growth, I am more hopeful.

Many pundits perceive the Hogan administration to serve a largely rural constituency, but the governor has provided critical support for important urban transportation projects like the Purple Line in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, while pleasing conservation and environmentalist activists by sustaining funding for Program Open Space and re-upping support for the nine-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative climate compact.

However, the governor also killed funding for the Red Line light rail in Baltimore City and has consistently signaled a strong preference for road projects over transit. But does abandoning PlanMaryland signal the end of Smart Growth? Perhaps not.

PlanMaryland was criticized by rural officials as usurping local land use control, but in reality, it simply placed existing state programs such as Priority Funding Areas, Rural Legacy areas, Sustainable Communities and other state designations on a single map to better coordinate existing state programs. It’s primary shortcoming, however, was that it did not provide a compelling vision for a 21st century Maryland. That vision is precisely what Maryland needs right now.

Maryland continues to grow — projections indicate that our state population will increase by nearly a million people in the next 25 years. Think traffic is bad now? If we don’t put the right infrastructure and systems in place now, it will get much worse. The planning decisions we make today will determine the future health of our communities and our economy.

The world is a much different place than it was just 20 years ago when the concept of Smart Growth was pioneered in Maryland. Climate change impacts such as rising sea levels, increased flood risks and more extreme weather events must be factored into planning decisions. New technologies such as self-driving cars could dramatically impact how Marylanders move around the state. Increasing demand for renewable energy and a desire to assure affordable housing are other considerations for this generation of planners.

I believe we are up to this challenge. We have an opportunity to renew our commitment to Smart Growth and calibrate it for the Maryland of today — and tomorrow. To do that, local and state officials need to work together to put policies in place that will benefit all Marylanders. This is not a rural issue or an urban issue— it is a Maryland issue.

What we need now is to cultivate a new Smart Growth. One that builds on the elements of the current model but updates it with key factors that were not considered back in the 1990s.

Governor Hogan should work with both state and local constituencies to develop a new plan that:

• preserves the best existing smart growth practices;

• promotes balanced economic development;

• stimulates the adoption of renewable energy;

• encourages resource conservation;

• helps build a 21st century workforce;

• and promotes equitable access to opportunity across the state.

This year is the 20th anniversary of the adoption of Smart Growth in Maryland. Let’s celebrate by putting our state on a path to a vibrant and sustainable future that all Marylanders can embrace.

Gerrit Knaap is executive director of the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education at the University of Maryland. His email is gknaap@umd.edu.

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