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5 Questions About Smart Growth

Former Maryland Governor Parris Glendening explains why sprawl is not smart for the environment, the economy, social equity or communities for people of all ages

Parris Glendening, Portrait, Interview, Livable Communities

Courtesy photo

"Smart Growth makes a point of supporting existing communities while not subsidizing sprawl," explains Parris Glendening.


During his tenure as Maryland's governor (1995-2003) and in his two previous decades as a local elected official, Parris Glendening began to notice that urban and suburban sprawl was wreaking havoc on his state's most treasured natural resource — the Chesapeake Bay.

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Glendening began to make major changes in state policy that have had a lasting impact not only in Maryland but also in urban, suburban and rural landscapes across the country. Called "smart growth," the program incentivizes redevelopment of existing urban and suburban areas and emphasizes land preservation in more rural localities.

Glendening is a New Yorker by birth (he was born in the Bronx), but he spent his formative years in Broward County, Florida. The only person in his family to attend college, in 1967 Glendening became the youngest student to earn a Ph.D. (political science) from Florida State University. He then landed a teaching job at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he taught for 27 years.

His political career began in 1972, when he was elected to the Hyattsville City Council. Two years later, he was elected to the Prince George's County Council. From 1982 to 1994 he served as the elected County Executive for Prince George's County before being elected governor.

Today, as president of the Smart Growth America Leadership Institute, Glendening trains others to implement smart growth policies and practices in their communities.

Satellite image of Washington DC paved surfaces in 1984 and 2010

Images by NASA Earth Observatory

PAVING WASHINGTON: "The pace of development, 9 to 11 square kilometers per year, was striking," said Joseph Sexton, a scientist at the University of Maryland. "If we assume, conservatively, that the depth of impervious cover is about one-tenth of a meter, then that equals one million cubic meters of pavement, buildings and the like every year for nearly three decades."

1. Explain what smart growth is and what it isn’t.

Smart growth is about creating and supporting communities that offer people choices in transportation, housing and employment opportunities. It makes a point of supporting existing communities while not subsidizing sprawl. Specifically, it's walkable communities, mixed-use, and the availability of transit.

This is nothing new. For most of mankind's existence, we lived and worked in the same place. Not only farmers, but also if you went to most cities up until maybe the 1930s and 1940s, you would find that people lived over their store or right down the block. We gradually segregated places and activities to the point that people became absolutely dependent on the automobile. So now you have to get in a 3,000-pound car to drive two miles to get one gallon of milk. It makes no sense at all.

Most cities get smart growth. This is one of the things we constantly stress: Yes, this works in an urban area, but it can be any size community. Literally, it can be a crossroads community, five homes and two major roads. But for large cities — they get it. One of the things we have to work very hard at is that they don’t get it too much. By that, we mean there is a tendency sometimes to go in and just tear everything down. We believe very strongly in preservation, not just historic preservation, but we don’t want everything to be 15-story high-rise condominiums.

2. Looking back, what land use and development decisions — by yourself or others — do you wish could be undone or at the very least no longer considered standard practice?

This is a confession I have given elsewhere, but basically my role in land use and planning decisions during my eight years on the Prince George's County Council. It was a different environment. I don’t believe that most people at that time had thought it through. I did vote fairly consistently for a pattern that is the problem: sprawl and development.

I first started to get it when I was county executive. I remember seeing one of the first subdivisions going into a rural and agricultural area. We decided to start working with the state and planning departments to make it a continuous agriculture area. The whole system was stacked against doing so. If you're a businessperson, you're looking at the bottom line. Maybe you get this huge abandoned old warehouse area where you can do anything you want, but you have to spend a lot of money to cleanup the contamination, or "brownfields."   

Back then, that was a real challenge. Today it's the reverse. If you get a big industrial tract, there is almost certainly pollution for which you can get state and federal help for cleanup. The big ones are obvious and you can often qualify for federal assistance, but it takes years and years. There are still challenges for reuse in communities, such as redeveloping the site of a dry cleaner or an old gas station. But, overall, at the state and national level, there's now more infill development because it makes economic sense — because the rules of the game have been changed.

