Growth should adhere to 'new urbanism' ideal

Kai Hagen

December 9, 2004

For many years I have thought of cities as cities and suburbs as suburbs.

Before you credit me with a firm grasp of the obvious or marvel at my simple-mindedness, allow me to explain. I knew that a "city" is defined by municipal boundaries, or city limits. And I knew that suburbs are generally defined as residential areas on or beyond the outskirts of a city or large town.

But, as a kid growing up in Washington, D.C., I didn't think of the suburbs as "out there," so much as I thought of them as a different kind of place. It wasn't where they were that made them not the city. It was how they were.

Like most families living in the city, we didn't live downtown. We lived in a neighborhood. To my way of thinking, there were downtowns, and there were city neighborhoods, and there were suburban neighborhoods. Driving to visit my grandparents in northern Frederick County meant driving through or past city neighborhoods, suburban neighborhoods, and the downtowns of Bethesda, Rockville and, finally, Frederick.

Nowadays, when I drive north from the City of Frederick, I still go from downtown to city neighborhoods to suburban neighborhoods. Before crossing Tuscarora Creek and leaving town on Route 15, I pass by the new neighborhood of Worman's Mill on the east, and the even newer neighborhoods of North Crossing and Willowbrook on the west.

What jumped out at me, until I adjusted to the idea, was that these were typical suburban neighborhoods inside the city.

Right now, they end there, where the city ends. Immediately outside of "the city," the expansive view in both directions is of scenic rolling farms, with the Monocacy River meandering by in a woodsy corridor beyond the cornfields.

Even though the farmland starts farther out than it always did, there's something agreeable about the fact that, in this area at least, the sprawling development comes to a sharp and sudden end, where the creek provides a natural boundary. For the moment, Route 15 north of Frederick seems to live up to its designation as a state scenic byway.

Unfortunately, unless things change, all that will change.

The City of Frederick's newly amended comprehensive plan includes the annexation and development of the next two miles or so along both sides of the road. The map shows a narrow green strip along the river, but everything else will be replaced with new roads, a couple of new schools, and more suburban neighborhoods.

Make a note of that the next few times you drive north on Route 15.

I realize the county's population has grown by about 35 percent since 1990.

And that projections assume more than 100,000 new neighbors will move here in the next 25 years, and more than half of them are going to end up in Frederick, or in areas that will be Frederick before long. And most of them have to live in new homes, somewhere.

There will be more people, more homes and more neighborhoods. And there will be less farmland and open space, which will be farther from downtown and our older city neighborhoods.

Generally speaking, it makes more sense for most of this new development to be concentrated in and around the city than sprawling helter skelter across our rural landscapes. But putting an end to the worst kind of inefficient and expensive sprawl can't just be a matter of where we grow. It has to be primarily about how we grow.

Can't we do something more and better than slightly more compact versions of "traditional" suburban neighborhoods, still designed as isolated, automobile-oriented neighborhoods, complete with cul-de-sacs and collector streets and near shopping centers and malls surrounded by acres of asphalt?

If we're going to sacrifice more of our open space and farms and woodlands, let's sacrifice no more than necessary. And when we must, let's trade it for the sort of city neighborhoods that made Frederick such a great town in the first place.

It isn't a new idea, but rather an old one, rediscovered, dusted off and labeled "new urbanism" by some.

Higher density isn't the guiding principle behind new urbanism, and it wasn't the goal of older, thriving, traditional American neighborhoods that have stood the test of time. It's just a positive side benefit.

Abundant research and living examples provide overwhelming evidence that many of our codes and zoning regulations work against the development of more desirable communities that happen to consume less space, but ought to be built for a long list of other reasons.

The research and the models are convincing. But skeptical decision makers don't have to look farther afield than the best of Frederick.

To get in touch, e-mail Kai Hagen at