The suburbs have a familiar routine: If you need to get somewhere, hop in the car and drive there. Two errands? You’ll be driving to that second destination, too.
But what happens when a suburban center, filled mostly with office buildings, starts to look more like a densely populated city, more urban? Towson is finding out.
Today, cranes swing across Towson’s skyline. Tomorrow, those dusty construction sites will be large, mixed-use developments.
Towson Row and Avalon Bay, two construction projects in Towson’s core, are set to add more than 500 apartment units. Also under construction is 101 York, a student housing building that will add hundreds more. The population of the area, less than one square mile, is skyrocketing.
“We’re going to be like a little downtown,” said Nancy Hafford, director of the Towson Chamber of Commerce.
Just over the past couple of years, Hafford said she has seen a shift: from a suburban outpost to a more urban community.
According to Matthew Bell, a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland specializing in urban design and planning, the difference between a crowded suburb and a livable urban area is all about getting people out of their cars and walking the streets.
“Just because you have density doesn’t mean you have good urbanism,” Bell said. “You have to have streets that are worth walking down to make it worthwhile for people to go there.”
Hafford, who lives in the Palisades of Towson apartment building, walks everywhere, parking her car for weeks at a time. The goal for Towson cheerleaders as the area becomes more dense is to get others to do the same.
“We cannot widen our streets,” said Katie Pinheiro, director of the Greater Towson Committee, another association of business interests. “We want to encourage people to park their cars, get out of their cars and walk and enjoy all of Towson.”
One simple way area organizations are trying to entice people to walk is by keeping the streets clean and nice-looking.
Hafford said the chamber has someone working on street beautification seven days a week. Just over the past couple of weeks, she said, the chamber has spent about $9,000 on beautification projects like flower baskets and a community cleanup.
She said the chamber also has worked with county police in the past few years to place things like planters and recycling bins in areas that also will protect pedestrians from cars.
About walkability, Hafford said, “We don’t talk about doing it, we do it.”
The Greater Towson Committee is also looking to get into the beautification business. Pinheiro said some funding has been secured for power-washing York Road, the first step in a three-part plan the committee hopes will entice people to walk more in the downtown zone.
The plan, Pinheiro said, is to power-wash the street and sidewalks from the circle south to Towsontown Boulevard.
Once funding is secured, the committee hopes to power-wash the area between two and four times a year.
Pinheiro said the next step would be street sweeping throughout downtown, including in alleys and side streets. The county already sweeps streets, but Pinheiro said with Towson’s growth, “it’s impossible to keep up with a bustling downtown area as much as they should.”
Greater Towson Committee’s third idea for improving walkability is one Pinheiro cautioned is much further down the line: private security.
Under the proposal, Pinheiro said two security guards — one armed and one unarmed — would patrol the area during the summer months, “just to let people know we’re here, it’s safe, we’re looking out for people.”
But Pinheiro said that with funding still in the works for the street-cleaning programs, private security is “several months away at a minimum.” She said the Greater Towson Committee would have meetings to ensure community support before implementing it.
County police Capt. Jan Brown of the Towson Precinct, does not think private security is necessary. But, he said Towson’s growth does create challenges for his own precinct: As downtown Towson changes, so does the task of policing it.
Cars don’t cut it for dense urban areas, Brown said, adding that officers have to get out of their vehicles and interact with the community.
To achieve that goal, the precinct currently has three T3 Patrollers, three-wheel standing vehicles similar to Segways to patrol the area. They are also incorporating bicycles and foot patrol officers more, Brown said.
“This is the only place in the county that kind of offers this environment … and of course, it’s growing,” Brown said. “In the next year and a half, if we don’t get out of our cars we’re going to have problems.”
Though Brown said the precinct can absorb some of that growth, eventually as the population rises police likely will need to add officers to their ranks.
Safety from crime and cars is important to getting people to walk around an area, but Bell, the University of Maryland professor, said the most important thing is making sure people are walking past something more than a blank wall and a parking lot.
“People will walk down streets that have interesting things on them,” he said.
The Towson Creative Partnership, spearheaded by Knollwood Association President David Riley, is working to add interest to streets with murals throughout downtown Towson.
The group is actively fundraising and is planning its first mural on the Wells Fargo building off York Road.
Riley said he wants to capitalize on the area’s “creative energy,” which he said is bolstered by nearby Towson University. His dream is to put up enough murals in Towson so that people will “make it a destination” for walking tours.
“If something is going to be walkable, they have to have something to walk to,” Riley said.
Bell cautioned that though public art is a good thing, it cannot be the only thing that draws people to a place.
“Most people aren’t going to go to some town just to see a mural,” Bell said, adding that “it’s nice when they get there, it’s something that adds value.”
Bell’s advice to an urbanizing Towson is to capitalize on the university and the large population of students it offers. If he were in charge of Towson, he said he would be “doing everything I could to make it easier to walk from campus to the downtown.”
The most successful suburban-turned-urban are places like Bethesda, which he said is “transforming into a real downtown” thanks to walkable streets, enticing shopping and public transportation, Bell said.
For an urban suburb to thrive without a Metro stop, Bell said it takes a little more: walkable streets and diverse uses that make people want to park their cars and leave them there.