3. In 1998, when you were the governor of Maryland, you created and signed into law the Smart Growth Act. What led you, at the time, to making the issue one of your priorities? What’s been the impact of that legislation, and similar efforts in other states?

When I was in college I went to Florida State University in Tallahassee. On long weekends, I would go home to Broward County, which is about 450 miles south and where Fort Lauderdale is located, because I had an ongoing part-time job there as a machinist's helper. I would take the back routes to avoid tolls, and I'd cut through the edge of the Everglades. As I worked my way through my various degrees, I could see a change. The area was being developed.

Now, you go out 50 miles into the Everglades and it's all developed. I wasn't born an environmentalist, but I could see the loss of a great natural resource over time. I could see that the Everglades was being filled in, that it was being paved over.

When I ran for governor of Maryland, I wanted to focus on the environment and the Chesapeake Bay. I went to my advisors and we realized that what happens on the land affects the water. It's simple. We had to change what was happening on the land. We had to protect the open space. The most important thing was to stop the sprawl.

Then, we said, "OK, how do you do it?"

It's easiest to draw a development boundary. Oregon and Washington states did this back in the 1950s. But you couldn’t do that on the East Coast in the 1990s. So what we did was to go through and look at the policies. We developed laws and policies in the state to support reinvestment of existing spaces and not to subsidize sprawl.

For example, in Maryland, the state pays about 50 percent in school construction money. When we started, about 80 percent of funding was going into school construction in the newer communities. Three years later, we had the same number, about 80 percent, going into existing communities and existing schools. But there are so many different areas of economic development. Businesses would come in and want a tax incentive. At the time we didn't look at the location for the proposed business, so we'd be subsidizing major grants to put a brand new business out where a farm is.

Think about how many senior housing projects have been built way out somewhere, and the reason is it's so simple to buy a farm and build a "Happy Acres" or something like that. But the seniors living there can't go anywhere except by driving, or maybe twice a day there's a shuttle van service provided by the development's management.

What if you weighted the scale to make the priority so the seniors could walk to where they want and need to go? Will there be nearby activities? Will members of the family be able to visit? Is there access to transit? When you start to do that, there's a huge change in where facilities and communities are built.

What we ended up doing was looking at each of the different departments and making changes. By the time it was all done, we were incentivizing growth in existing communities. You could still build. You could still get approvals. You still see sprawl going on. But the state was no longer going to pay for it.

4. How do smart growth policies relate to or impact different population groups, such as families or older adults, or low-income as compared to high-income households? Relatedly, how do and can smart growth policies serve the differing needs and realities of urban, suburban or rural communities?

First off, think about the changing nature of our population. Among baby boomers and seniors, there has been a dramatic change — increasingly, seniors are not looking to retire and move to South Carolina or Florida. Instead, more and more older adults want to do two things: age-in-place and remain active. People continue to work. I'm in my seventies. I don’t see myself going someplace and retiring. How does that relate to smart growth? Seniors want to live in a walkable community and have access to transit.

The second part is the millennials. There are actually more millennials than baby boomers. At the height of baby boom, the number was about 70 million. The projection is about 90 million millennials. With the younger generation, a curious thing happened. They don’t want suburban living. They'll work hard. My son, Raymond, is in thirties. When he gets out of work, goes down that elevator, he meets his friends at the local coffee shop or whatever, then he takes the Metro two stops home. He and his wife might go out to dinner and they have dozens and dozens of restaurant choices.

A developer friend told me that in his mixed-use development, the seniors and the millennials are competing for the units, all living in the same place. It's multigenerational.

From a smart growth perspective, it's extremely important to see that these processes and programs can lessen the problems of inequity. We have to make every effort to ensure that a range of incomes are in those buildings so moderate income seniors can live there, and working families can live there, too.

When I talk about the U Street Corridor in Washington, D.C., for example, almost all of the working families that had been there for years — the area was known as Harlem South, an artistic cultural space for African-Americans — almost all of those households have been forced out by the price of homes. This was not based on race, but income. The poorer you were, the further out you had to move. The further you moved, the further you were from the jobs.

Many of those residents ended up moving right outside of the district to Prince George's County because of the affordable housing. Working families will sometimes spend up to a third of their disposable income on transportation to get to work. That isn’t solving a problem. That's making it worse. We are finding in state after state that changing the built environment is a solution. If you can have people walking to jobs, or have access to transit that can get them to jobs, or have a mixture of housing and jobs all together, then smart growth policies are a way to help deal with the inequity of our society.

In other words, when thinking about public policy, are you — as an elected official, a government body or some other type of leader — encouraging, are you subsidizing, are you adding to the resources? Or, are you taking them away? If you let the neighborhood school deteriorate, if you don't have transit or you build a highway that divides the community so people can only get someplace in a car, you're contributing to the problem.

5. Looking ahead, what challenges do proponents of smart growth-related policies face? What do you want to see happen regarding land use and development issues?

The challenges are from all different perspectives. One is ideological. There are organizations out there whose main focus is strong anti-smart growth. They don’t say, "We're against smart growth," but some of these groups believe that smart growth policies are a conspiracy to take land away. They often say we want to make everyone live in Manhattan. This is absolutely not the case.

But, that ideology has taken hold. So, instead, what we see happening in the southeastern states, among the larger cities, are communities pursuing smart growth efforts without state funding.

Smart Growth America proposal for redesigning Research Triangle Park in Raleigh, North Carolina

Image from Smart Growth America

Instead of a sea of asphalt, Research Triangle Park could feature an actual body of water.


The Research Triangle in North Carolina is a good example. The area has become world famous because of the resources of the universities there. But any interaction with the university required having a car. If you look at the pictures of this, you see massive asphalt parking lots. Now companies are leaving because they can't attract the millennials to work there. People don't want to be automobile-dependent.

So what’s happening is that companies in the Research Triangle are tearing down those old buildings to make mixed-use areas: residential, retail and research. The businesses also support a transit line that will connect the three universities with the research park.

But you do have this ideological difference. In the beginning, we explained smart growth because of the environment and the Chesapeake Bay. But the truth is, unless people run into smog or their environment is tainted in some way, such having lead in their drinking water, most don’t worry about environmental issues.

As a practical matter, their first thought is about their job, prosperity, their commute, about taking their kids to school. What's happened is that over the years we've had to change the language of smart growth. We've expanded it. Now, we don’t start off talking about environmental issues at all. We start off talking about prosperity. How do you best bring jobs? We talk about how smart growth is cost-effective.

For instance, you can build a LEED energy-efficient building and that's good. But when you explain that doing so reduces energy costs by 40 percent, then all of a sudden you have their attention. Think about what that means for society if all those new buildings are far more energy-efficient.

I have known Maryland's current governor, Larry Hogan, for probably 30 or more years. We differ politically but I called him after he won the election to talk about issues. Our conversation emphasizes how to use the language of smart growth. If I was talking to a Maryland resident about the proposed Purple Line extension of the Washington Metro, I’d talk about sustainability, air quality, reducing automobile use and equity and so on.

But Hogan was a brand new governor who was basically elected on two issues: jobs and the economy and reducing the cost of government. So I talked to him about the Purple Line and what it will do in those issue areas.

I know that an international hotel chain went to him and said, "We're going to relocate and it is going to be on a transit line." Prince George's County went to him and said, "We want the FBI building to relocate and one main point is that it has to be on a transit line." University people went to him and said, "The university of the future can’t be isolated." To Larry Hogan's credit, he got it, and he approved the construction of the Purple Line.


Mitchelle Stephenson is a freelance writer living in Maryland.

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Published June 2016